11 Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients to Stay Away From (Plus What to Use Instead)

Updated on July 31, 2023

Choosing a sunscreen isn’t as easy as grabbing any bottle from the shelf. Not all sun-protecting ingredients have the same benefits, risks, or instructions.

In this article, you’ll learn what UV rays are, the 11 toxic sunscreen chemicals to avoid, and a more natural sunscreen you and your family will want to reach for this summer.

What Are UV Rays?

Ultraviolet (UV) light is a type of invisible electromagnetic radiation that is emitted by the sun (1). There are a few different types of solar UV energy—UVA, UVB, and UVC. The two that are the strongest and most damaging to living things are UVA and UVB (2).

Here’s how it works: Of the solar energy that reaches the equator, 95% is UVA and 5% is UVB. UVC is very unlikely to reach the earth’s surface due to things like ozone, molecular oxygen, and water vapor in the upper atmosphere (3).

Although the sun gets bashed for transmitting so much radiation, only 10% of its sunlight is UV. Here are a few important facts you should know about UV rays (4)...

  • UV rays are strongest between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM
  • UV rays are stronger during the spring and summer months
  • UV rays can get through to the ground, even on a cloudy day
  • UV rays can bounce off surfaces like water, sand, snow, pavement, and even grass (this means an increase in UV exposure)
  • Man-made sources of UV rays include tanning beds, UV therapy, black-light lamps, mercury-vapor lamps, plasma torches, and welding arcs

Why You Need Sun Exposure

The sun is what brings life to this earth. It generates photosynthesis, weather patterns, and solar energy. It’s one of the best sources of vitamin D for the human body. 

Vitamin D is an essential nutrient for the body, it plays a major role in bone health and immune system function. The body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium. 

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The Side Effects of UV Rays

11 Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid

Believe it or not, there are both good sunscreens and bad sunscreens out there. When it comes to sunscreen, here’s 11 harmful ingredients you should be on the lookout for (6, 7):

1. Aluminum

As an oxidant, the aluminum in sunscreen might contribute to oxidative damage in the skin, increasing the risk of cancer.

2. Benzophenones

Benzophenone is linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and organ system toxicity (8).

3. Enzacamene (4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor or 4-MBC)

Enzacamene acts as an endocrine disruptor. In addition, there is evidence that enzacamene may suppress the pituitary-thyroid axis, leading to hypothyroidism (9).

4. Homosalate

Homosalate is a potential endocrine disruptor and studies in cells suggest it may impact hormones. In addition to direct health concerns following homosalate exposure, the chemical may also enhance the absorption of pesticides in the body (10).

5. Isopentyl-4-Methoxycinnamate

 Isopentyl-4-Methoxycinnamate is very toxic to aquatic life with long lasting effects (11).

6. Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate or OMC)

Octinoxate filters UV‐B rays from the sun. It does not protect against UV-A rays. It’s an endocrine disruptor that mimics estrogen and can disrupt thyroid function (10, 11).

7. Octisalate

Octisalate may cause a skin sensitivity or rash for children/babies and people with sensitive skin. Studies have shown some chemical sunscreen ingredients are absorbed through the skin and into the bloodstream (11). 

Octisalate has also been linked to coral bleaching (12).

8. Octocrylene

Octocrylene causes relatively high rates of skin allergies. It has also been linked to aquatic toxicity, with the potential to harm coral reefs (12).

9. Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3 or BP-3)

The most worrisome sunscreen active ingredient is oxybenzone, according to publicly available scientific research. In many studies oxybenzone causes allergic skin reactions, behaves like an endocrine disruptor, and may increase the risk of breast cancer and endometriosis (11).

Oxybenzone affects estrogen production particularly in women and testosterone production in men. Exposure leads to lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys, as well as thyroid problems in both men and women (10). 

 Oxybenzone isn’t just dangerous to humans. It contributes to coral bleaching and is equally toxic to other marine wildlife species, like fish. It’s so toxic that places like Hawaii and the Florida Keys have banned the use of it (13).

10. Sulisobenzone (Benzophenone-4 or BP-4)

Sulisobenzone may cause contact dermatitis.

It's also considered dangerous to coral reefs around and an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen, some containing as much as 10% BP-4, are washed off swimmers into coral reef areas annually.

11. 3-Benzylidene Camphor

Studies have shown significant effects of the UV filter 3-Benzylidene Camphor on fertility, gonadal development, and reproduction of fish after short-term exposure that may have negative consequences on the marine population levels (10, 14).

Despite all the good it does for us, there are safety measures to take. Because as the old adage goes, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”

And you already know what happens when you get too much sun: A red, painful, blistering sunburn. Repeated sun exposure throughout one’s life is what leads to skin cancers like basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, and melanoma (5).

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Why are there so many unsafe ingredients in sunscreen, you ask?

Because the FDA automatically grandfathered in these ingredients back in the 1970s without reviewing their potential hazards.

Fast forward to 2023...The only two active sunscreen ingredients that the FDA has marked as “generally recognized as safe” (GRASE) are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (15).

Even though this is a positive step in the right direction, there are still dozens of sunscreen products with those 11 chemicals listed above. The absolute worst of those is oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3, not to be confused with benzophenone), which is linked to endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, contact allergies, and photoallergies (11, 16).

Many people don’t realize that with just one application of sunscreen, those chemicals seep into your bloodstream and stay there for weeks. So much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely find oxybenzone in 96% of Americans.

So now that you know which sunscreen ingredients to avoid, what type of sunscreen should you turn to?

The Healthier, More Natural Sunscreen to Use Instead

As you’re scrolling through sunscreens online or roaming the aisles of your local grocery store, be on the lookout for a mineral sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection”.

Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.

This is important since UVB rays are the root cause of sunburns and UVA rays are associated with aging (because they penetrate deeper into the skin) (17).

A more natural sunscreen alternative is a non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen. The unique benefit of this sunscreen is that its particles are large enough so that they aren’t absorbed by the skin (11).

This may leave a white film on the skin, but you can rest assured that you’re safely protected from UV rays AND toxic chemicals.

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So, How Much Sun Should I Be Getting?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends getting 5 to 15 minutes of sun exposure 2 to 3 times a week—without the application of sunscreen (18).

Once you exceed 5 to 15 minutes, it’s wise to slather on an SPF 30 sunscreen that’s free of the 11 ingredients we listed.

Frequently Asked Questions

SPFs over 30 don’t make much of a difference in terms of protection. Here are the general guidelines:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays

Although there isn’t a sunscreen that can block all UV rays, an SPF 30 will do the job. But if you have fairer skin, you would benefit from an SPF 50 and the extra 1% protection it provides.

If you’re going to be out in the sun all day, be sure to reapply your mineral sunscreen every 2 hours. Studies also show that a double application of sunscreen before sun exposure optimizes protection compared to a single application (21).

The Bottom Line

Sunlight is necessary for your health, well-being, and overall vitality.

Without it, we wouldn’t be alive. It’s what keeps us warm, what triggers the production of vitamin D and serotonin (the happy hormone), and what improves skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and acne (19, 20).

Once you’ve exceeded your weekly dose of sunshine, be sure to apply a chemical-free broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen with an SPF 30 to keep your skin looking youthful and free of cancer, sun spots, and wrinkles.

Caroline Nicks
Article by

Caroline Nicks

Caroline Nicks is the Director of Content at NativePath. Her frustration with the lack of transparency in the food industry—and her slight obsession with checking ingredient labels—led her to obtain her health coach certification (IIN) and personal training certification (NASM) right out of college.

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Medical Disclaimer

This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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