11 TOXIC Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid in 2023
By Hanna Oltmanns - March 15, 2023
You’ve probably already heard it at least once that there are concerns about chemical sunscreens. As you can imagine this has been a very hot topic for us at Suntribe ever since we found out about it. Sunscreen ingredients can be confusing and which ones were the ones you’re supposed to avoid again? That’s why we have put together an easy-to-understand practical guide about chemical sunscreen ingredients and explain why it matters that you use mineral natural sunscreen instead!
What's the matter with Chemical sunscreen INGREDIENTS?
So, why are we going through all this trouble to educate ourselves and others about chemical sunscreen ingredients? Well, the answer is pretty simple – 63% of ingredients in the most popular sunscreens in Europe are classified as dangerous for human health and/or the environment. There is increasing scientific evidence showing that conventional sunscreens contain hormone disrupting ingredients that can cause all kinds of chaos in your hormonal system and even cause infertility in men. There’s also been evidence that certain chemical UV-filters cause decreased birth weight and can be detected in the bloodstream and urine. They have been found in breast milk and have been linked to Hirschsprung’s disease which is a digestive birth defect.
We think that’s more than enough to make this highly concerning and stay away as far as possible from chemical sunscreens!
To help you detect harmful ingredients in sunscreen and skin care products, we’ve put together an overview of toxic ingredients here. The list below is in the order of their toxicity ranking according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The ingredients listed have also been found to exceed the safety thresholds of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Harmful Active SUNSCREENS Ingredients - HIGH RISK
For reference, Zinc Oxide reaches an EWG safety rating of 1 (when used in creams) to 3 (when used in spray or powder sunscreens). A safety rating of 1 is the best possible safety rating, whereas 10 is the worst possible safety rating.
Due to their high toxicity, the following high risk chemical UV-filters have already been banned in 7 countries and regions around the globe.
1) Oxybenzone / Benzophenone-3 (BP-3)
- EWG safety rating of 8
- Endocrine disruptor: mimics estrogen, found in the bloodstream, linked to male infertility
- Inhibits the growth of coral larvae and causes coral bleaching
2) Octinoxate / Octylmethoxycinnamate (OMZ)
Harmful Active SUNSCREENS Ingredients - Moderate RISK
4) Octisalate / Ethylhexyl Salicylate
5) Octocrylene / 2-Ethylhexyl Ester
Harmful Active SUNSCREENS Ingredients - LOW RISK
- EWG safety rating of 1-2
- Not photostable on its own: breaks down in contact with UV light, producing ecotoxins
- Therefore often combined with stabilizers like Octisalate which is mentioned higher up on this list
Besides harmful active ingredients, that are harmful inactive ingredients that are not yet restricted, even though they bear significant risk to public health. Here you can find a list of concerning inactive ingredients and you should make sure that they don’t appear on the list of components of the products you use!
Parabens can be found in a majority of cosmetics. They’re mainly used to extend the shelf life of your products by preventing the growth of bacteria. It’s sounds great, however, they are also associated with breast cancer, as they may affect the mechanisms of breast cells. There are a few parabens which have already been banned in some countries (find more details on ingredient bans below), however, parabens like ethylparaben, methylparaben and other ingredients that end with -paraben are still approved for use in cosmetics.
8) Bemotrizinol (Also known as Tinosorb S)
Bemotrizinol is commonly used in sunscreen since it can absorb both UVA and UVB rays. It’s approved in Europe and Australia, however, the FDA in the USA rejected several pending applications of Bemotrizinol previously as there is not sufficient information to prove that it’s officially safe and effective.
9) Retinyl Palmitate
Retinyl Palmitate is a form of vitamin A, which may result in skin damage and cancer. There is evidence that suggests that it may accelerate the growth of cancer cells when used on the skin under sunlight. A study from the Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety stated that excessive vitamin A can cause health problems such as liver damage, hair loss, and osteoporosis (weakening of bones).
10) Titanium Dioxide (NANO)
Titanium Dioxide in nano size can be found in many cosmetics, including sunscreen. Nevertheless it’s classified as a possible risk to humans based on animal inhalation experiments. In its powdered or spray form, such as sunscreen sprays or SPF powders, and eyeshadows, it is considered potentially carginogenic.
11) Methylisothiazolinone (MI)
Thankfully, many countries have taken action and banned several of these toxic sunscreen ingredients by now. Both Hawaii and Palau have banned the most harmful UV-filters to save their coral reefs. Various national parks in Mexico have also banned high risk active ingredients to preserve their environment. So far, seven destinations worldwide have banned toxic sunscreen chemicals.
THE SOLUTION: choose a mineral sunscreen instead
Generally speaking, mineral sunscreens are a lot healthier and bear no risk to either human health or the wellbeing of the planet when formulated with the right ingredients.
They also offer additional benefits. What many people are not aware of is that chemical sunscreens need to be applied before being exposed to the sun. They take 20-30 minutes to work since they have to penetrate your skin. They need to change the characteristics of your cells from within so that they protect you from the sun. Mineral sunscreens on the other hand act as a shield on top of your skin and reflect sun rays back. They protect you from the first moment of application, which is worth a lot when for example you’re at the beach with your kids who are eager to run into the water! Plus, mineral sunscreens tend to be a lot less skin irritating as they usually contain more natural ingredients.
Tips on how to choose a safe sunscreen
Tip 1: Check the Safety of your sunscreen
There are platforms that will make the search for a safe sunscreen much easier. You can e.g. use EWG’s ranking as a guideline. Simply type in the name of the brand or product you are looking for and you’ll find detailed information about which safety rating the product has as a whole as well as each ingredient.
Tip 2: Make sure to check all the Ingredients, not only the UV filter
Apart from the active ingredients (UV filters) you should definitely be cautious of other ingredients as well. We recommend you look for a clean label, which means easy-to-recognise and no synthetic ingredients! Of course, even if you don’t recognise an ingredient, it can still be safe. Names of ingredients can be confusing, especially when they are listed with their INCI name (the official international nomenclature used to uniquely identify ingredients in cosmetics). There’s two apps that provide you with a fast and easy way to identify clean and safe ingredients: Think Dirty & CodeCheck!
Tip 3: Understand the sunscreen label
Sunscreen labels can be confusing something, so it’s great to know which boxes your sunscreen should tick:
X Broad Spectrum Protection
Broad Spectrum Protection means that a sunscreen protects from both UVA and UVB rays. This is very important since both UVA and UVB rays harm your skin and the Sun Protection Factor only indicates the UVB protection. UVA rays enter your skin on an even deeper level than UVB rays and have been found to have the potential of causing long lasting skin damage such as premature aging, and skin cancer.
Every sunscreen you use should of course provide SPF! According to the FDA you should choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 15 to get proper protection. If you would like to know more about how SPF works, feel free to check out our article about SPF, UVA & UVB on our website. Good to know: The difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 is only 1 percentage point!
X Water Resistance
Make sure to choose a sunscreen with sufficient water resistance! This is not only important when you plan to go for a swim, but also helps you to ensure that the sunscreen keeps protecting you when you’re sweating! The water resistance label tells you for how long a sunscreen protects you when in contact with water or sweat. It can either be 40 (“water resistant”) or 80 minutes (“very water resistant”). So depending on what your needs are, make sure to choose a sunscreen that fits.
We hope this makes it easier for you to choose a sunscreen that’s worry-free for both you and the planet. By taking these tips as a guideline and being aware of potential harmful ingredients, everyone can choose a sunscreen that’s safe for them and nature!
Should you come across any more specific questions on the topic, you’re always welcome to reach out to us and we’ll be happy to give you a hand in finding the perfect sunscreen for you.
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about the author
Hej, I’m Hanna. I love the outdoors and I am the first one to enjoy every beam of sunshine possible. Through traveling several countries over the past few years, I have become more and more aware of the great need for sustainability in every aspect of our daily life. Through working with Suntribe I am joining the movement of sustainable production of organic cosmetic and help to raise awareness about the issue of harmful chemicals in personal care products for humans and nature alike.