Hidden Dangers in Sunscreens: What You Need to Know and How to Choose Safer Options

Sunscreen is a crucial tool for protecting our skin from the harmful effects of UV (ultraviolet) radiation. However, recent studies and discussions have raised concerns about certain ingredients found in many commercial sunscreens. Here, we’ll delve into the potential issues associated with these ingredients, explore safer alternatives, and provide insights on making informed decisions for skin protection.

Chemical UV Filters


Issues: Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens known for its ability to absorb UVB and UVA rays. However, it has been linked to hormonal disruptions (research), potential skin allergies, and environmental damage (research), particularly coral bleaching. It can also be more harmful to children due to their increased sensitivity to chemicals (research).


Issues: Avobenzone is a non-mineral sunscreen filter widely used for UVA protection. It is often used alongside other non-mineral active ingredients in products offering broad-spectrum protection. One study found avobenzone levels in samples to be nine times higher than the FDA’s limit for systemic exposure.

Since avobenzone is unstable, it must be combined with other ingredients that act as stabilizers to prevent its breakdown in sunlight. Avobenzone’s breakdown products can cause allergic reactions. It may disrupt the endocrine system and has been shown to block testosterone effects in cell studies (research).


Issues: Octinoxate is another common chemical filter that absorbs UVB rays. It is quickly absorbed into the skin and continues to be absorbed even after sunscreen application. According to a 2020 FDA study on animals, octinoxate was found in blood samples at levels 16 times higher than the FDA’s proposed safety threshold.

These studies have shown that octinoxate has hormonal effects (research) on the metabolic system, including effects on thyroid hormone production, with evidence suggesting impacts on other hormonal systems, such as androgens and progesterone (research). Octinoxate can also cause allergic reactions (research).


Issues: Homosalate is a common UV filter found in many sunscreens in the US. Despite its widespread use, the FDA has noted that there isn’t enough information to determine whether it is safe and effective for use in these products. This substance can be absorbed through the skin (research) and may disrupt hormonal activity (research).

A recent report by the European Commission recommended limiting homosalate concentration to a maximum of 1.4% due to potential hormonal effects. In contrast, the FDA allows sunscreen manufacturers in the US to use homosalate in concentrations up to 15%.

This regulatory discrepancy highlights the need for further research to fully assess the safety and impact of homosalate in sunscreen products.


Issues: Octisalate is a non-mineral UV filter that is easily absorbed through the skin at levels 10 times higher than the FDA’s threshold for systemic exposure. This threshold, 0.5 nanograms per milliliter, is the maximum concentration allowed in the blood before safety concerns arise. The FDA has requested additional safety testing when sunscreen is absorbed above this level.

A proposed FDA update from 2019 indicates that there isn’t enough data to determine whether octisalate can be classified as safe and effective for use in sunscreens. A case report linked the chemical to allergic contact dermatitis (research).


Issues: Octocrylene is easily absorbed through the skin at levels 14 times higher than the FDA’s threshold for systemic exposure. However, the FDA has stated that there isn’t enough data to determine whether the chemical can be classified as safe and effective for use (GRASE).

Octocrylene is associated with marine toxicity, with the potential to harm coral health. It is often contaminated with benzophenone, a known carcinogen. According to one study, benzophenone levels can increase in products over time (research).

The European Commission recently concluded that there is evidence suggesting that octocrylene may disrupt hormones, but the current usage concentrations of up to 10% are considered safe.

Physical UV Filters

Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide

Issues: While generally considered safer than chemical filters, nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can penetrate the skin barrier and pose potential health risks. There is ongoing debate about their safety, especially when inhaled in spray forms.

In 2021, the FDA proposed classifying mineral sunscreens made with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, typically in nanoparticle form, as GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective). Evidence suggests that very few, if any, zinc or titanium particles penetrate the skin to reach living tissues.

However, due to the potential for inhalation exposure, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified titanium dioxide as a possible carcinogen to humans. For this reason, there are concerns about powder or spray formulations containing titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide also poses inhalation risks when used in spray and powder products.

Other Concerning Ingredients


Issues: Parabens are preservatives used to extend the shelf life of sunscreens. They are known to disrupt hormonal function and have been detected in breast cancer tissues, raising significant health concerns (research).

Fragrances and Alcohol

Issues: These can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, and exacerbate conditions like eczema and rosacea. Fragrances, in particular, can be a mixture of undisclosed chemicals, some of which might be harmful (further information).

Environmental Impact

The impact of sunscreen ingredients extends beyond human health. Coral reefs, vital to marine ecosystems, are particularly vulnerable to chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate. These substances contribute to coral bleaching, which impairs the reefs’ ability to recover from environmental stress.

Safer Alternatives

Mineral-Based Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are recommended for safer UV protection. These provide a physical barrier that reflects UV rays rather than absorbing them, reducing the risk of skin penetration and environmental damage.

Broad-Spectrum Protection

Choose sunscreens labeled as “broad-spectrum” to ensure protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Broad-spectrum mineral sunscreens are an excellent choice for comprehensive sun protection.

Natural and Organic Options

Opting for sunscreens with natural and organic ingredients can minimize exposure to harmful chemicals. Look for products free from parabens, synthetic fragrances, and alcohol.

Making Informed Choices

  1. Read Labels Carefully: Understanding the ingredients in your sunscreen helps you make safer choices.
  2. Consider Environmental Impact: Choose reef-safe sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate to protect marine life.
  3. Patch Test New Products: Always perform a patch test when trying a new sunscreen to check for allergic reactions or skin irritation.
  4. Consult a Dermatologist: For personalized advice, especially if you have sensitive skin or pre-existing conditions, consulting a dermatologist can be invaluable.

Bottom Line

While sunscreens are essential for protecting our skin from UV damage, being aware of the potential issues with certain ingredients can help us choose safer, more effective products. By opting for mineral-based, broad-spectrum sunscreens and considering the environmental impact, we can protect both our skin and the planet. Stay informed, make conscious choices, and enjoy the sun safely.

Want to know if your sunscreen is safe? You can enter here and search with the name of the sunscreen brand you use.

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