Product Profile: Sunscreen

Product Profile Sunscreens MADE SAFE Blog

Toxic Chemicals in Sunscreens

With the arrival of warmer months comes higher UV rates and more susceptibility to skin cancer. More sunshine means more hikes and bike rides, weekend camping trips, and days at the beach. And it also means it’s time to shop for sunscreen.

There’s a lot to consider when choosing a sunscreen. SPF, coral reefs, toxic ingredients – it’s a lot to take in! But we’ve got you (and your skin) covered. Read on for our tips for choosing a sunscreen that’s safe for you, your family – and coral reefs too. Or download our new visual guide to safe sun.

Want to skip the sunscreen study guide and go straight to the answers? Head to the end of this post for MADE SAFE ®  Certified sunscreens. We’ve vetted them for you already – no homework, no research, no worries.

Ingredients of Concern

Oxybenzone – This ingredient is one of the most commonly-used sunscreen chemicals. Oxybenzone is linked to endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity [1] contact allergies, and photo allergies [2] meaning
exposure to light is required to generate an allergic response. This ingredient, sometimes called benzophenone-3, is not to be confused with benzophenone, another common sunscreen ingredient.Oxybenzone is also harmful to aquatic life. This chemical is so harmful that in 2018, Hawaii [3] banned it to protect coral reefs.

Octinoxate – A commonly used UV filter that protects from UVB rays, but not UVA sun rays. On packaging, it may be listed as OMC, methoxy-cinnamate or ethylhexyl methoxy-cinnamate. Octinoxate [4] is linked to endocrine disruption by an abundance of data, as well as to reproductive toxicity. [5]
Researchers have detected this chemical in breast milk, urine, and blood. [6] Like oxybenzone, this ingredient was targeted in Hawaii’s ban as it harms coral reefs.

Homosalate – A common sunscreen ingredient that absorbs UVB rays to prevent direct skin exposure. Homosalate absorbs UVB rays only. This ingredient is linked to hormone disruption and it may also enhance the absorption of pesticides [7] including bug repellents. It may also enhance the penetration of other harmful ingredients found within the formulation. This ingredient is persistent in the environment, meaning it doesn’t break down readily.

Nanoparticles – Nanoparticles can be 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. In sunscreen, they’re most commonly found as nanoparticle titanium dioxide of zinc oxide. Nanoparticles have not been properly assessed for their potential effects on human or environmental health. Researchers don’t yet understand the impact they could have. But because of their infinitesimally small size, nanoparticles
may be more chemically reactive and therefore more bioavailable, meaning the particles are fast-tracked into the body. Researchers have suggested that nanoparticle titanium dioxide may be implicated in coral reef degradation. [8]

Product Profile Laundry Detergents Infographic MADE SAFE Blog

Why are Coral Reefs Important?

Recently, it seems every conversation about sunscreen mentions coral reefs. But why is it crucial to protect them? Coral reefs are important for the immense biodiversity they support, as well as for the livelihoods of fishermen and economies dependent on tourism. Coral reefs also protect coastlines [9] from storms and erosion, and they remove carbon dioxide [10] from the atmosphere. Simply put: if we protect coral reefs, they’ll help protect us too.

Safer Sunscreen Ingredients

Titanium Dioxide – A naturally-occurring mineral found in the earth’s crust. It is a UV absorber, meaning it can soak up UV rays. Titanium dioxide absorbs UVB rays and some UVA rays, but may not provide full UVA protection. Titanium dioxide is safe for people and planet when it’s non-nanoparticle.

Zinc Oxide – Zinc oxide is a naturally-occurring UV absorber. Zinc oxide offers broad spectrum
protection, as it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. When non-nanoparticle, zinc is safe for humans and the environment.

Reading Sunscreen Labels

Reef Safe + Why Coral Reefs Are Important: Don’t let labels fool you. Some sunscreens labeled as “reef safe” contain ingredients known to harm coral reefs. This is because there are no legal requirements or regulations for the use of the term “reef safe” on packaging. If the active sunscreen ingredient is anything besides non-nanomaterial titanium dioxide or non-nanomaterial zinc oxide, the ingredient may hurt coral reefs.

Understanding UV Spectrum: Ultraviolet light, aka UV light, is light from the sun that is invisible to the naked eye. Sunscreen works to protect humans from two different kinds of UV light. UVA light has a longer wavelength and is the kind of ray associated with premature aging of the skin. UVB light has a shorter wavelength and is the ray associated with sunburn and damage to the skin. Protection against both is crucial.

Choosing the Right SPF: SPF stands for sun protection factor. The number indicates the level ofprotection against UVB rays, but the numbering system isn’t user-friendly. A higher SPF doesn’t mean the amount of coverage jumps up significantly. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays. SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. And SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays. SPF is a measure of protection against UVB rays only. But remember that protection against UVA rays is important too, so choose a “broad spectrum” sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

Tips for Choosing a Better Sunscreen + Safe Sunscreen Practices

● Shop for MADE SAFE® Certified sunscreens.
● Cover up and find shade. We suggest using clothing and hats as an additional layer of protection. Color, material and weave all contribute to the level of protection fabrics provide. In general, the tighter the weave, the more protection from the sun. Avoid the strongest sun. If possible, skip the sun between 10 am - 2 pm.
● Beach umbrellas don’t entirely protect you from the sun. Umbrellas create the illusion of protecting shade, but UV rays aren’t just shining down on you from the sun, they’re also reflecting off nearby sand. In one study [11] that measured beach umbrella protection, researchers found that umbrellas only offered an SPF value between 3 and 7! So be sure to wear sunscreen and protective clothing too.
● Remember to cover up in the car. Many car windows filter out UVB, but not UVA rays. [12] And the windshield is usually more protective than the side windows. [13] So if you’re heading on a cross-country road trip this season, cover up and slather on the ‘screen.
● Don’t forget Vitamin D! The bulk of Vitamin D [14] is absorbed through the skin from the sun. So if you completely avoid the sun, you could be missing out on this crucial vitamin that the majority of Americans are deficient in. Go outside early in the morning or later in the afternoon to avoid the strongest sun. But don’t overdo it! Consult your doctor to learn how to safely get vitamin D from the sun.
● Look for mineral sunscreen with non-nano titanium dioxide or non-nano zinc oxide.


[1] Fediuk, D. J., Wang, T., Chen, Y., Parkinson, F. E., Namaka, M. P., Simons, K. J., Burczynski, F. J., & Gu, X. (2011). Tissue disposition of the insect repellent DEET and the sunscreen oxybenzone following intravenous and topical administration in rats. Biopharmaceutics & drug disposition, 32(7), 369–379.
[2] Chambers, Dr. C. et al. (2008). OPINION ON Benzophenone-3. Scientific Committee on Consumer Products.
[3] Romo, V. (2018, May 2). Hawaii approves Bill Banning Sunscreen believed to kill coral reefs. NPR.
[4] National Center for Biotechnology Information (2023). PubChem Compound Summary for CI 5355130, Octinoxate. Retrieved July 5, 2023.

[5] Schlumpf M, Schmid P, Durrer S, et al. Endocrine activity and developmental toxicity of cosmetic UV filters--an update. Toxicology. 2004 Dec;205(1-2):113-122. DOI: 10.1016/j.tox.2004.06.043. PMID: 15458796.
[6] Darbre P. D. (2006). Environmental oestrogens, cosmetics and breast cancer. Best practice & research. Clinical endocrinology & metabolism, 20(1), 121-143.
[7] Brand, R. M., Pike, J., Wilson, R. M., & Charron, A. R. (2003). Sunscreens containing physical UV blockers can increase transdermal absorption of pesticides. Toxicology and industrial health, 19(1), 9–16.
[8] Jovanović, B., & Guzmán, H. M. (2014). Effects of titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles on Caribbean reef-building coral (Montastraea faveolata). Environmental toxicology and chemistry, 33(6), 1346–1353.
[9] NOAA. (2017) What is eutrophication? National Ocean Service website.
[10] National Center for Biotechnology Information (2023). PubChem Compound Summary for CID 280, Carbon Dioxide. Retrieved July 6, 2023.
[11] Ou-Yang, H., & Shyr, T. (2017). Sun protection by umbrellas and walls. Photochemical & photobiological sciences: Official journal of the European Photochemistry Association and the European Society for Photobiology, 16(10), 1537–1545.
[12] Bain, J. (2021, June 7). A surprising danger in planes, trains and automobiles. The Skin Cancer Foundation.
[13] Boxer Wachler BS. Assessment of Levels of Ultraviolet A Light Protection in Automobile Windshields and Side Windows. JAMA Ophthalmol. 2016;134(7):772–775. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2016.1139
[14] Nair, R., & Maseeh, A. (2012). Vitamin D: The "sunshine" vitamin. Journal of pharmacology & pharmacotherapeutics, 3(2), 118–126.

If you found this post valuable, please share it below. Follow us on social to let us know what you like, what you need, and what you want to see more of. Also, don’t forget to ask the companies making your favorite products to become #MADESAFE Certified. Remember, your voice matters!

Back to blog