Don’t Get Burned by Unsafe Sunscreen

Not all sunscreen is created equal—some varieties may even harm you or the environment.

July 6, 2012

Over the years, the sunscreen industry has developed new chemicals to protect us from the ultraviolet rays that cause wrinkles, premature aging, and skin cancer—while sparing us all from looking like white-nosed lifeguards from the old days. Skin scientists took zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—the two traditional forms of sunscreen that used to leave a white coating on the skin—and shrank them down to a size barely larger than an atom, or 1/5,000th the thickness of a piece of paper. The problem is, the more sheer forms of sunscreen may not be protecting our health—or the environment—in the long run.



There are no federal safety standards for consumer sunscreens in this country. Last year, the Environmental Working Group looked at nearly 1,000 brand-name sunscreens and found that barely any were as effective as they claimed, or free of questionable ingredients. Just 15 percent of the products tested were considered low-risk, and most of them were obscure products not typically found on a CVS shelf. What we do often find in most stores, though, are brands full of benzophenone-3 (BP-3), commonly referred to as oxybenzone or 2-hydroxy-4-methoxybenzophenone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemical is detectable in 97 percent of the population. Although it’s not completely clear how the hormone-disrupting chemical is affecting humans, animal studies show damage to the liver, kidney, and reproductive organs.


Sunscreen is a key defense against skin cancer, but it’s important to note that not all brands are created equal. Because of a lack of regulation around what goes into these products (and how they affect our health), you may have to spend a little extra time reading labels, and maybe even ordering from smaller companies online, to find safer sunscreen.


Here’s how to avoid sunburn while exposing yourself to the least amount of chemicals possible:

Know the four potentially dangerous characteristics of some sunscreens, and avoid them.

  1. Aerosols
    Spraying on your sunscreen protection is not a good idea because the chemicals will find an alternate route into your body via the nose-to-lung route.
  2. Fragrance
    Emerging research suggests that synthetic fragrance chemicals, listed as fragrance or parfum on the ingredients label, can lead to allergies and asthma. “Fragrance” is also a catchall term that can be used for thousands of different chemicals, including some that are carcinogens and reproductive toxins.
  3. Hormone-disrupting chemicals
    We’re exposed to hormone-disrupting chemicals in our soap, shampoo, laundry detergents, and countless other personal-care products. Issues range from thyroid problems to possibly cancer. They’re in many sunscreens, too, and they’re not just tainting our systems, either. In 2008, scientists found that octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and butylparaben wipe out algae associated with coral reefs. Without this algae, reefs turn white and die.
  4. Nanoparticles
    EWG rates sunscreens containing nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as safer because they don’t disrupt hormones the way the aforementioned chemicals have been shown to. However, the jury’s still out on how safe these teeny particles really are. Emerging data suggests they can enter cells and produce toxic effects when they accumulate in the body. Research also suggests titanium dioxide nanoparticles are destroying beneficial microorganisms that help keep our watersheds healthy.


Pick sunscreen wisely
Check EWG’s Sunscreen Guide to check the safety of your sunscreen. If you prefer to look for a brand without nanoparticles, you can customize your search. As it stands, it seems sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are much safer. Call the company to see what size particles they use, or simply pay attention when you rub it on. If it’s whitish and harder to rub in, the particles are larger. We like Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30. (You should always go for at least SPF 15, according to the American Academy of Dermatologists, or AAD.)


Avoid peak sun
The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. AAD reminds us that if our shadows are shorter than we are, we should find some shade. And be extra defensive when you’re near water, snow, or sand…the reflection can boost your risk of a dangerous burn.


Wear your SPF
Opt for SPF-30 clothing, which protects you without using sunscreen. Solumbra clothing, for example, isn’t impregnated with chemicals to protect you, it’s just woven in a way that keeps the sun out. Their beach and workout clothing and hats are actually registered as medical devices because of their ability to protect you from the sun’s rays.


Supplement with vitamin D
If you’re at the right location and it’s the right time of day, your body makes vitamin D when sun hits your skin. But going to a tanning booth or laying out isn’t the way to go. Take a 1,000-IU vitamin D supplement to make sure you’re getting enough of the vitamin, which studies suggest could be a cancer preventer.


Web Extra: 13 Foods That Fight Sunburn

Next Up From Rodale's Organic Life

6 Superfoods Your Grandmother Ate
Add these powerhouses to your daily rotation.
6 Surprising Things That Get You Drunker, Quicker
One of these may be the reason that strong buzz snuck up on you last night.