Why Your Sunscreen’s Ingredients Matter

I’m all for the health benefits of exposure to natural sunlight, but with skin cancer rates on the rise, it’s important to be mindful of the sun’s potentially harmful effects on your skin and prevent getting sunburn or overexposure.

But the ingredients of many sunscreens on the market may be cause for concern, too. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) evaluates the ingredients and effectiveness of over 1,500 sunscreens and SPF-rated moisturizers and lip balms, with particular attention to effectiveness as well as skin penetration, effects on the hormonal system, presence in breast milk, issues with child development, allergic skin reactions, potential for inhalation, chemical stability, and other toxicity concerns including carcinogenic and neurotoxic effects.

They have found that many brands made inaccurate and misleading claims and advised consumers to be wary of labels with claims of “water-proof,” “broadspectrum protection,” “chemical-free,” “for babies,” “natural,” and any SPF over 50. They also found that some of the worst products were the more popular brands!

The UV protective ingredients are either made of chemical filters, mineral filters, or a combination of both. How do you know which are dangerous, and how they will affect your health? Here’s a breakdown of what to look for as you prime for the summer sunshine.

Chemical Sunscreens

Unfortunately, most sunscreens on the market have chemical ingredients such as oxybenzone and parabens, which have been shown to be endocrine (hormone) disruptors in studies of cancer cells. Endocrine disruptors can act like estrogen, and may contribute to hormonally mediated cancers such as breast, ovarian, and prostate cancer. There is also evidence that they can contribute to early puberty, low sperm counts, and infertility.

Chemical sunscreens are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream, circulating through the entire body and have been detected in the blood, urine, and breast milk up to two days after a single application. Studies also suggest that chemical sunscreens may also be harmful to marine life. Chemical sunscreens such as oxybenzone have been shown to destroy coral reefs at a concentration of merely sixty-two parts per trillion (the equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool)!

Recommendation: Stay away from chemical-based sunscreen products.

Natural Oils

Olive oil and coconut oil have been touted as natural sunscreens, but studies have shown that the SPF (sun protection factor) for these products can be much lower – most rank at 8 or less. While olive and coconut oil contain antioxidants, including vitamin E which can nourish the skin and protect it from damage, they may not be the best protective agent out there.

Recommendation: Don’t rely on these to protect you for a fun day at the beach, unless you are not prone to sunburn and are able to reapply frequently. If you are only out in the sun for short periods of time, natural oils are potentially great options, and also have added skin health benefits.

Mineral and Physical Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens generally use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which form a physical barrier as these minerals “float” on the top of the skin and are not absorbed.

Recommendation: For longer sun exposure and for those prone to sunburn, mineral sunscreens are a great option to make sure you’re safe, while still enjoying time in the sun. Look for water-resistant SPF-rated mineral sunscreens and reapply to continue the sun-protective benefit. My favorite right now is Beautycounter’s Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist and Countersun Mineral Suscreen Lotion (new clients get 20% off through the end of July 2020).

Avoid nano-particle mineral sunscreens, however, as they can cause lung damage when inhaled and more studies need to be done on their effects.


Large-brimmed hats and UPF-rated clothes and swimsuits can cover large areas of the skin, which may otherwise be unprotected, as UV rays are able to penetrate through some cloth. While shade can help, beware of reflected rays, particularly on sandy beaches or by the water.

Recommendation: Wearing hats and UPF-rated clothing is a great option if you plan to be in the sun for extended periods of time, or are prone to sunburn.

Other Ingredient Concerns

In addition to being careful about the active ingredient in sunscreens, avoid products with retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that was found by the EWG to be added to 13 to 18 percent of evaluated products. Studies suggest that retinyl palmitate may speed the development of skin tumors when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight. It may also be listed in products as retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, and retinoic acid.

Other ingredients of concern include perfume/parfum/fragrance and methylisothiazolinone (MI), a preservative which can cause allergic reactions and may be neurotoxic.

How to be Sun Savvy

• Check the EWG Guide to Sunscreens to see how your sunscreen scores and avoid potentially harmful ingredients such as: oxybenzone, avobenzone, nanoparticles, octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene, retinyl palmitate, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinoic acid, methylisothiozolinone (MI), and perfume/parfum/fragrance.
• Avoid excessive sun exposure when UV levels are high (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.).
• Consider physical barriers to protect your skin if you are prone to burning including mineral sunscreens, wide-brimmed hats, and UPF-rated clothing.

While it’s important to remember to protect yourself from the sun’s potentially harmful rays, it’s also important to remember that the sun offers us healthy doses of Vitamin D, which plays many roles in a healthy functioning body. Make sure your vitamin D level is sufficient by checking your blood 25-hydroxy vitamin D level and supplement with vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) if needed.


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