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Harmful Chemicals in Sunscreens

Harmful Chemicals in Sunscreens
Woman Seated on Textile Applying Sunscreen by posted on

Woman Seated on Textile Applying Sunscreen by posted on

By now we have all had the importance of sunscreen crammed in our heads enough that we understand we should be wearing it on a daily basis. Now that doctors and dermatologists are finally getting their patients to adhere to the strict sunscreen guidelines new concerns are arising. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) tested over 1,400 sunscreens and found that over 40% were potentially carcinogenic and despite our newfound respect for sunscreen and increased hours indoors skin cancer rates are actually rising by 4.2% annually!

When it comes to choosing a sunscreen the choices seem endless. Unfortunately, not all of these sunscreens are made equally and the harm they can cause to our body far outweighs any benefits. Read through to learn more about harmful chemicals in sunscreens and scroll to the bottom for our safe product recommendations!

How is Sunscreen Harmful?

The idea of sunscreen is to create a barrier that shields our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Sunscreen brands achieve this through one of two means: mineral barriers or chemical barriers.

Mineral barriers typically include zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These ingredients remain on the surface of the skin. Chemical barriers, however, can include an array of chemicals: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Many of these chemicals in sunscreen are actually absorbed by the body, ingested when applied around the mouth and even inhaled when sprayed around the face.

Why is this cause for concern? Common chemicals in sunscreens have been proven to be allergenic, endocrine disruptors, estrogenic and have even been shown to increase cancerous cell growth!

What Chemicals in Sunscreen Can Be Harmful?


Arguably the most commonly used ingredient in sunscreens. When absorbed by the skin, Oxybenzone can create and eczema-like reaction that can actually spread to other parts of the body. Even more worrisome, Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor that may contribute to reduced sperm count in men and endometriosis in women. A recent study by the Center for Disease Control found this chemical present in over 97% of the population!

This chemical has been shown to be so toxic that Hawaii has actually banned all sunscreens with this ingredient to protect its coral reefs and wildlife.


When this chemical is exposed to UV light, it absorbs the rays and produces oxygen radicals that can damage cells and cause mutations. It is readily absorbed by your skin and may accumulate within your body in measurable amounts. Plus, it can be toxic to the environment.Relatively high rates of skin allergy


Homosalate is a UV-absorbing ingredient. It is absorbed easily by the skin and can quickly build up within the body to toxic levels. Homosalate has been shown to disrupt estrogen, androgen and progesterone production as well as other hormone disruptions.


Another regularly used ingredient in sunscreens is Octinoxate, which mimics hormone activity causing disruptions in the reproductive and thyroid systems. This ingredient also produces free radicals causing cell damage and premature aging. Octinoxate is also extremely toxic to wildlife causing similar hormone disruptions in ocean animals. It is among the list of ingredients banned in Hawaii.

Retinyl palmitate

Retinyl Palmitate is actually a form of Vitamin A. It is commonly used in sunscreens to reduce the aging effects of UV rays. However, when exposed to UV rays the retinol compounds break down and become destructive free radicals. These free radicals wreck havoc on cells damaging DNA and potentially paving the way for cancer. FDA studies have shown that Retinyl Palmitate can actually speed up the production of cancerous cells.


This ingredient is frequently used as a preservative. It was recently named “Allergen of the Year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. Methylisothiazolinone can cause allergic reactions on the skin, eyes and throughout the respiratory system. Even minor allergic reactions that cause inflammation within that body can exhaust the bodies defense systems over time and lead to chronic allergies. Researchers are also studying the possibility of neurotoxicity.

Paraben Preservatives

We have discussed Parabens in our article “12 Harmful Ingredients in Skin Care to Avoid”, but to reiterate, Parabens have been linked to allergic reactions, reproductive toxicity and developmental and hormonal disruptions. They have also been found to increase cancer cell growth in breast cancer tissue.

Titanium Dioxide

Although Titanium Dioxide is not a synthetic chemical and is actually quite effective for UV protection there is concern about the effects when inhaled. “Titanium dioxide may become dangerous when nanoparticle size. Nanoparticles, which can be 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, have not been properly assessed for their potential effects on human health or the environment. Researchers don’t yet understand the impacts nanoparticles could have. But because of their infinitesimally small size, nanoparticles may be more chemically reactive and therefore more bioavailable, meaning the particles are fast tracked into the body.” In general, it is best to avoid spray sunscreens to prevent inhalation of any ingredients that may be harmful.

Soooo….what do I do??

Although learning about these harmful chemicals may leave you with a bleak outlook on the upcoming Summer season don’t despair! Society as a whole is becoming more and more aware and concerned about harmful products. We still have a long way to go, but there are many companies attempting to create products that are safe AND effective.

NOTE** To be clear, we are not suggesting you stop using sunscreen altogether, but rather taking a closer look at any brands you may be currently using and looking for safer alternatives. Protection from UV rays is important, but damage to our internal bodies should NOT be a part of the process!

We have said it before and we will say it again, we are SO careful when it comes to giving product recommendations. Facial Lounge is committed to using this platform, no matter how small, to share research-based knowledge related to holistic skincare and health in general. We want to protect and enrich the lives of our customers and readers. With that said, we do not provide recommendations lightly!

We ONLY give recommendations for products we are confident are free of harmful chemicals, as natural as possible and SAFE. If we come across new information that suggests something we recommended may not be as clean as previously thought we will always share that information with you and revise our suggestion.

Lastly, while some sunscreens may be “safe” they may not necessarily be the best for your skincare routine. Some ingredients are non-harmful but can clog pores and cause breakouts. We have done our best to provide a list of sunscreens that are safe AND won’t cause any skincare issues.

Safe Sunscreens

 Here is our recommendations for safe sunscreens:

  • Coola BB Sunscreen - Broad spectrum SPF 30 protection; Rose Stem Cell actives nourish skin and provide antioxidant benefits; Mineral Titanium Dioxide sunscreen; Water resistant (80 minutes); Tinted formula evens out skin tone appearance and hides imperfections; Natural Sweet Rose scent; Vegan; Reef Safe/Reef Friendly
  • Coola Matte Sunscreen - Mineral Face SPF 30 Matte Tint Moisturizer. Your daytime lotion, antioxidants, and SPF in one, this sheer, mattifying formula delivers lightweight hydration, helps reduce shine, and gives your skin a fresh-looking hint of coverage.
  • Coola Cucumbers - Mineral Face SPF 30 Cucumber Matte Finish Moisturizer. Your daytime lotion, antioxidant infused bb cream, and SPF all in one. This sheer, mattifying formula delivers lightweight hydration, helps reduce shine, and wears beautifully under makeup.
  • Coola Baby Sticks
  • EltaMD
    • Oil-free, lightly tinted, chemical-free natural mineral sunscreen has antioxidants to neutralize free radicals. Water-resistant UV Physical withstands water, humidity and perspiration. Antioxidant protection combats skin-aging free radicals associated with ultraviolet (UV) and infrared radiation (IR). Won’t clog pores.
  • La Bella Donna


Further Reading

Below are a few more great articles related to this topic for any who are interested in learning more! We cannot vouch for any product recommendations made in these articles as we have not tested all products mentioned. If you have any questions related to a specific brand or product, however, we would love to hear them and maybe test out said product ourselves.


Toxic Chemicals in Sunscreen & Safer Alternatives

Why Most Sunscreen is Harmful

Why I Eat My Sunscreen to Protect Skin From the Inside Out

The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens

Hawaii Approves Bill Banning Sunscreen Believed To Kill Coral Reefs



EWG (Environmental Working Group)

The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research




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