Sunscreen Safety: SPF, UVA, UVB, Oxybenzone & Vitamin D

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Wellness Mama » Blog » Health » Sunscreen Safety: SPF, UVA, UVB, Oxybenzone & Vitamin D

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. Some places have even gone as far as banning chemicals in certain formulations.

Why We Need to Look at Sunscreen Safety

Sunscreen use has risen in past decades, as media outlets and doctors tout its benefits for protecting against skin cancer, UV rays, and sunburn. The problem with this billion dollar a year market: not all are created equal and recent reports reveal that some sunscreens may be harmful.

Also, while usage is on the rise… so are skin cancer rates. New reports suggest there may be a connection.

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…

Mineral options typically include ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which create a physical barrier to protect the skin from the sun. Dermatologists agree that when used correctly, mineral formulations can be effective and are safe even for children and sensitive skin.

They work by creating a physical layer of protection on the skin. Many options of mineral broad spectrum sunscreen provide water-resistant protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Read labels carefully though, as not all do, and I still use protective clothing and hats to avoid excess exposure even with mineral sunscreen.

Chemical Sunscreens…

Chemical based protection uses one or more chemicals including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.

You’ve probably seen my stance that if you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on your skin. These 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?

Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals

This new research by the EWG reveals that the chemicals commonly used in sunscreen may be 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.

Environmental Concerns & Coral Reef Damage

Environmental concerns also led Hawaii to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban cited these chemicals as harmful to coral reefs and ocean life. Other places have followed suit, including places like Key West in Florida.

This ban was based on studies, like this one, showing that these chemicals can cause deformities, bleaching, DNA damage, and even death to coral reef. Coral reefs are important to the ocean ecosystem so this problem has far-reaching consequences.

Lack of Testing

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 options 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 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 brand to avoid, citing high concentrations of oxybenzone and other hormone-disrupting chemicals, and misleading claims about their SPF levels.

Sunscreen May Increase Chance of Overexposure

The FDA also claims that higher sun protection factor values (SPF) are now shown to provide additional benefit. These higher numbers may also give a false sense of security, leading to longer (and less safe) exposure. For this reason, the FDA has recently proposed limiting SPF claims in sunscreen to 60. The EWG goes a step further, suggesting avoiding sunscreens higher than SPF 50.

Better Options in Europe

Like many aspects of our food supply… Europe has stricter standards for sun protection too. In fact, many US sunscreens are too weak to be sold in Europe and offer much less UVA protection. UVA doesn’t cause sunburn but can cause aging and may also be a factor in melanoma.

Read the full breakdown of differences between sunscreens in the US and Europe on the EWG website here, but in short:

  • In Europe, there are four additional chemicals approved for UVA protection.
  • The FDA has not approved these options for use in the US, even though manufacturers have been waiting for years.
  • A 2015 evaluation found that US sunscreens allow, on average, three times more UVA rays to pass through to the skin than formulations in the EU.
  • Only about half of US formulations passed Europe’s more rigorous UVA standards.

Sunscreen Impact on Vitamin D

Every time I talk about this issue, I get a lot of comments about how serious skin cancer can be (I agree) and 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.

Many formulations 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 cocktails 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. I personally turn to protective clothing or seek shade to avoid overexposure.

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.

Common Ground: Mineral Sunscreen + Protection

Most sources and dermatologists agree that sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients are safe and effective way to prevent sunburn if used correctly. Many mineral options are also safer for sensitive skin and for children and don’t carry the same potential concerns as chemical sunscreens.

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

Additionally, if nanoparticles 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.

Check for UVA and UVB Protection

Labeling can also sometimes be more confusing than helpful. Check the SPF to get an idea of UVB rating. This will tell you how well a particular sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. This number is supposed to represent how many times longer a person can stay in the sun. In other words, if a person would normally burn in 5 minutes, an SPF 20 should extend this window to 100 minutes.

SPF does NOT specify UVA rating, so make sure to check this as well. A label should state the UVA protection or indicate broad spectrum or multi-spectrum coverage. Protective clothing is often more effective for UVA protection than sunscreen.

Homemade & Mineral Options

My homemade sunscreen recipe and lotion bars both use non-nano zinc oxide but are not standardized or SPF tested. There are also some natural mineral sunscreens that the EWG lists as safe (and I’ve tried many of these personally).

Best Mineral Sunscreens According to EWG:

Safest Sun Exposure: Cover Up

If sun exposure is a big concern or for those with 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 misinformation about sunscreen out there, the easiest and safest way to avoid sun damage is to stay in the shade and 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 avoiding these sunscreens is also an important step.

Add 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
  • 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 on Sunscreen Safety

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 nanoparticles 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.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.

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

Katie Wells Avatar

About Katie Wells

Katie Wells, CTNC, MCHC, Founder of Wellness Mama and Co-founder of Wellnesse, has a background in research, journalism, and nutrition. As a mom of six, she turned to research and took health into her own hands to find answers to her health problems. is the culmination of her thousands of hours of research and all posts are medically reviewed and verified by the Wellness Mama research team. Katie is also the author of the bestselling books The Wellness Mama Cookbook and The Wellness Mama 5-Step Lifestyle Detox.


87 responses to “Sunscreen Safety: SPF, UVA, UVB, Oxybenzone & Vitamin D”

  1. Sarah Avatar

    Thanks for another great post! Not a lot of people realize how toxic most sunscreens are. I didn’t see Stream2Sea listed in the mineral suncreens, and highly recommend checking them out. I started using Stream2Sea products when I was working on a dive boat as it is the only suncreen tested to be safe for everything from coral polyps to humans. I initally bought S2S products to be sensitive to the environment, but once I learned about all the harsh effects of chemical sunscreens I am thrilled that I made the switch!

  2. Julie Avatar

    Thank you for this important overview. Can you please post the citation for the following: “In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics reports that:…”

    I would like to share this article with my family, but the first thing someone will point out is that it’s a blog post and not a peer-reviewed, academic publication. Robust citations help. Thanks!

  3. Angela Avatar

    Peer reviewed studies have found that nanoparticles do not enter the skin. Can you provide me with any sources that suggest otherwise?

  4. Mark Avatar

    Do you have any scientifically scrutinized and published studies in medical research journals to substantiate your claims? If so, please share.

      1. Fiona Avatar

        First, I think enough evidence is given to prove much sunscreen is bad and the options Wellness Mama gives are much more healthy. I find Mark’s comment pretty rude and demanding as many sources are given in this blog for proof.
        Second, ‘anon’ who obviously has an odd sense of humour ( love those gutsy ‘anons’) writes something sarcastic and untrue.
        I have never been wrongly informed by anything WM has written and my life has improved because of it.
        I suspect ‘ anon’ has a financial pony in this race.

  5. Jill Avatar

    Has anyone tried BeautyCounter’s mineral sunscreen? Wondering if it’s as good as claimed and all natural

  6. Caroline Avatar

    What is the consensus on SunBum? Love the stuff, but don’t want to use it if it is as harmful as others. Thanks!

  7. Amy Avatar

    CeraVe did not make it on this list, but they also make sunscreen with only mineral ingredients. It’s important to note that mineral sunscreens are NOT waterproof and do not last very long. This means you need to be very diligent about re-applying or else you most definitely will burn. Make sure to re-apply as often as instructed on the bottle (and even more frequently when wet). Mineral sunscreens are safer but they really are not strong at all. Never stay in the sun for too long. Shade is best! The UV-protection tents for children are great for the beach!

  8. Kerri Avatar

    Just wondering what doses would you give for children in terms of the internal vitamins & such you listed..?
    At what age did you or could you start giving to children, as young as 2 or 4?

    How long after consuming the vitamin, how long did it take for develop the protection? 1 week? More??
    We’re trying to slowly make changes. It’s all very overwhelming!
    Thanks for your help.

  9. A.T Avatar

    Which of the suggested Natural Sunscreens in this post goes on the “clearest” (leaving least white residue)?

  10. Nancy Loewe Avatar
    Nancy Loewe

    TropicSport is another great NEW option – non-nano zinc oxide/titanium dioxide.

  11. Andi Avatar

    Green Beaver Natural Mineral Sunscreen is amazing! 100% of ingredients are from natural origin and is up to Ecocert standards. It’s one of the only sunscreens I’ll use as it’s great on sensitive skin and rubs in easily without leaving a residue. Also important which wasn’t mentioned in the post is that this sunscreen is reef friendly and won’t cause any harm to the ocean, it’s plants, or it’s creatures. Many chemical sunscreens are detrimental to healthy coral reefs and sea life. I live on the coast and many locals here are aware of that but so many tourists come in spraying their sunscreen on oblivious to the fact of what it’s doing to our waters.

    All of their products are great but it’s a Canadian company and I’m not sure where you can buy it outside of the country. It would be worth finding out though.

  12. Kyle Avatar

    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.

  13. Sharon Avatar

    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.

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      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

  14. Kellie Avatar

    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?

  15. Sharon Avatar

    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?

  16. Adam Trainor Avatar
    Adam Trainor

    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.

      1. Leslie Avatar

        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!

  17. Julie Avatar


    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+.

    1. Katie - Wellness Mama Avatar

      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.

      1. Leslie Avatar

        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!

    2. Haley Avatar

      Even if you don’t burn and are outside for multiple hours a day without SPF you damaged your skin. The UVA rays are the ones that penetrate deep in the skin that will cause ageing and are associated with certain skin cancers. It’s the cumulative exposure that really adds up. I work in dermatology, and have yet to have a skin cancer patient that wore daily SPF. If you are concerned about ingredients find a good mineral SPF, nothing homemade because it’s a lot of work even for chemists to make an SPF.

  18. Sue Avatar

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

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