Is Your Sunscreen Doing More Damage Than Good?

[picapp align=”left” wrap=”true” link=”term=sunscreen&iid=5283979″ src=”″ width=”234″ height=”234″ /]

With the official start of summer, I thought is was a good time to talk about sunscreen.  You know the importance of sunscreen, but do you know that most sunscreens contain chemicals that are potentially hazardous to your health?  I only found out this out a few years ago.  Every single one of the sunscreen products I had in my house, or had used in the past on a regular basis, had chemical ingredients.  Yikes!

Sunscreen, as we know it, is a brand-new invention, considering how long the sun has been around.  The first sunscreen (although not really effective) was developed in 1944, most likely because World War II soldiers began to notice the effects of all the sun exposure from their time in the Pacific.

Why are we only hearing about the dangers of conventional sunscreen now?  The FDA still hasn’t hammered down the regulations on sunscreen that started in 1978!  The sunscreen industry has gone largely unregulated–no wonder it has taken so long for consumers to find out that the lotions, sprays, and creams they had been slathering on all those years have included some questionable ingredients.

The Environmental Working Group is a company dedicated to protecting consumer health, and in addition to reviewing beauty products, reviews the safety of sunscreen.  According to the EWG’s website, their research team found that “92 percent of brand name sunscreens either don’t sufficiently protect skin from sun damage or contain hazardous chemicals — or both.”

In an attempt to protect our skin, have we been doing more harm than good?  Even though there is a greater awareness of the dangers of chemical sunscreen, lots of folks–and I was one of them–still go for the conventional stuff, which is evident by how many chemical sunscreens are on the shelves.  I want you to be an informed sunscreen user, so here’s the lowdown on sunscreen safety:

Chemical sunscreens…

  • Work by absorbing the sun’s rays.
  • Penetrate the skin to some degree and can create free radicals inside the skin, which can lead to skin damage!
  • Often only protect from either UVB rays (causes surface sunburns) or UVA rays (causes damage deep beneath skin, premature aging), but not both.

Physical sunscreens…

  • Block the sun’s rays by scattering or reflecting UV light.
  • Are made up of particles usually too large to penetrate the skin, sit on top of skin instead.
  • Protect your skin from both UVA and UVB ultraviolet rays.

Things to avoid in your sunscreen…

  • Oxybenzone (may be listed as Benzophenone-3). Found in 60% of sunscreens in the U.S.  Studies show this chemical may disrupt hormones and alter reproductive organs.  Do not use on children!  Can also cause allergic reactions and penetrates the skin in large amounts.
  • Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC). Used in 40% of sunscreens.  Interferes with thyroid and hormones.
  • Padimate O. This is a derivative of PABA, carries some health concerns related to DNA damage.
  • Vitamin A or Retinyl Palmitate. Added to 41% of sunscreens, Vitamin A might cause cancer when applied to skin and exposed to sunlight.
  • Bug repellent. Chemical sunscreens often contain ingredients to help penetrate your skin.  If bug repellent is also in the mix, you’ll be absorbing that too.  If bug bites are a concern, use a natural form of repellent first, then apply sunscreen.
  • SPF above 50. SPF above 30 has been found to be no more effective, and people tend to think they can spend longer in the sun with a single application of  SPF 50 or 100, and end up with the same incidence of burns.
  • Sunscreen in the form of spray or powder. The concern is in inhaling the sunscreen.  Even a sunscreen that is perfectly safe for your skin is not safe for your lungs.  Best to only use cream sunscreens.

Ingredients to look for in sunscreen…[picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=sunscreen&iid=268871″ src=”″ width=”380″ height=”253″ /]

  • Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Offer broad spectrum UV protection.
  • Avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789) or Mexoryl SX. These are newer ingredients said to be very effective in blocking UVA rays.

Practice safe sunscreen!

  • Make sure you apply sunscreen liberally (about 1 ounce ) every hour or two, especially after sweating, swimming, or rubbing skin.
  • Higher SPF doesn’t mean you can stay out longer in the sun!
  • You still run the risk of getting burned on overcast days.
  • Don’t forget to put sunscreen on your ears, hands, and feet.  Your scalp is vulnerable too.
  • The sun’s rays are strongest from 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
For more detailed information on sunscreen, including safety ratings, check out the Environmental Working Group’s 2010 Sunscreen Guide.


4 thoughts on “Is Your Sunscreen Doing More Damage Than Good?

  1. Jeff says:

    Everyone has to make a choice: damage from the sun (including sunburn & potential skin cancer), a chemical sunscreen (potential cancer?) or physical block (now nano-sized- potential cancer or ??). Joe Jackson sang it in 1980 “everything gives you cancer”. Moderation is key.
    As a supporter of a cleaner world, I wish we could turn back the clock and avoid the damage we’ve done to our environment, ozone and planet in general, but we can’t, so we have to do the best we can today.
    The EWG is trying to bring awareness to many issues but one statement above is simply NOT true, the EWG does not do ANY testing of sunscreen products. They only comment on the ingredients in sunscreens and since there isn’t a great deal of information on nano-sized physical ingredients, the EWG has decided these are safer?
    Dermatologist will all agree, protection with any sunscreen is safer than the potential damage of unprotected skin.


    • Kristin Conroy says:

      Thanks for your comments Jeff. I corrected my misstatement, thanks for catching that…you would certainly know, being in the sunscreen industry! As far as sunscreen use goes, of course I agree that any sunscreen is better protection than none. The purpose of this post is for readers to become aware that all sunscreen is not created equally–in their protection level or ingredients. I’d like people to have enough knowledge to make an informed choice and pick the sunscreen that is best for their health. By the way, I appreciate your company’s contribution to the sunscreen industry; informing readers about sunscreen and safe sun practices on your website, the honest labeling on your products, and your earth-friendly efforts.


  2. Terri says:

    Hi Kristin,
    I was just reading an article about the harms of oxybenzone in sunscreen but I am having a very hard time finding any without this ingredient. if you can suggest a specific brand I would appreciate it.
    Thanks for the info.


    • Kristin Conroy says:

      I know Terri, I never knew how many sunscreens used oxybenzone until I started looking at the ingredients list! Fortunately, there are many non-chemical options available, although they may be hard to find at some locations. Off the top of my head, I know Badger sunscreen is on the “safe” list (except for the bug repellent one). There is a really helpful sunscreen review on Pure Natural Diva’s website. The EWG lists their top picks for beach and sport sunscreens here. Also, you can search for the safety of a specific sunscreen using the search tool on the EWG’s website. Among these three links, you should find a safe sunscreen on any budget! Good luck!


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