Our world is overloaded with toxins. You must carefully read the ingredients in almost everything you consume, touch, or use. This includes packaged food, household cleaners, and beauty and skincare products.
With summer right around the corner, you’ll likely be stocking up on sunblock to protect your skin. Sunscreen has been touted for years as necessary to protect us from harmful UV rays that can cause skin cancer. Whether you lather up with SPF 30 versus 50, have naturally dark or fair complexion, your goal is to protect your skin from the sun’s potential harm. Just as skin care serums and lotions contain harmful toxins, so does sunscreen.
I am an avid sunscreen user, especially if I’m spending my days in the sun. For most people, adequate vitamin D levels are achieved through regular sun exposure. Vitamin D can boost your mood, help maintain a healthy immune system, and even support in lowering blood pressure. However, I always caution that what you put on your body is just as important as what you put into your body.
In this article, I will discuss sunscreen ingredients to avoid and why they are harmful. I’ll also tell you what to look for instead when shopping for sunscreen. First, let’s dive into the toxic sunscreen ingredients.
6 Toxins Found in Popular Sunscreens
Sunscreens contain an alarming number of toxins, but there are six specifically that pose the most risk. After just one application, harmful sunscreen ingredients such as oxybenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, and homosalate are all absorbed into your body. According to FDA studies, toxic sunscreen ingredients have been detected in blood, breast milk, and urine samples weeks after discontinued use.1 Additionally, it’s important to avoid these ingredients in sunscreen because they can negatively react with your environment. These toxins can interact with the chlorine that’s in your swimming pool, and even pose fatal risks to marine life and coral reefs. 2
Sunscreen ingredients to avoid
Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in sunscreen because it absorbs and filters UV light. However, it is photo-toxicant, meaning it becomes toxic when exposed to light.3 It has also been linked to causing relatively high rates of skin allergies. This chemical penetrates the skin and acts estrogen once it enters your bloodstream, disrupting your endocrine system.4
Octinoxate filters UV‐B rays from the sun. It dissolves in oil, which makes it a fat-seeking substance in the body and is readily absorbed by the skin. It can disrupt your endocrine, thyroid, and reproductive systems.5 This chemical mimics hormonal activity specifically reducing thyroid hormones in blood serum. Octinoxate has also been found to alter the reproductive systems of female offspring, leading to miscarriages.6
Retinyl Palmitate is a form of Vitamin A and is believed to slow signs of aging. It is commonly formulated in sunscreens and SPF-containing moisturizers and lip balms.7 When exposed to sunlight, this chemical breaks down, producing destructive free radicals and toxic chemical byproducts. When this happens, it incubates the development of malignant cells and skin tumors.
Homosalate is a salicylate, which prevents direct UV ray exposure. While it helps the sunscreen penetrate your skin, it disrupts your hormonal balance.8 In particular, it impacts your estrogen system. Studies have shown that exposure to homosalate led to 3.5 times more cell breast cancer growth and multiplication.9 It can accumulate in your body faster than your body can detoxify it through your liver, increasing your toxic burden.
Octocrylene is an oil-soluble liquid that is hydrophobic, meaning that it does not dissolve in water.10 In a study, sixteen octocrylene-containing product lines had an average concentration of 39 mg/kg benzophenone. Benzophenone is a mutagen, carcinogen, and endocrine disruptor. It is banned in food products or food packaging in the United States yet is included in some sunscreens.11
Parabens are a group of synthetic compounds commonly added to cosmetics as a preservative to prevent fungal and bacterial growth. They are dangerous because they can mimic estrogen and potentially influence abnormal breast cell growth.12 These chemicals have also been linked to disrupting thyroid levels13 and causing allergies.
Your Body’s Toxic Burden
Your skin is the largest organ and the main barrier to your environment. It has three layers: epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis.
Each layer has a specific job:
- The epidermis (top layer): Protects against bacteria and germs, makes new skin, and produces melanin– the color of your skin.
- The dermis (the middle layer): Grows hair, makes oil, supplies blood to the epidermis, produces sweat to remove toxins, and helps to regulate body temperature.
- The hypodermis (the bottom or fatty layer): Connects skin to muscles and bones to provide cushion and contains fat to help regulate body temperature.
Both beneficial and harmful substances come into contact with your skin daily and can absorb into your bloodstream. This includes cleaning products, pollutants in water, plastic food storage containers, and chemicals formulated in soaps, makeup, and lotions. The average person uses 10-15 personal care products daily, each with 125 ingredients. Many of these chemicals are approved for use by the FDA with little or no safety testing.
It may seem like just a little exposure here–to pesticides when you eat conventionally grown produce–or a little exposure there–to mercury in your dental fillings. But each exposure adds to your body’s toxic burden. Think of your body like a cup, and toxins like drops of water: if your cup is already full because you have a leaky gut, a poor diet, infections, and stress, those small, cumulative toxic exposures cause that cup to overflow. When it does, you’re pushed down the autoimmune spectrum into full-fledged autoimmune disease.
Why You Need to Lower Your Toxin Exposure
The effects of toxins are complex and differ for each individual. Our bodies process toxins through our liver and kidneys and eliminate them through sweat, feces, and urine. The build-up of toxins in your body can weaken your immune system. This leads to interference with hormonal function, generation of free radicals, and heightened sensitivities and allergies. A heavy toxic burden puts you at greater risk of developing an autoimmune disease.
A major concern is the disruptive effect on your endocrine system and, more specifically, your thyroid. If you have thyroid dysfunction, you are already fighting an uphill battle to balance your hormone production. Several environmental toxins can interfere with thyroid gland function by binding to thyroid receptors and mimicking the natural hormone. This exposure can disrupt iodine uptake, produce an increased or decreased amount of hormones, and trigger autoimmune thyroid disease.14
To lighten your toxic burden, you must prevent the toxins from getting into your system in the first place. Every lifestyle adjustment you make lowers your toxic burden. You may not have control over everything, but you do have control over what you put in and on your body.
What to Look For in a Sunscreen
It’s important to check your labels for harmful ingredients in sunscreen to make the safest and most educated buying decisions this summer.
- Retinyl Palmitate
When looking for a natural sunscreen, it is important to select one with an SPF of 30 or higher. SPF stands for sun protection factor, and the number represents the amount of protection against UV rays. SPF extends your natural protection into the deeper layers of your skin. For example, an SPF of 15 provides 15 times more security to your skin. As a rule of thumb, look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that will block both UVA and UVB rays, which can penetrate past the epidermis. You should always follow application directions on the bottle.
Many chemical sunscreens have nanoparticles in the form of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. If ingested, nanoparticles can damage the gastrointestinal tract.15 This is why the EWG advises against using aerosol sunscreen sprays containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide of any particle size. Instead, look for brands that state “non-nano zinc oxide” for broad-spectrum coverage against UVA and UVB rays.
Beautycounter is my go-to brand for toxin-free sunscreen and body products. I trust Beautycounter for their transparency of ingredients and their commitment to safe, natural, and sustainable alternatives. Beautycounter’s line of sunscreens has consistently been EWG verified.
Beautycounter’s mineral sunscreens contain ingredients such as non-nano Zinc Oxide, California Poppy, and Vitamin C. Studies show vitamin C may ideally maximize protection against phototoxic damage.16 The antioxidants found in vitamin C neutralize free radicals, which helps to shield your skin from premature aging and damage.
Another safe ingredient formulated in Beautycounter is California Poppy or Eschscholzia californica. This flower has a large central spot that absorbs ultraviolet radiation while reflecting the longer wavelengths.17 This helps to increase their visibility to pollinators and makes a great active ingredient in natural sunscreens.
Care for Your Skin from the Inside Out
Sun exposure can boost your mood, improve your sleep, and support your immune system. However, too much time in the hot summer sun can lead to sunburn, dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. You can avoid these conditions by taking the proper precautions. The best way to protect yourself from the sun is to support your skin from the inside out with proper nutrients.
Retinyl Palmitate, or vitamin A, has long been touted as an age-defying skincare regimen because of its potential to reduce wrinkles and fine lines. However, as discussed previously, this ingredient may incubate the development of malignant cells and skin tumors. Many skincare products are formulated with retinyl palmitate or vitamin A and should be replaced with alternative products that do not contain this compound.
One alternative is Radiance, a supplement I formulated that works from the inside out. This formula moisturizes, protects from potential sun damage, and nourishes with crucial micronutrients. It is rich in collagen-building L-Proline, an essential and often lacking component of strong hair, skin, and nails. I included it because it stimulates the production of alpha keratin and collagen. These are the key building blocks of youthful skin.
Radiance contains Hyaluronic acid to improve skin elasticity and reduce the appearance of wrinkles. Beyond just improving skin health, it is also formulated to promote healthy hair and nails with ingredients such as PABA and horsetail extract. PABA is clinically demonstrated to reduce the appearance of gray hairs. Horsetail extract promotes strong hair by nourishing the follicles and boosting elasticity.
The Final Word
Remember to think consciously about what you’re applying on to your skin. As you shop for sunscreen this summer, remember to check the labels for those six harmful ingredients in sunscreens and look out for alternative mineral sunscreens such as Beautycounter. In addition, a great way to protect your skin from the inside out is with my Radiance formula. You can still enjoy your fun in the sun while protecting and nourishing your skin.
- The trouble with ingredients in sunscreens. EWG.
- Dermatological and environmental toxicological impact of the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone/benzophenone-3. Joseph C DiNardo, Craig A Downs. National Library of Medicine. 2017.
- Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. C A Downs et al.. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol. 2016.
- Exposure to benzophenone-3 and reproductive toxicity: A systematic review of human and animal studies. Marya Ghazipura et al. Reprod Toxicol. 2017.
- Octinoxate as a potential thyroid hormone disruptor - A combination of in vivo and in vitro data. Jana Cahova et al.. Sci Total Environ. 2022.
- Octinoxate. Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
- The problem with vitamin A. EWG.
- Simultaneous determination of the UV-filters benzyl salicylate, phenyl salicylate, octyl salicylate, homosalate, 3-(4-methylbenzylidene) camphor and 3-benzylidene camphor in human placental tissue by LC-MS/MS. Assessment of their in vitro endocrine activity. I Jiménez-Díaz et al. J Chromatogr B Analyt Technol Biomed Life Sci.. 2013.
- What is octocrylene?. Medical News Today. Medical News Today. 2022.
- Benzophenone Accumulates over Time from the Degradation of Octocrylene in Commercial Sunscreen Products. C. A. Downs et al.. Medical News Today. 2021.
- Parabens. Breat Cancer Prevention Partners. Breat Cancer Prevention Partners.
- Relationship between urinary triclosan and paraben concentrations and serum thyroid measures in NHANES 2007–2008. Erika S. Koeppe et al.. Science of the Total Environment. 2013.
- Environmental Exposures and Autoimmune Thyroid Disease. Gregory A. Brent. National Library of Medicine. 2010.
- Nanoparticles in sunscreens. EWG.
- Effectiveness of antioxidants (vitamin C and E) with and without sunscreens as topical photoprotectants. D Darr et al. National Library of Medicine. 1996.
- California Poppy. Nature Collective.