Why (Most) Sunscreen is Harmful

Think before you slather- why your sunscreen may be harmful

Years ago, I shared my homemade sunscreen recipe and explained why I avoid most conventional sunscreens. Recently, reports from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Consumer Reports have warned consumers against using many types of conventional sunscreens, especially on children.

Sunscreen is Harmful?

Sunscreen use has risen in past decades, as media outlets and doctors tout the benefits of sunscreen for protecting against skin cancer and sunburn. The problem with this billion dollar a year market: not all sunscreens are created equal and in many cases sunscreen is harmful, not helpful.

Here’s why:

There are two ways that a sunscreen can protect the skin from sun damage: with a mineral barrier or a chemical one.

Mineral sunscreens typically include ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which create a physical barrier to protect the skin from the sun.

Chemical Sunscreens…

Chemical sunscreens use one or more chemicals including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.

If you’ve been around my blog before, you’ve probably seen my stance that if you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on your skin, but these sunscreen chemicals raise some special concerns because many are able to cross into skin and other tissue.

With these chemicals, it is important to ask questions such as:

Will this cross the skin and get into other tissue in the body?

Does this chemical have the potential to disrupt hormones, especially in children?

Are there long-term or allergy reactions to these chemicals.

This new research by the EWG reveals that the chemicals commonly used in sunscreen are endocrine disruptors, estrogenic and may interfere with thyroid and other hormone processes in the body.

The most common sunscreen chemical, Oxybenzone, was found in 96% of the population by a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This is especially alarming since oxybenzone is considered an endocrine disruptor, can reduce sperm count in men and may contribute to endometriosis in women.

The EWG warns against using oxybenzone, especially on children or pregnant/breastfeeding women.

Even more alarming?

Of the 1,400+ sunscreens tested by the EWG, only 5% met their safety standards and over 40% were listed as potentially contributing to skin cancer.

I explain the reason that sunscreen may actually lead to skin cancer in this post, but one of the reasons is that a Vitamin A derivative, retinyl palmitate, that is often used in sunscreens was shown to speed up the growth of cancerous cells by 21%.

Spray sunscreens have become increasingly popular in recent years, but have additional dangers, especially if inhaled. Consumer Reports warns that spray sunscreens should not be used on children and that adults should exercise caution and make sure not to use on the face or inhale them.

Many sunscreens also contain methylisothiazolinone, which the American Contact Dermatitis Society named as its “allergen of the year”

The EWG’s most recent report listed Neutrogena as the #1 sunscreen brand to avoid, citing high concentrations of oxybenzone and other hormone disrupting chemicals, and misleading claims about their SPF levels.

Vitamin D Dilemma

Every time I talk about this issue, I get a lot of comments about how serious skin cancer can be (I agree) and why why it is reckless for me to suggest that people reconsider (conventional) sunscreen use (I disagree).

We’ve already established that some sunscreen is harmful and may do more harm than good, but another important consideration that is often ignored: Vitamin D.

Most sunscreens completely block the body’s ability to manufacture Vitamin D. Statistically, 75% of us are deficient in Vitamin D and Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to higher risk of cancer and heart disease (which kill more people than skin cancer per year). (1,2)

We might literally be cutting off our noses to spite our faces when it comes to sun exposure. We lather up with chemical sunscreens that have the potential to greatly increase skin cancer risk and reduce Vitamin D production in the name of avoiding skin cancer, and increase our risk of more widespread diseases related to Vitamin D deficiency.

Important Note:

The topic of if sunscreen is harmful is a loaded one. To be clear, I am NOT saying that we shouldn’t exercise caution in exposure (especially overexposure) to the sun, however, as more and more evidence emerges about the dangers of many sunscreens and their potential to increase rates of skin cancer, it is important not to depend on sunscreens or think that regular sunscreen use decreases the risk of skin cancer.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics reports that:

Sunscreens protect against sunburn, but there is no evidence that they protect against basal cell carcinoma or melanoma. Problems lie in the behavior of individuals who use sunscreens to stay out longer in the sun than they otherwise would. Vitamin D inhibition is, at this stage, unlikely due to insufficient use by individuals. Safety of sunscreens is a concern, and sunscreen companies have emotionally and inaccurately promoted the use of sunscreens.

Despite the push for more awareness about sun exposure, and the advice to use sunscreen whenever we go outside, incidence of skin cancer, especially melanoma, is rising dramatically.

In fact, skin cancer rates are rising by 4.2% annually, despite the fact that we  spend less time outdoors and wear more sunscreen.

A Safer Option: Mineral Sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens are typically considered a safer option, but with a few caveats…

Some mineral sunscreens also contain some of the chemical ingredients above and have the same risks.

Additionally, if nano particles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide are used, these can enter the body and carry risks as well. Since these offer physical barriers, it is also more difficult to accurately pinpoint the SPF of some mineral sunscreens.

My homemade sunscreen recipe and sunscreen lotion bars both use non-nano zinc oxide for a safe and natural sun protection. There are also some natural mineral sunscreens that the EWG lists as safe (and I’ve tried many of these personally):

The Safest Option: Cover Up

If sun exposure is a big concern for you or you have a family history of skin cancers, the safest option is to avoid the sunscreens that the EWG has said might contribute to skin cancer and use the safest form of sun protection: covering up.

With all the information and mis-information about sunscreen out there, the easiest and safest way to avoid sun damage is to stay in the shade, wear a hat or long sleeves.

The recent research shows that certain chemical sunscreens may carry more of a risk than moderate sun exposure, so avoid these sunscreens is also an important step.

Internal Sun Protection:

Another important step to protecting the skin from sun damage is supporting the body internally.

This post explains internal sun protection in detail, but in short, it is important to avoid foods that increase inflammation, such as:

And to focus on foods and healthy fats that support skin health, including:

  • Vitamin D3 (I take about 5,000 IU/day)- Emerging evidence shows that optimizing blood levels of Vitamin D can have a protective effect against sunburn and skin cancer
  • Vitamin C (I take about 2,000 mg/day)- A potent anti0inflammatory, and it is good for the immune system too.
  • 1/4 cup coconut oil melted in a cup of herbal tea per day- the Medium Chain Fatty Acids and saturated fat are easily utilized by the body for new skin formation and are protective against burning
  • Fermented Cod Liver Oil/High Vitamin Butter Oil Blend  (also great for remineralizing teeth)-Probably the most important supplement for sun protection. I take double doses during the summer and the kids take it too. Since adding this and the coconut oil daily, none of us have burned. It’s also great for digestive and oral health. (Amazon finally has the capsules back in stock)
  • Astaxanthin– A highly potent antioxidant which research shows acts as an internal sunscreen. It’s also supposedly an anti-aging supplement. I don’t give this one to the kids though.

Bottom Line

It is important to be responsible with sun exposure, but many sunscreens offer a false security of sun protection and may do more harm than good.

The safest option is covering up and supporting skin health internally and externally. Mineral sunscreens (without nano particles or sunscreen chemicals) are also a good option, but for the most part, spray and chemical sunscreens should be avoided.

With the widespread availability of natural mineral sunscreens on the market now, please consider choosing safer sunscreens for your family.

What sunscreen do you use? What is your biggest concern with sun exposure?

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Reader Comments

  1. I loved this article and am going to share it! Every summer I post about sunscreen & the harmful chemicals contained in so many. Not sure anyone reads it, but my hope is that eventually word will spread. We just attended an evening pool party for my daughter’s dance studio & was shocked to find parents liberally spraying their children with sunscreen at 6:30 in the evening. We just need to keep talking about it. Thank you for keeping it at the forefront. I have used Badger Cream, but I LOVE The Honest Company sunscreen. I order regularly from them, but was happy to find it available at Costco recently in a double pack. ?

    • In addition to my previous comment, I’ve started just saying that my daughter is “allergic” to conventional sunscreen. It never fails that there is that friend or neighbor who thinks she’s doing you a favor and applying sunscreen on a school outing or camp or the park to your child. My daughter literally breaks out in these angry red bumps on her body if someone puts conventional sunscreen on her. So I decided to tell people she’s allergic and can’t have conventional sunscreen. I always make sure she has her own with her. She’s heading to Girl Scout Camp this summer and I’m sending my own sunscreen and bug spray and making sure to list it as one of her allergies because frankly it isn’t far from the truth.

      • Last summer, when it started happening to me, I read in a dermatology journal that oxybenzone may CAUSE a photoallergic reaction in sensitive individuals. I can’t find the source just now, sorry. So I think you’re right to just say she’s allergic and leave it at that. Now we love Babyganics for summer days out.

      • Thank you for cheapening the term “allergy” for those of us with kids who need the term to be taken seriously. : |

    • These articles are amazing, thank you, thank you. But people, PLEASE screen these sunscreens first. The Blue Lizard was unbelievably toxic, as are many others (Badger). Good thing she linked these products up to Amazon, who mostly discloses ingredients. You also get get the reviews! Some looked good, but the more I read about them, the more confusing it gets. WM does the best thing and shows us how to make our own products. I’m not a make it yourself person, but I’m sure gonna try now! Living longer and being healthy sure is worth it. I’ve had cancer–not interested in having it again…

    • Scraping our limited, creator inspired form of government for our current Satanic inspired & intrusive Marxist type is the prime reason we have toxic agencies like FDA. approving toxic drugs, policies, & sunscreens. Satan is not your friend neither is his toxic spawn’s. Luckily the truth (God & his medicines) is still available & it can help set you free.

  2. Finally!……Someone who cuts through the hype and gives sensible and well researched advice. This is great information concisely and well written. Thank you.

    • Amen! We have rarely used any sunscreen and never the commercial kind!

  3. Where is your research to show that conventional sunscreen use may lead to skin cancer?

      • I don’t see anywhere in that EWG report where it says chemicals in sunscreen cause cancer. They list prolonged exposure, extreme burns, UVA exposure, moles, skin color, and tanning beds repeatedly as being risk factors but no where does it list a study referencing the actual chemicals being linked to cancer. Also, your interpretation of vitamin D deficiency from chemical sunscreens is also unfounded speculation. Please cite actual research for your claims.

        • Article states:

          “This year, as in the past, EWG found widespread use of retinyl palmitate in sunscreen. This form of vitamin A has been linked to skin cancer in FDA-sponsored laboratory studies.

          What can I do to reduce my risk of getting skin cancer?

          In light of the shortcomings of today’s sunscreens, EWG suggests that you adjust your attitude about sun exposure.

          Do not use sunscreen as a tool to prolong your time in the sun.”

        • Not all sunscreens contain reninyl palmitate or other Vitamin A derivatives.

      • Old post but noticed you went quiet there. The EWG sunscreen studies and related claims are being challenged pretty heavily. I have 2 (almost 3) kids and trying to figure this all out.
        The science doesn’t seem to support the claims that these sunscreens are dangerous at all, so woudl be curious if you have anything more reliable to source than the EWG.

  4. Thanks for the info! We’ve been “eating” our sunscreen for the past 2 years – red/orange foods (tomato, watermelon, carrots…) with great success. ANd of course, limited exposure and ‘covering up’ amap. 🙂 But a natural option is helpful for those long beach days

  5. Great article! Shared on my Facebook page!

    I prefer getting our internal sunscreen from carotenoids in food like carrots, strawberries, spinach, red bell peppers, peaches and tomatoes among others! Astaxanthin from orange ocean algae is not in the human food chain, therefor without a record of safety, but is cheap to put in supplements.

    ‘We prefer the whole food supplement instead!

  6. I would exercise caution with the Honest Company sunscreen. My children recently were burned after use of their SPF 30. I called the company to complain and they admitted they are having issues with the formula and it is being reformulated. My kids were out from 10am to 1pm and it was applied twice. They were both burned.

  7. FYI- Arbonne sunscreens are also mineral with zinc oxide (also vegan, gluten-free, non-toxic). Arbonne Baby Care sunscreen, Liquid Sunshine face, body, and lip balm are available.

    • So great to see an Arbonne user! I did their nutritional detox 2 months ago and it changed my world for the better. I am getting my 15 yr old on board. Her ADD is quite severe during school/stressful moments. So nutritionally I am changing everything. It is not just what we buy for the outside of our bodies but it is what we put inside that really shows. I am such a fan of this blog- my gf and I are always teaming up for new creations on how to change our lives 🙂 I have officially started being an Arbonne consultant but will make my own things from time to time as well 🙂

  8. After my husband dealt with a horrendous eczema breakout for over two months, we took him to a holistic allergist only to find out that he was allergic to coconut oil. Our homemade lotions, deodorant (and even an egg allergy, that I was frying in- you guessed it- coconut oil!) were all making him break out in lesions. What would you suggest replacing it with in your sunscreen recipe? Would mango butter work just as effectively? Thanks, Katie! 🙂

  9. What dosage do you use for fclo and hvbo for adults and kids? I have kids that are 4,6,9,&11.

  10. Love this article. Have shared on Facebook too.

  11. I use Sanre skin care products and love their mineral sunscreens.

  12. Your supplement contains safflower oil. That being said, I very much enjoy your articles and I like to repost to inform others.

  13. Excellent article! It’s amazing most people don’t know about this (especially dermatologists).

    I use Devita facial moisturizer every day on my face (SPF 30).

    And I love: Goddess Garden Organics Sunny Body Natural Sunscreen for more protection during hiking or at the beach. Both products are organic.

  14. I am doing more and more research on conventional sunscreen now that I know it’s dangers. I grew up with very pale skin, and we were constantly putting on sunscreen. My son also has pale skin, and, up til recently, I was putting coppertone on him- never thinking I was doing something that could hurt him in the long run. I am wondering what your thoughts are on how long it’s okay for him to be in the sun without sunscreen on. I want him to get the vitamin D, but don’t want him getting burnt. He is taking swimming lessons this summer, and is in the pool for about 45 min each day. Do you believe that is too much sun exposure to not put something on his skin?

    • Every kid is different. Here’s the thing: Vitamin D is very important, but burns are also quite bad. I would err on the side of caution, and maybe as he has more sun exposure, you can dial it back little by little. That’s how I do it with myself and my kids.

  15. I was looking into either Bullfrog, which I used to apply and also Blue Lizard. In one of the comments someone looked long and hard at the ingredients and wrote concerning Blue Lizard :
    ” I didn’t end up using it because of concerns around the ingredients, particularly:
    1- OCTINOXATE active ingredient 7.5%
    Concerns: Enhanced skin absorption, Biochemical or cellular level changes, Developmental/reproductive toxicity, Endocrine disruption, Allergies/immunotoxicity, Organ system toxicity, Persistence and bioaccumulation

    2- OXYBENZONE active ingredient 3%
    Concerns: Enhanced skin absorption, Biochemical or cellular level changes, Developmental/reproductive toxicity, Endocrine disruption, Allergies/immunotoxicity, Organ system toxicity, Persistence and bioaccumulation

    Concerns: Cancer, Allergies/immunotoxicity, Contamination concerns

    Concerns: Developmental/reproductive toxicity, Endocrine disruption, Allergies/immunotoxicity

    This info was taken from the Environmental Working Group website — http://www.ewg.org/2015sunscreen/about-the-sunscreens/617127/Blue_Lizard_Australian_Sunscreen%2C_Sport%2C_SPF_30%2B/

    Long story short, I’m disappointed. I expected more from this brand. There are many other sunscreens out there that are not toxic for either my family nor the environment, work very well, and have a competitive price.”

    I would expect some of this to be true, I mean these are chemicals we are putting onto the largest organ of our body. But now I have concerns.

    Any input would be helpful,

  16. Im curious to know what it means to be “responsible” with sun exposure. Is it safe to say that if you are in the sun (without sunscreen) and not getting burned, then you are safe? My children are biracial, caucasian and african american. I dont use any sunscreen on them and they never burn (we are outside 2-3 hrs every day). Does the fact that they arent burning mean they are not being overexposed and are safe from any negative affects from the sun?

    • I’m curious to know the answer to this too.

  17. thank you for this post. we have been using babyganics for a couple years now thinking it was safe. and your EWG list says its one of the safe ones, yet, the first ingredient listed is octinoxate 7.5%? i am so confused if this is one the safe list how does it have the bad chemical? im feeling very defeated and like I’ve been poisoning my family all this time. any help would be appreciated. thank you!

  18. Great post! I definitely shared this one on my facebook page. It’s so crazy to think about all of the harmful things “beneficial” products have in them. Thanks for your research and the simple explanations that help people make more informed decisions about their health!

  19. Love the article! I have been saying “I don’t believe in sunscreen” for years now. Our society is
    so driven by big Pharma and the fake “food” industry and most of us just follow along…..ignorant
    that we have choices and need to be our families health advocates in every way. Love your blog!

  20. I’ve never been a fan of sunscreen and rarely if ever put it on my kids. We are ranchers and in the sun quite a bit. The rule of thought here is, if you’ve been in the sun long enough, cover up or go indoors. Long sleeved shirts and hats are a must for long days in the sun.

    Thanks for this info, Katie. I’m pinning it and sharing with my adult children with children.

  21. Can you provide the reference for the quote from Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics

  22. Katie,

    Love all your posts and we take all your recommendations in our household. I am personally intolerant of coconut oil. Ten minutes after I eat a spoonful or fry sweet potatoes in it and eat them I feel terribly sick for twenty minutes or so. I wonder if my reaction is indicative of another problem or if I can enjoy it in some other way to get the benefits? I have hypothyroidism (new) and need help with digestion issues. I am hoping to find a more natural form of relief than what I am using now. I was hoping coconut oil would do the trick but not at the risk of a negative reaction. Do you buy into the theory that different blood types don’t tolerate coconut oil? I am A+.

    • It may be a yeast issue in the gut, since coconut oil kills yeast. My husband had the same problem when we started. I’d avoid it for a while (to make sure it isn’t an intolerance) and work on building your gut first (probiotics, fermented foods, maybe l-glutamine) and then retry.

      • If it is killing yeast, the dead yeast will make you feel sick We have taken Vit C to detoxify and get rid of the dead yeast bodies or even lemon juice can help I am told. Hope this helps!

  23. A very factual post. Lost of information packed into this. There is alot of posts going round at the moment about sunscreen. Its in the media which ones are the best to buy and there is storys all over social media about people who have used suncreen and 1 year old suncreen and what it can do to you. So your post is about why most sunscreens are harmful, When being out in the sun isn’t having sunscreen on better than no sunscreen? What foods can be used to protect us internally from the sun? I have never thought much about the internal body when its sunshining, I have just always thought about my skin.

      • Notice fruits have bright colors on the surface. That is their protective “sunscreen”. So If we can get those colorful food items in us, they help protect our skin too!

  24. These sunscreens look like they are good for kids and most go on white. Which ones would you recommend for the face to put on in the morning before putting on make up?

  25. You mention in the article about the concern for what your body absorbs and that you won’t put anything on your skin that you wouldn’t ingest. I currently have Babyganics and was noticing that the main ingredient is soybean oil. With all the concern about soy and the hormonal interactions within the body, is there reason to be concerned about the body absorbing the soybean oil and having the same effects as a synthetic hormonal alteration might cause?

  26. In looking thru your list of sunscreen I’m having difficulty figuring out which would be good for adult faces that don’t apply white. Also a sunscreen for rest of body. Any comments on Ava Anderson products? Im a 50+ year old redhead who has dealt with her fair share of burns and now dermatologist appts.

    • A lot of them on the list don’t go on white or fade almost immediately. We’ve used the badger ones and they were pretty good for not being white. I’ve heard Ava Anderson products are good too but haven’t tried them

  27. It would make sense to eat more fruits, vegetables, and grains because they contain natural pigments that accumulate in the skin and protect it. All sunscreens are unsafe because when radiation from the sun reacts with the chemical avobenzone etc or the physical barrier sundcreens zinc oxide etc they produce free radicals that damage skin cells and cause cancer.

    • Good comment, Kyle….makes a lot of sense.