11 Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid in 2024

Debunking Sunscreen Myths

By Hanna Oltmanns - March 11, 2024

There are significant concerns and debates surrounding toxic sunscreen ingredients – a topic that kept us at Suntribe on our toes!

Navigating the world of sunscreen can be as complex as decoding a secret language. 

Ever found yourself wondering which sunscreen ingredients to avoid? 

Luckily, we have crafted a straightforward and practical guide to unravel toxic sunscreen ingredients and help you confidently select a sunscreen that is as safe as it is effective. 

Why should you avoid 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

⇒ Increasing scientific evidence shows that conventional sunscreens contain hormone-disrupting ingredients – causing all kinds of chaos in your hormonal system and even infertility in men.

⇒ There is evidence that certain chemical UV filters cause decreased birth weight and can be detected in the bloodstream and urine

⇒ Chemical UV filters have been found in breast milk and have been linked to Hirschsprung’s disease, which is a digestive birth defect

Which sunscreen ingredients are considered harmful?

In 2021, the Food and Drug Administration, which governs sunscreen safety, proposed its most recent update to sunscreen regulations. It was found that only two UV filters were classified as safe and effective. This is based on information currently available and revealed zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to be the safest options. 

Most of the other conventional sunscreen ingredients were proposed as not generally safe and effective, some due to insufficient data and some due to highly concerning study results.  

Which sunscreen ingredients should you avoid during pregnancy?

Pregnancy is a very vulnerable season for both the mother and the unborn baby. As a responsible mother, it is crucial for you to be mindful of your skincare products, including sunscreen, during this time.

One chemical UV filter that raises high concerns during pregnancy is oxybenzone, which is commonly used in conventional sunscreens. Studies have revealed oxybenzone’s ability to penetrate the bloodstream even after a single application, raising concerns about its impact on sperm cell function and its presence in breast milk.

Besides this, oxybenzone has been implicated in increasing the risk of Hirschsprung’s Disease, a severe congenital disability affecting nerve cells in the bowel.

Given these risks, pregnant women and those trying to conceive are strongly urged to avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone. This is particularly important to minimize potential harm to the baby’s development and their own health.

While oxybenzone is considered the most dangerous sunscreen ingredient, pregnant women should avoid some additional sunscreen ingredients.

11 Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid in 2024

To help you detect harmful ingredients in sunscreen and skin care products, we’ve compiled an overview of toxic sunscreen 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 SUNSCREEN Ingredients to avoid - 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, whereas 10 is the worst possible. 

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)

2. Octinoxate / Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMZ)

Harmful Active Sunscreen Ingredientsto avoid - Moderate Risk

1. Homosalate

2. Octisalate / Ethylhexyl SalicylatE

3. Octocrylene / 2-Ethylhexyl Ester

Harmful Active SUNSCREEN Ingredients to avoid - LOW-RISK

1. Avobenzone

Besides harmful active sunscreen ingredients, some inactive ingredients are not yet restricted, even though they bear significant risks to public health. Here, you can find a list of inactive sunscreen ingredients, and you should make sure that they don’t appear on the list of components of the products you use! 

2. Parabens

Parabens can be found in a majority of cosmetics. They mainly extend your product’s shelf life by preventing bacteria growth. It sounds excellent. However, they are also associated with breast cancer, as they may affect the mechanisms of breast cells. There are a few parabens that 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. 

3. Bemotrizinol (Also known as Tinosorb S)

Bemotrizinol is commonly used in sunscreen since it can absorb 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. 

Sunscreen Ingredients To Avoid

4. 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). 

5. Titanium Dioxide (nano)

Titanium Dioxide in nano size can be found in many cosmetics, including sunscreen. Nevertheless, based on animal inhalation experiments, it’s classified as a possible risk to humans. It is considered potentially carcinogenic in its powdered or spray form, such as sunscreen sprays, SPF powders, and eyeshadows.

6. Methylisothiazolinone (MI)

Studies suggest that MI may be neurotoxic and cause allergic reactions. The common usage of MI in sunscreen raises concerns since sunscreen users will likely be exposed to significant concentrations.

Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid

Thankfully, many countries have taken action and banned several of these toxic sunscreen ingredients by now. Hawaii and Palau have banned the most harmful UV filters to save 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 ingredients.

The solution: choose a mineral sunscreen instead

Generally speaking, mineral sunscreens are much healthier and bear no risk to human health or the planet’s well-being when formulated with the right ingredients. They also offer additional benefits, such as instant water resistance.

What is the difference between chemical & mineral sunscreens?

Mineral and chemical sunscreens work in very different ways. Chemical sunscreens reply on UV-filters such as Oxybenzone or Avbenzone and penetrate your skin and bloodstream. 

Many people are unaware 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. Chemical sunscreens need to change the characteristics of your cells from within to protect you from the sun.

Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, act as a shield on top of your skin and reflect sun rays.

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 much less skin-irritating as they usually contain more natural ingredients. This makes them suitable for sensitive skin, allergies and babies.

11 Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid in 2024

Why should you use a mineral sunscreen?

Mineral sunscreens protect you better from UVB & UVA rays because they literally create a physical separation between you and the sun.

⇒ Mineral sunscreens are safer for your skin as they are commonly formulated with less and more natural ingredients.

⇒ Mineral sunscreens are safer for the ocean and coral reefs if formulated with non-nano zinc oxide or non-nano titanium dioxide, which are considered the safest options currently available.

⇒ Mineral sunscreens do not make you look like a ghost anymore, as plenty of advanced sunscreen options blend in with your skin tone or even apply to be transparent.

Tips on how to choose a safe sunscreen

Tip 1: Check the safety of your sunscreen

Some platforms will make the search for  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 and each sunscreen ingredient. 

Tip 2: Make sure to check all the Ingredients, not only the UV filter

Apart from the active ingredients (UV filters), you should also be cautious of other ingredients.

We recommend you look for a clean label, which means it is easy to recognize and has no synthetic ingredients!

Of course, it can still be safe even if you don’t recognize an ingredient. 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).

Two apps provide a fast and easy way to identify clean and safe ingredients: Think Dirty & CodeCheck.

11Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid in 2024

Tip 3: Understand the sunscreen label

Sunscreen labels can be confusing something, so it’s great to know which boxes your sunscreen should tick:

⇒ Broad Spectrum Protection

Broad Spectrum Protection means that sunscreen protects from UVA and UVB rays. This is very important since UVA and UVB rays harm your skin, and the Sun Protection Factor only indicates UVB protection. UVA rays enter your skin on an even deeper level than UVB rays and have been found to have the potential to cause long-lasting skin damage, such as premature aging and skin cancer. 

⇒ SPF

Every sunscreen you use should, of course, provide SPF! According to the FDA, you should choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 15 for proper protection. If you want to know more about how SPF works, 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!

⇒ Water Resistance

Make sure to choose a sunscreen with sufficient water resistance! This is important when you plan to go for a swim and helps you ensure that the sunscreen keeps protecting you when you’re sweating! The water resistance label tells you 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 find a worry-free sunscreen for you and the planet. By taking these tips as a guideline and being aware of potentially toxic ingredients, everyone can choose a safe sunscreen 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.