Is Sunscreen Safe to Use?
The American Academy of Dermatology says that sunscreen is safe to use, as “no published studies show that sunscreen is toxic to humans or hazardous to human health.”1 Case closed, right?
…Well, not so fast.
Although research, and your own personal experience, shows that it can prevent sunburn and other potential damage to the skin, there is also a dark side to sunscreen. The problem lies in the ingredients of sunscreen, many of which are classified as chemicals. These ingredients may be harmful to your health because anything that is on your skin can enter into your bloodstream.
The usual suspects
Even though the AAD states that sunscreen is safe to use, they also mention that there are alternatives if you are concerned about certain ingredients. Concerns about chemicals in sunscreen are not unfounded. Here is a quick rundown of common ingredients in sunscreen that can affect the body negatively.
- Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) – An organic compound found in many sunscreens, oxybenzone has been observed to disrupt hormone balance. One particular study observed changes in sex hormones and adverse reproduction effects from oxybenzone exposure.2
- Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate) – Another troublesome ingredient commonly found in sunscreens, octinoxate, or octyl methoxycinnamate, can also be detrimental to your health. Research shows that like oxybenzone, octinoxate displays hormone-like activity in the body.3
- Octocrylene – Although not as problematic as oxybenzone and octinoxate, octocrylene is another potentially damaging sunscreen chemical that can cause allergic reactions in the skin.4
- Titanium dioxide – The main issue with titanium dioxide is that it is potentially carcinogenic when inhaled.5 This is a concern with powder or spray sunscreens with this ingredient in it.
- Octisalate – The Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists octisalate as a moderate health concern. This chemical can potentially cause allergy or immune issues, and is suspected to be an environmental toxin. 6
- Homosalate – Also a widely used ingredient in sunscreens, homosalate can disrupt the hormones estrogen, progesterone, and androgen. It may also increase the absorption of pesticides.7
- Vitamin A – This vitamin is beneficial when taken in proper doses, but too much can lead to toxicity. When on the skin in the presence of sunlight, it may speed up the growth of cancerous tumors.8
Unfortunately, exposure to many of these chemicals goes beyond just sunscreen. Oxybenzone, for example, is found in more than 500 other personal care products, including moisturizers, lipsticks, and anti-aging creams. 9 It has also been widely found in mothers’ milk, so you likely already have some amount of oxybenzone in your system.
But doesn’t sunscreen prevent skin cancer?
There is evidence that sunscreen application has a beneficial effect in relation to skin cancer and photoaging. However, despite a steady increase in sunscreen sales, melanoma rates have increased significantly in the last few decades.10 Interestingly, the introduction of more powerful UV blockers in the 1990s correlates with increased, not decreased rates of melanoma. In the UK, for example, melanoma rates more than doubled from 1993 to 2015.11
The main purpose of sunscreen is to protect against sunburn. Yet there are other types of sun damage that increase the risk of skin cancer and speed up the skin’s aging process. Sunscreen is less effective at combating this type of damage that includes the formation of free radicals. Even worse, certain chemicals in sunscreen may promote free radical production. This could be another reason why skin cancer rates are on the rise.
Another issue is that people tend to think that as long as they apply a high-SPF sunscreen, they are good to stay out in the sun all day. However, total sun exposure is significant in relation to skin cancer and skin aging regardless of whether you put sunscreen on. Everyone should take measures to limit their exposure to the sun by moving to shaded areas frequently and wearing protective clothing as much as possible.
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not a good idea to avoid the sun altogether. This is because the sun is our best source of vitamin D, which is an incredibly beneficial vitamin for many body functions.
Zinc and titanium oxide sunscreens a better option
We’ve established that both too much and not enough sun exposure can be harmful. But it’s often not feasible to get the right amount of sun exposure each day. After all, many of our favorite activities and sports are enjoyed outside. So what do we do if we want to be out in the sun but also don’t want to be exposed to harmful sunscreen ingredients?
Fortunately, concerns with commonly-used sunscreen ingredients have led the rise of natural alternatives. With a natural sunscreen, you can get the same sun-protection benefits, but without the synthetic chemicals that can potentially disrupt hormones, create free radicals, irritate the skin, and negatively impact the environment.
It’s important to note that to be classified as “natural,” a sunscreen needs only to contain zinc oxide and titanium oxide as its active ingredients. Although these substances are classified as naturally-occurring minerals, they are also on the list of harmful ingredients due mainly to their carcinogenic properties when inhaled. Therefore, you should steer clear of spray or powder forms of sunscreen that contain these ingredients.
Because titanium or zinc oxide sunscreens create a physical barrier to the sun, they can be more effective at preventing skin aging compared to their chemical counterparts.12 As these substances are not absorbed by the skin, your skin will likely look more opaque or white after application. In other words, don’t expect that rubbing this type of sunscreen on your skin will remove the white tint.
Choosing the best sunscreen
Titanium and zinc oxide sunscreens are effective and can be a healthy alternative to traditional sunscreens. But if you decide to use this type of sunscreen, you’ll want to take a look at the inactive ingredients to make sure they are not potentially harmful.
Like natural sunscreens, sunscreen products that are labeled “organic” can be problematic too. These products only have to contain a certain percentage of organic ingredients, so some synthetic ingredients may be hiding in these too. Again, make sure to check the labels and research any ingredients that you aren’t familiar with.
Some people believe that certain essential oils can be used as an effective sunscreen. The SPF value of these essential oils, however, is far too low to be considered an effective sunscreen.13 Additionally, certain essential oils are photosensitive, so they can actually be harmful to use in the sun. Stick with using essential oils for sun-damaged skin and not as a sunscreen.
To sum it up, research shows that chemical-based sunscreens can cause a number of health issues. When choosing a sunscreen, make sure to follow these guidelines:
- Make sure it is mineral-based (zinc oxide or zinc & titanium oxide)
- Steer clear of spray-ons or powders
- Avoid toxic ingredients (read the label)
- Look for fewer ingredients overall
- Pass on sunscreens that contain fragrances
- Choose an SPF of 30 or higher
Remember also that it’s not all about the sunscreen. You should also take measures to limit your exposure by covering up and finding shade as much as possible.
Make better skin-care choices with ZYTO
Did you know that ZYTO can help you make better choices when it comes to your skin care? You can scan for the skin as an organ as well as your biological coherence to skin-related items using our biocommunication scan, or bioscan, technology.
1. “Sunscreen: Chemical Ingredients and Summertime Safety.” ChemicalSafetyFacts.org. Chemicalsafetyfacts.org.
2. Kim, S., D. Jung, et al. “Effects of benzophenone-3 exposure on endocrine disruption and reproduction of Japanes medaka (Oryzias latipes)—A two-generation exposure study.” Aquatic Toxicology 155 (2014): 244-252.
3. Janjua, N.R., B. Mogensen, et al. “Systemic Absorption of the Sunscreens Benzophenone-3, Octyl-Methoxycinnamate, and 3-(4-Methyl-Benzylidene) Camphor After Whole-Body Topical Application and Reproductive Hormone Levels in Humans.” Journal of Investigative Dermatology 123, no. 1 (2004): 57-61.
4. Avenel-Audran, M., H. Dutartre, et al. “Octocrylene, an Emerging Photoallergen.” Archives of Dermatology 146, no. 7 (2010): 753-757.
5. Kuempel, E.D., & A. Ruder. “Titanium Dioxide.” IARC Monograph 93: 30-39.
6. “Octisalate.” Environmental Working Group.” Ewg.org.
7. “Homosalate.” Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Safecosmetics.org.
8. “The Problem With Vitamin A.” Environmental Working Group. Ewg.org.
9. “CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical.” Environmental Working Group. Ewg.org.
10. “Skin Cancer.” American Academy of Dermatology. “Aad.org. “
11. “Statistics.” Melanoma UK. “Melanomauk.org.uk.
12. Brannon, Heather. “Photoaging Causes and Treatment.” Dotdash Publishing. Verywellhealth.com.
13. Brown, Gwen. “DIY Sunscreen: Myth Busted!” Gwen’s Nest. Gwens-nest.com.