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Sunscreen Safety: Dangerous Active Ingredients to Avoid, and Safe Alternatives to Try

Reviewed by Christina June 24, 2014 7 Comments

Back in 2011, the FDA updated their regulations about sunscreen after 33 years of deliberation, changing the rules about labeling. Broad spectrum now meant that sunscreens protected equally against both UVB rays (which cause burning) and UVA rays (which cause aging skin). Sunscreens that didn't protect against both types of rays and that didn't have an SPF of at least 15 could not claim to protect against skin aging or cancer. Terms such as "waterproof" and "sweatproof" were abolished. In addition, the FDA planned to re-examine the safety of 17 approved sunscreen agents. These updated regulations marked great progress toward sunscreen safety, but three years later, there is still great concern — and much confusion — about the safety of sunscreen active ingredients.

As we have reported on Truth In Aging in the past, the very idea that sunscreen prevents skin cancer is a controversial one that has come into question. As I myself wrote back in May, a new study from Sweden showed that wearing sunscreen can double the risk of premature death by depriving our bodies of vitamin D, and low levels of this vitamin have been linked to cancer. There have also been studies claiming that certain chemicals in sunscreen (e.g., octocrylene) can penetrate into the skin and act as a photosensitizer, resulting in an increased production of free radicals. Free radicals can induce indirect DNA damage and potentially contribute to the increased incidence of malignant melanoma in sunscreen-users compared to non-users. 

Although the information out there is confusing to say the least, one thing that is clear is that chemical and even mineral sunscreens pose their share of risks. The Environmental Working Group has identified the following sunscreen active ingredients as having toxicity concerns:

  • Oxybenzone (higher toxicity concerns) — Has demonstrated an increase in the production of harmful free radicals and an ability to attack our DNA cells; for this reason, it is believed to be a contributing factor in the recent rise of melanoma cases with sunscreen users. Some studies have shown it to behave similarly to the hormone estrogen, suggesting that it may cause breast cancer. It has also been linked to contact eczema.
  • Octinoxate (higher toxicity concerns) — Is considered hazardous primarily because it can lead to developmental and reproductive toxicity through enhanced skin absorption. It's a penetration enhancer and is easily absorbed into the skin. It can produce estrogen-like effects and should not be used by pregnant women and children. However, the research is contradictory as to what concentrations are toxic.
  • Homosalate (moderate toxicity concerns) — Is an ester salicylic acid that is used as a sunscreen against UVB rays. Salicylates are weak absorbers of UVB rays and are generally used in combination with other UV filters. According to the EWG it is a weak hormone disrupter.
  • Octisalate (moderate toxicity concerns) — Is used to augment the UV-B protection in a sunscreen. Salicylates are weak UV-B absorbers, and they are generally used in combination with other UV filters because they are insufficient on their own. It typically undergoes some degradation when exposed to sunlight.
  • Octocrylene (moderate toxicity concerns) — Is primarily used as an active ingredient in sunscreens because of its ability to absorb UVB and short-wave UVA (ultraviolet) rays and protect the skin from direct DNA damage. Octocrylene can penetrate into the skin and act as a photosensitizer, resulting in an increased production of free radicals.
  • Titanium Dioxide (lower toxicity concerns) — It doesn't just reflect rays, it also absorbs them. And this means that, like chemical sunscreens, Titanium Dioxide is a photosensitizer if absorbed by the skin and results in an increased production of free radicals. The question is whether it is actually absorbed by the skin and so it's best to go with sunscreen brands that you know use particles (micronized and not nanoparticles) that are too big to be absorbed.
  • Zinc Oxide (lower toxicity concerns) — This is the best and safest sunscreen ingredient. It offers broad spectrum for UVB and UVA. But you should probably avoid products that use nanoparticle size in case they penetrate the skin and go for "micronized."
  • Avobenzone (lower toxicity concerns) — This appears to be relatively non-toxic and non-irritating to the skin. But some studies show it can be absorbed by the body and secreted into urine, and is therefore not recommended to use on children or pregnant women.
  • Mexoryl SX (lower toxicity concerns) — The trade name of ecamsule, Mexoryl is a patented sunscreen ingredient owned by L'Oreal. It is effective because it is very stable and it absorbs light at a broader range of UVA wavelengths than other sunscreen ingredients. Unlike other sunscreens, mexoryl doesn't absorb the UV light into the skin and, therefore, it is claimed that it doesn't do all that free radical damage.

Look for products based on titanium oxide or zinc oxide in order to avoid the moderate to higher toxicity concerns of chemical sunscreens. Truth In Aging recommends mineral sunscreens by Suntegrity, Snowberry and MD Solar Sciences. But for optimal protection, make sure that your sunscreen comes with antioxidants. Truth In Aging founder Marta Wohrle has been a longtime proponent of layering antioxidants under sunscreen because they offer a second, "active" level of protection. Although you wouldn't rely only on antioxidants for sun protection, antioxidants are a way of boosting our natural immunity to sun damage. Here are some of the best antioxidant breakthroughs in sunscreens:

  • Astaxanthin is an absorber of specific ultraviolet sunlight rays that may contribute to skin aging and cancer. Found in Suntegrity Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen and Primer ($45 in the shop).
  • Raspberry seed oil has shown absorbency in the UV-B and UV-C ranges with potential for use as a broad spectrum UV protectant. Found in Sweetsation Q*Lumiere Organic Day Creme ($29).
  • Broccoli is a highly effective sun protection ingredient. It doesn't provide a barrier to UV like traditional sunscreens but it stimulates the cell's own protective mechanisms. Found in Lumavera 24-Hour Moisturizer ($65).
  • Galangal, a member of the ginger family, is a natural source of ethyl methoxycinnamate, which is produced chemically as the sunscreen active known as octinoxate. Found in Snowberry Everyday Broad Spectrum SPF 15.
  • Reishi mushrooms have been shown in research to protect against UV damage, and according to one study, has the added advantage of protecting DNA. Found in Prana Reishi Mushroom Shield ($42 in the shop).
  • Ferulic Acid is particularly good for preventing sun damage, and studies have shown that exposure to ultraviolet light actually increases the antioxidant potency of ferulic acid. Found in Your Best Face Antioxidants Concentrate ($65 in the shop).

Hopefully, more and more research in the field of natural sun protection will result in much safer sunscreen alternatives in the not-too-distant future.

Read more:
Tinsosorb - a sunscreen that might actually work
Plant extracts that provide sun protection
Strawberries and (sun)cream
Grape is a natural sunscreen
English ivy is a super safe sunscreen
Green Tea - A Sunblock and an Antioxidant
Sunflower Sprouts Could Be the New Anti-Aging Sunscreen

  • June 26, 2014

    by Tay

    I would love to try the product and I think I represent a demographic of Sun screen users that are unnoticed. I am a light skinned African American woman who has a tendency for hyperpigmentation and freckles! There are many women of color like me that use sunscreen to protect their natural skin tone as well as to protect blemish sites from darkening. Anyone who has had adult acne knows how a day in the sun can darken a mark and keep it from fading properly. I really don't want to have to fuss with my face in the morning, a quality Sun screen that is a foundation AND primer would be a godsend. I would love to be able to have just one step with an all-in-one Sheer Facial Tint so I wouldn't need other make-up.

  • June 25, 2014

    by Donna

    I am fair skinned and do not go in the sun. I was a sun worshiper. Not only did I love the beach, but I also owned a tanning salon. Now I don't do either. I do miss that glo from a day at the beach and would love to try this product.

  • June 24, 2014

    by Trinh

    I religiously wear sunscreen. I am a stay at home mom and don't always have time to fuss with foundation. The tint in Osmotics Age Prevention Sheer Facial Tint SPF 45 sounds like a perfect fit for my lifestyle. I will get sun protection, antioxidants and more even skin tone, all in one. Would love to try it. Thanks.

  • June 24, 2014

    by Lindsy

    I would love to try the Osmotics Age Prevention Sheer Facial Tint SPF 45. I have very fair skin and light hair, and my skin is sensitive. I love to be outside, but unfortunately I burn easily. I've tried various sunscreens - everything from Neutrogena to Mary Kay to Aveeno, etc. I want something that is not heavy, doesn't leave me greasy, and still protects my Norwegian fair skin! I'm very vocal about products that work well for me, so I will certainly be sharing with all my friends if this is a protect that does great for me!

  • June 24, 2014

    by Naheed

    Nice article Christina! I always use sunscreen and look for the safest ingredients. Also read EWG ratings. I would love to try Osmotics Age Prevention Sheer Facial Tint SPF 45 and see how it stands to New York's hot season.

  • June 24, 2014

    by Jan

    I would love to try the Osmotics Age Prevention Sheer Facial Tint SPF 45. I purchased the Osmotics Inner Light Complexion Enhancer and received a sample of the Osmotics Age Prevention Protection Extreme SPF 45 in the Discover with Marta Collection. I love both of the products and they both feel wonderful on my face. I would like to try the Sheer Facial Tint with the hopes that I won't need to wear any makeup.

  • June 24, 2014

    by Jackie

    I live in Las Vegas. The sun is a significant issue. I don't go out without sunscreen on. I am 58 years old and take excellent care of my skin. I would like to try the new product and see how it protects my skin and how it looks on my skin. I am always looking for new products that keep my skin healthy and looking good.

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