Toxic Chemicals in Sunscreen


Hello sunshine! After much ado, spring is finally here. Our team is thrilled—especially because it means helping you tackle finding the best sunscreen—a safer sunscreen.

We all know that sunscreen is important. We need to protect our skin from too much sun. But you’ve probably heard that sunscreen can also contain toxic ingredients. The key is finding an effective and safe sunscreen. Spoiler alert: they do actually exist!

You’ve also probably heard that some sunscreens are harmful not just to people, but aquatic life, too. The news is buzzing with articles on coral reefs. Hawaii has taken measures to ban certain sunscreens because of their impacts on coral reefs. Australia recently decided to invest millions in protecting the Great Barrier Reef, pointing to sunscreen as a factor in the reef’s poor health.

So then, with many sunscreens on the no-no list, what are the safe options?

We’ve got your skin covered, with info on which sunscreen chemicals to avoid to protect yourself and to protect the planet. And we’ve provided MADE SAFE® certified alternatives, including the best sunscreen for face and the best baby sunscreen. These sunscreen options are ones you can feel good about slathering on this summer.

Common Harmful Chemicals to Avoid in Sunscreen

Oxybenzone: This ingredient is one of the most commonly-used sunscreen chemicals. Oxybenzone is linked to endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, contact allergies, and photoallergies, 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. Lately, this sunscreen ingredient has taken some well-deserved heat from researchers and the media alike for its impact on coral reefs. This chemical is so harmful that Hawaii recently has taken measures to ban it to protect coral reefs. Degrading coral reefs affects biodiversity, as well as humans, where coral reefs are important livelihoods for fisherman and economies dependent on tourism. Coral reefs also protect coastlines from storms and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Octinoxate: A UV filter that protects from UV-B sun rays (it doesn’t protect against UV-A rays, however). It tends to work well in sunscreen formulas because it dissolves easily in oil. Octinoxate is linked to endocrine disruption by an abundance of data, as well as to reproductive toxicity.

This ingredient is of concern for people and the planet. Like oxybenzone, this ingredient is targeted in Hawaii’s ban, as it harms coral reefs.

Homosalate: Absorbs UV light to prevent direct skin exposure. This ingredient is linked to hormone disruption and it may also enhance the absorption of pesticides, including bug sprays. This ingredient is persistent in the environment, meaning it doesn’t break down readily.

Titanium Dioxide: This ingredient isn’t a human-made chemical, but a naturally-occurring mineral found in the earth’s crust. This UV filter can be safe in mineral sunscreen if it’s used and processed under certain conditions. Titanium dioxide is considered possibly carcinogenic when inhaled. So it’s best to avoid this ingredient is aerosol spray sunscreens, dry powder sunscreens, and SPF powder cosmetics.

Titanium dioxide may become dangerous when nanoparticle size. Nanoparticles, which can be 1000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, have not been properly assessed for their potential effects on human health or the environment. Researchers don’t yet understand the impacts nanoparticles 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.

MADE SAFE® Certified Products

MADE SAFE Certified sunscreen products are made without the harmful sunscreen chemicals of concern listed in this post. In addition, we screen ingredients for a number of other potential health risks like developmental and reproductive toxins, carcinogens, neurotoxins, and more. We also screen products for their harm to the environment and wildlife.

    Tips for Safer Sun

    • Look for mineral sunscreen with non-nano titanium dioxide or non-nano zinc oxide, which are both UV resistant. These are the common substitutes as active ingredients in sunscreens to the chemicals of known concern listed above.
    • Cover up and find shade. We suggest using clothing and hats as sun protection. This can be an excellent way to protect your skin from damaging sun rays.
    • Avoid the strongest sun. Go outside early in the morning and in the later afternoon when the sun is not at its strongest to avoid the most intense sun exposure. Getting a little bit of sun exposure when the sun isn’t at its strongest helps your body to generate crucial vitamin D.
    • Skip the sprays. Some chemicals that are safer in lotion form can be dangerous when inhaled, like titanium oxide.
    • Keep on the lookout for our next report. Want to more know about choosing safer sunscreens? We’ll give you all the details in our expanded sunscreen report coming soon. Stay tuned!
    • Look for the MADE SAFE® seal on packages and online.


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