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A quick glance at the ingredient list on any bottle of sunscreen in your medicine cabinet will likely reveal a slew of scary-sounding chemicals — and while you may assume they are necessary to protect your skin against the sun’s unrelenting rays, that’s not actually the case.
In fact, in 2019 the U.S Food and Drug Administration proposed a new set of rules and regulations, stating that of the 16 approved active ingredients used in sunscreens only two — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — are generally recognized as safe and effective.
The other chemicals are downright dangerous for your health — specifically your skin and gut health — and they’re harmful to marine life as well. In fact, some locations (Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands) have banned certain sunscreen ingredients.
Thankfully, this realization has led to the availability of more vegan, plant-based, organic, and cruelty-free sunscreens than ever before. “Our society certainly values being kind to the body and the planet more than it did even just a few years ago,” says Dr. Lana Butner, ND, LA, a board-certified naturopathic doctor and licensed acupuncturist who treats patients in the Greater New York Area. “And these alternative forms of sunscreen can be much safer for the body and the environment than ‘regular’ sunscreen.”
What’s in Chemical Sunscreen, Anyway?
Dr. Butner says chemical sunscreen contains several ingredients that have come up as red flags in numerous health studies or are being studied further to determine the full range of risks:
- Oxybenzone. This has been found to be a hormone disruptor and is chemically known as a skin and eye irritant. But it also disrupts aquatic life.
- Octinoxate. This is another common sunscreen ingredient, and it’s being studied as a potential hormone disruptor.
- Parabens. Many sunscreens also contain parabens, which are artificial preservatives that can damage the cells.
- Phthalates. These chemicals make products more structurally flexible, but can be harmful when absorbed by the body.
Related: 10 Natural and Reef-Safe Sunscreens
Why You Should Be Concerned About Chemical Sunscreens
As you might imagine, these aforementioned chemicals can wreak havoc on our health, specifically our skin and guts, not to mention harm the delicate ecosystem we often enjoy while wearing sunscreen: the ocean.
Skin health. Because the chemicals in sunscreen are meant to absorb UV rays, Dr. Butner says they cause an accumulation of heat on the skin’s surface, which can be super irritating to the skin. The chemicals can also clog pores and contribute to acne flare-ups. But the issues don’t stop there.
Just in the way that the skin absorbs UV rays, it also absorbs a lot of what is topically applied to it — and sunscreen is no exception. “The protective mechanism of sunscreen occurs on the surface of the skin, but evidence shows that some of the ingredients within sunscreen end up being absorbed by the body and thus entering the bloodstream,” she says.
Gut health. We all know how important a healthy gut microbiome is now that the gut has been deemed our “second brain,” and it’s a delicate balance to maintain. Anything foreign may throw it off-kilter.
“The entrance of hormone-disruptors into the blood can be very damaging to all body systems— your digestive system and gut included,” says Dr. Butner. “Hormones are chemical messengers that regulate our body’s systemic functions, so any interference with these can through everything out-of-whack.”
Plus, the chemicals in sunscreen are easily ingested if applied in spray form — and aerosolized cans of sunscreen contain benzene, which Dr. Butner says is a chemical widely recognized as harmful to humans.
Ocean health. One of the most valuable ecosystems on the planet is the coral reefs.
But the chemicals in sunscreen — including oxybenzone and octinoxate — threaten coral reefs by:
- impairing growth and photosynthesis of algae,
- bleaching, damaging the DNA and even killing coral, and
- causing defects and fertility issues in mussels, sea urchins, fish, and dolphins.
How Does Natural Sunscreen Work?
First, the way in which they work is different. Many natural sunscreens actually sit right on top of the skin to block UV rays, rather than absorbing UV rays as chemical sunscreens do.
Next, the active ingredients you’re most likely to find include zinc oxide — a metallic element found in nature and made from zinc that’s often used in diaper rash creams and calamine lotions— and/or titanium dioxide —a naturally occurring compound created when titanium reacts with oxygen — which both block and scatter UV rays away from the skin. “These ingredients are not absorbed by the skin nearly as readily as the aforementioned chemicals, so in that sense, they are less harmful and disruptive to the body,” says Dr. Butner. “That being said, these components of natural sunscreen are much less likely to enter the bloodstream and act as endocrine disruptors, thereby throwing gut health and digestion off-kilter.”
But that also doesn’t mean they are automatically safe choices. Dr. Butner says zinc oxide and titanium dioxide can be dangerous if inhaled or ingested at a small particle size, so it’s best to stick to lotion forms of natural sunscreen rather than powder or spray. Keep an eye out for “non-nano particle mineral sunscreen” for optimal safety.
How to Pick a Safe Sunscreen
So what should you look for when choosing a sunscreen that’ll be good for your health and safe for marine life? You’re going to have to carefully read the ingredients panel, and not just rely on the marketing terms displayed on the package — some of them can be downright deceitful. Here’s a good checklist to follow:
- Avoid products with the following ingredients listed: oxybenzone, octinoxate, parabens, pthalates
- Choose products that say “mineral” on the labels (but double-check for any hidden no-no ingredients)
- Look for products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as this usually indicates that it’s a mineral sunscreen
- Stick to lotions, and avoid sprays or powders that could spread nanoparticles
- If you prefer sprays and powders, look for ones labeled “non-nano particle mineral sunscreen”
- Look for products labeled “cruelty-free” or that display the Leaping Bunny Logo to ensure there’s been no animal testing