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Sunscreen Safety: Dangerous Active Ingredients to Avoid and Safe Alternatives

sunscreen lotion
May 21, 2018 Reviewed by Marta 9 Comments

Hawaii has just banned the sale of two sunscreen ingredients, octybenzone and octinoxate. It is only seven years ago that the FDA approved these and 15 other sunscreen agents. To say that the sunscreen category is confusing and controversial is an understatement. Hawaii's motivation for a ban is that these chemicals bleach and kill vulnerable coral. My concerns are more wide-ranging.

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. A 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. Here's my guide to sunscreen actives and which to avoid and why:

  • Oxybenzone (higher toxicity concerns) — The Hawaiian ban follows one in Sweden enacted some years ago. As well as damaging coral, it has been shown to be harmful to humans. It has been shown to 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) — Also known as octyl methoxycinnamate, it 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. Like most chemical sunscreens it, ironically, becomes less UV absorbant when exposed to sun.
  • Homosalate (moderate toxicity concerns) — This 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. Homosalate is limited to 10% in Europe.
  • Octisalate (moderate toxicity concerns) — It 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) — 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.
  • Avobenzone (lower toxicity concerns) — There is a divergence of views on Avobenzone safety. Some say it is relatively non-toxic and non-irritating to the skin. However, others say it is as toxic as PABA. 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. In any case, it is not a very effective sunscreen
  • 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."
  • 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.

The general rule that I employ is to focus on sunscreens with titanium oxide or zinc oxide in order to avoid the moderate to higher toxicity concerns of chemical sunscreens. But for optimal protection, make sure that your sunscreen comes with antioxidants. I have been a longtime proponent of layering antioxidants under sunscreen because they offer a second, "active" level of protection by 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 Ao Skincare Protect ($59.95 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 Solis Sun Recovery Face Serum ($69 in the shop).
  • 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.
  • Ginger is a natural source of ethyl methoxycinnamate, which is produced chemically as the sunscreen active known as octinoxate. Found in Skin 2 Skin Photoaging Repair ($69 in the shop).
  • 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

  • May 25, 2018

    by Virginia

    The Swedish report you have cherry-picked from. It does not give the full picture. What other habits did the women who died have that contributed? Dairy products are fortified with vitamin D as are store bought breads and other foods and many fish. Vitamin D is an oil soluble vitamin and too much can be toxic. Smoking, drinking, insufficient diet can all contribute to Vitamin D deficiency. Did these people receive adequate health care? Sweden has universal health care so why were their vitamin D levels not checked? Most people are checked for vitamin D during yearly medical exams and are prescribed supplements and dietary measures to bring them up to normal. In addition no sunscreen filters out 100% of the sun so even if you encapsulate every exposed body part you still receive some sun rays. When you publish incomplete, cherry picked info from one "study" that gives people an excuse to skip sunscreen or not be diligent in applying the proper amounts and reapplying then you are complicit in fostering the myths about sunscreen. How about publishing info from American College of Dermatology or oncology about the fact that 1 in 7 people will be affected by skin cancer that can be traced to sun exposure? When you state sunscreen ingredients are toxic how about including the main toxicity is for marine life?
    It is despicable to publish incorrect/incomplete info that will result in harm.
    This is anything but the truth!

  • May 23, 2018

    by Virginia

    It is NOT sunscreen that doesnt work well, it is that people do not apply the recommended amount for proper coverage and do not reapply every two hours when out in the sun and after being in the water! When you publish misleading statements such as "even experts say sunscreen doesnt work well" you are doing harm rather than good!

  • 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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