List of Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid in 2021

What does cruelty-free mean?

By Ruby Wan Lam Lo - March 03, 2021

You know sunscreen is important, but you may also have heard that the chemicals in chemical sunscreens are harmful to humans as well as the environment. So how can we choose a safe sunscreen? Which ingredients are safe, and which ingredients should we avoid? Here’s the ultimate guide for you to choose a safe sunscreen in 2021!

Recent research by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) mentioned that there are 6 active ingredients in sunscreens (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate) that can be absorbed into the bloodstream at levels that exceeded the FDA safety thresholds. We talk about these 6 ingredients in this blog article, therefore, we’ll focus on other inactive sunscreen ingredients here – unfortunately, there is still a long list of ingredients that are not banned from cosmetics despite the fact that their negative side effects have already been confirmed by numerous studies.

In addition to choosing a safe sunscreen, make sure you wear a hat and sunprotective clothing

1) Parabens

Parabens can be found in many cosmetics. They’re mainly used to prevent the growth of fungi, bacteria and yeast, that way helping to extend your products’ shelf life. It sounds effective, right? Unfortunately parabens are also associated with breast cancer since it may affect the mechanisms of breast cells. They can also lead to allergies and thyroid issues. There are different types of parabens, and five types, including isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben and pentylparaben, are actually banned in cosmetics in Europe. Besides, Denmark specifically made a restriction on two other types of parabens (propylparaben & butylparaben) in cosmetic products for under 3-year-olds, which is a step in the right direction! Nevertheless, there are more commonly used parabens, like ethylparaben, methylparaben and other ingredients that end with -paraben, that are still approved for use in cosmetics and you should make sure that they don’t appear on the list of ingredients of the products that you use!

2) 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 Australasia, but it’s currently waiting approval of the FDA so it’s not available in the USA at the moment. Even though this ingredient is widely used all over the world, the FDA rejected several pending applications of Bemotrizinol previously because they don’t have sufficient information to prove that it’s officially safe and effective.

3) Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl Palmitate is a form of vitamin A, which may result in skin damage and cancer. Indeed, vitamin A in oral form can effectively reduce the risk of skin cancer, however, it may speed 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. Based on the problems with vitamin A, German officials suggested restricting the usage of Retinyl Palmitate in face, hand, lips and body cosmetics.

An additional tip: Avoid the sun during the hottest time of the day and stay in the shade! You'll still tan

4) Titanium Dioxide

Titanium Dioxide can be found in most cosmetics, including sunscreens, because of its white colour and its function as a mineral UV filter. Nevertheless, it’s classified as a “possible carcinogenic to humans” based on an animal inhalation experiment. In other words, titanium dioxide in powdered or spray form in cosmetics such as spray sunscreens, make-up with SPF, loose powders and eyeshadows can be harmful to humans since it can be inhaled. In fact, a study indicated an increased risk of lung cancer for production workers in the titanium dioxide manufacturing industry, compared with the general population. In terms of the environment researchers have admitted that it is hard to determine whether Titanium Dioxide is safe for coral reefs or not because of incomplete information.

5) Methylisothiazolinone (MI)

Methylisothiazolinone (MI) is a preservative, which can be used alone or as a mixture with Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI). Lab studies suggested that MI may be neurotoxic and may cause allergic reactions. The common usage of MI in sunscreen raises concern among the public since sunscreen users are very likely “to be exposed to significant concentrations of it”. Although a study later on found that MI won’t cause allergic reactions as long as manufacturers come up with certain formulations, we should still be aware of this ingredient since the European Society of Contact Dermatitis (ESCD) recommended that MI should be “discontinued from use in leave-on skin products”.

List of Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid in 2021


In the following, we’ll give you a few tips on how you can be sure the sunscreen you pick is safe for your skin and the environment.

Tip 1: Choose a mineral sunscreen, say no to chemical SUNSCREENS

You may wonder what is the difference between chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens act like a sponge to absorb UV rays and work by converting the UV rays into heat, then releasing the heat from the body. Mineral sunscreens act as a shield, stay on top of your skin and reflect the rays back. It’s also worth mentioning that mineral sunscreen tends to be less irritating (better for sensitive skin) and more moisturising (this surely applies for our natural sunscreens). In addition, mineral sunscreens start working immediately after application, whereas chemical sunscreens take 20-30 minutes to work since they change the characteristics of your cells from within. 

Tip 2: Make sure TO check all ingredients, not only the UV filter

Apart from ingredients that tell you which method a sunscreen uses to protect you from UV rays (chemical vs mineral), we should definitely be cautious of other ingredients as well, such as water, oil, lotions etc. We recommend you to look for a clean label, which means easy-to-recognise and no synthetic ingredients! Of course, even if you don’t recognise the ingredient it can still be safe – names of ingredients can be confusing. There are two mobile apps that can help you understand the list of ingredients when doing grocery shopping: Think Dirty & CodeCheck! These two apps provide you with a fast and easy way to identify clean and safe ingredients. 

Think Dirty mobile app @thinkdirty
CodeCheck mobile app @codecheck_app (They have an English version as well!)

Tip 3: Understand the sunscreen label

Reading the sunscreen label can be confusing sometimes. Your sunscreen should check the following boxes: broad spectrum protection (UVA & UVB), sun protection factor (SPF) and water resistance. It’s very important to choose a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays (meaning that it gives broad spectrum protection) since both types of UV rays can cause skin cancer according to the American Cancer Society. The FDA stated that to get proper protection, you should choose a sunscreen with at least SPF 15. If you want to know more about SPF check out our blog post about the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 (it’s actually smaller than you’d think). In addition, the “water resistance” label tells you for how long a sunscreen protects you when sweating or swimming, it can be either 40 (“water resistant”) or 80 minutes (“very water resistant”). On our website, you can learn more about SPF, UVA & UVB and water resistance.

As you see, choosing the sunscreen that is safe for you and the environment is never easy. Understanding the ingredients is essential to determine whether a sunscreen is safe. Next time when you go to “sunscreen hunting”, you can take this list as a guideline. If you’d like to read further, check out EWG’s latest Guide To Sunscreens and FDA’s consumer recommendations. Enjoy the summer and be safe! 

Want to continue reading? 

about the author

Hej! I’m Ruby, a digital marketer from Hong Kong, now living in Sweden. Inspired by the Nordics, I develop my passion on natural and organic lifestyle. I love reading tips and tricks on eco-friendly lifestyle, vegan food, and zero waste etc. When I’m not reading or watching YouTube, you will often see me drinking different kinds of tea and enjoying my peaceful moment.