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. Rachel Avatar

    Hello! I went directly to EWG’s site and found the two Babyganics products listed are no longer on their list 🙁

  2. cady Avatar

    I love the website, but have to bust this. I’m a multi lingual skincare researcher. I’ve compiled peer-reviewed suncare studies from different languages. I know the science. Yes, some chemicals in sunscreens can be harmful, but they are more beneficial. FDA APPROVED SUNSCREEN ALWAYS HELPS MORE THAN IT HURTS (excluding allergies). Even if some ingredients are potential carcinogens, radiation, like the sun’s rays, is far a more potent carcinogen. Some reports have found skin cancer rates and sunscreen use seem to increase together because sunscreen creates a false sense of security for a lot of people, so they will apply it instead of wearing clothing on exposed areas, they will spend more time in the sun believing they are safe, and they won’t reapply, leading to more skin damage (correlation, not causation). Chemical formulations are made to a certain molecular size so that they will not penetrate deeper than your dermis, so they will not enter the blood stream (a few molecules will get through, not enough to hurt you). So why are these chemicals found in so many people’s bodies? They’re in food packaging and other products you consume, to protect those items from the sun. The research you cite is poorly reviewed in the industry. The reason the FDA didn’t put out any kind of recall on sunscreens is because these chemicals most likely came from food packaging, polluted water, and sunscreen inhalation. That’s why you don’t want to use some sunscreens on kids — they are much more likely to inhale it. The FDA has asked for more research on many sunscreen ingredients, including zinc oxide, because the industry is now decades old, so it is time to re-evaluate every single ingredient’s efficacy. I am appalled that an MD reviewed this article and did not correct these errors.
    Also, retinyl palmate does not speed up the growth of skin cancer cells. Retinyl palmate increases skin cell turnover, meaning it increases the rate at which skin cells regenerate. So yeah, if you used this chemical on a cancerous spot, that would be bad, as the cancerous cells would reproduce faster. Very important to check your skin for cancerous spots frequently regardless! Furthermore, if it is not applied directly to cancerous growths, retinyl palmate can reverse some sun damage on the skin. Admittedly, research on retinyl palmate is rather limited, but other similar vitamin A derivatives have been around for decades, including the acne drug Accutane, which I gladly used as a teenager to combat the issue I had with picking at my own acne due to my OCD.

    Overall, I really appreciate the amount of work you put in to your website, I just feel like it’s dangerous to promote untested, unregulated sunscreen over what decades of evidence has shown will help lower our skin cancer rates.

    1. Heather Avatar

      If an increase in skin cancer occurrence was due to a user’s false sense of security after sunscreen application that led to overexposure, there would be a corresponding increase in serum vitamin D levels, rather than the deficiency of vitamin D levels that we’re actually observing.

  3. Naomi Avatar

    Great article, except for “drinking a 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.”

    Drinking saturated fat is not a good idea. It’s raises LDL Cholestrol linked to heart disease and It certainly is not utilized by the body for new skin formation. Topically yes, great for the skin, but not internally. There is no evidence to suggest this.

  4. Shonna Avatar

    Thank you so much for this comprehensive post! I wish more people took this seriously, I can’t tell you how many times I get a giant nose and mouthful of chemicals while someone is hosing down their child with spray sunscreen at the pool!

    I’m wondering, do you know anything about the Beauty Counter Sunscreen Spray (and stick)? I didn’t see it on your list, but I believe it does not have any of harmful ingredients, and it is the one I’ve found that seems to rub in the best, and not have that purple/white sheen.

  5. deb Avatar

    Babyganics cream yes but spray no ! Contain octonoxate. Used the cream for year and once ordered the spray, only to find it is not the same product !! You might want to remove from your list (ref gives different rating for both too)
    Thanks for the great article

  6. Flora Hearst Avatar
    Flora Hearst

    I am so glad you are discussing this subject but I strongly object to one thing you have suggested: fermented cod liver oil. I am sure you have heard about the huge controversies regarding its safety. It is clear to me that something is really not right with how it is being produced and marketed and I am kind of shocked to find that you are among the wellness leaders who is not owning up to this.
    I also think that: your body does not make Vitamin D when you cover up either or stay in the shade. We need to be in the sun to make vitamin D. I personally suggest doing 20 minutes of high level sun (or working up to that if you are really sunburn sensitive) and then putting on the good mineral sunscreen and/or protective clothing. Also, its beneficial to wait to shower a few hours after your sun exposure or even until the next morning. You can wash some or potentially all of the vitamin D production off your skin if you shower too soon.
    Also, another tip: we bring two sun shirts to the beach, one for wearing in the water and getting wet and the other for dry times on the beach. This way, after our twenty minutes of open skin sun time, we can really cover up.

  7. Carlie Goddard Avatar
    Carlie Goddard

    Hi! I have the babyganics sunscreen but it contains octisalate which I thought wasn’t considered safe. Thoughts? Thanks

  8. Deric Avatar

    I ordered the Bull Frog sunscreen based on your list of recommendations above, and when I received it, the label shows it is full of the chemicals you said should be avoided. Now I have to bother with returning the product and finding a different option.

  9. Janet Roca Avatar
    Janet Roca

    Third generation of skin cancer.
    Father & Grandfather had skin cancer. Grandfather died from skin cancer. Mother had squamous cell.
    I had basal cell on my upper lip that was misdiagnosed as a cold sore.
    Had cutting edge Mohs surgery 24 years ago
    with over 5 reconstructive
    surgeries. No reoccurrence. Family has always lived on or near the water. Have shared your info with friends and family.

    1. 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.

  10. Virginia Avatar

    I use Beautycounter sunscreen and it not only is amazing but it even smells good! Have you ever heard of Beautycounter? Because I feel like you would really enjoy their products.

  11. Amy Wilkins Avatar
    Amy Wilkins

    Thanks for the easy to follow information! I really hope I can find one that works for us. My biggest problem is that I will literally burn if I’m wearing anything less than SPF 90 and my 1 yr old has skin very similar to mine. None of these natural suncreens come close to that, so does anyone have a thorough experience with this? I’ve been reading reviews on the Amazon links but I can only read so many rants.

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