14 Sunscreen Ingredients That Could Be Dangerous – And 2 That Are Safe

Dr. Janet Zand

May 17, 2019



Summer is coming. I hope you’re protecting your skin against possible sun damage year-round. But should you use sunscreen when you head to the pool and beach? Just in time for summer fun, the FDA has decided to muddy the waters regarding its sunscreen recommendations.

We can’t really rely on the FDA to keep products safe. Still, we would all like to see the agency take a greater interest in keeping toxins out of our bodies. So I’m encouraged by this latest report. It could help make sunscreen products safer and less confusing for the average consumer.

The FDA tends to be pretty lax when it comes to toxins in personal care products. There are a lot of loopholes that let toxins onto store shelves. In fact, just last week we discussed how it’s the claims a retailer makes about its ingredients, not the ingredients themselves, that determine whether the FDA even evaluates a product.

The FDA hasn’t changed any of its sunscreen policies in over 40 years. Plenty of organizations have been sounding the alarm bells about sunscreen ingredients in that time. So changes to sunscreen are long overdue.

The state of Hawaii actually banned the sale and distribution of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate last year. These ingredients can significantly damage coral reefs, so we can imagine what it might be doing to us. And, of course, the reason you’re supposed to reapply sunscreen so often is that it washes away in the water – right onto the reefs, in Hawaii’s case.

But even if you’re not anywhere near a coral reef, you should stay away from these ingredients too. They don’t just harm coral. With repetitive use, they affect your skin and endocrine system. 

FDA Warnings About Sunscreen Ingredients

Currently, sunscreens on the market can contain 16 different FDA-approved active ingredients. The FDA has finally taken a closer look at these ingredients. Guess how many it decided are safe?

Two. Yep. Just two of those ingredients allowed to be in products on store shelves across the country are definitely safe.

The FDA also declared two ingredients definitely unsafe: PABA and trolamine salicylate. The good news is that the FDA isn’t aware of any sunscreen products available for sale that actually use these ingredients. Manufacturers figured out these ingredients were problematic a long time ago and did the right thing to remove them from their products.

The bad news is this leaves a whopping 12 ingredients in limbo. The FDA is “requesting additional data on” these ingredients. Apparently, getting this data will involve “rigorous assessment.”

I sure hope so. This is what we know so far.  There are several active ingredients the FDA currently allows in sunscreen.

Ingredients That Are Concerning

One of the most common sunscreen ingredients is avobenzone. It’s a derivative of another chemical compound called dibenzoylmethane. It's widely used in sunscreens and other cosmetic products. That’s because it’s able to absorb ultraviolet rays. However, the trouble comes when you expose it to other chemicals, particularly some commonly found in swimming pools, like chlorine.

Researchers at the Faculty of Chemistry of the Lomonosov Moscow State University have investigated avobenzone's reaction when you expose it to chlorine. They’ve found some troubling information. Their study found that avobenzone can break down into hazardous compounds that can cause infertility, immune system damage, and even cancer.

If the pool water also contains copper salts, a chemical often added to make the water look blue, the news gets even worse. Avobenzone can react with the copper salts to form compounds that lead to negative liver and kidney impact and nervous system disorders.

Decreases Fertility in Men

Another scary side effect of sunscreen ingredients can affect male fertility. Sperm rely on a process called calcium signaling that involves changes in the concentration of calcium ions within the sperm cells. One of these calcium ion channels, called CatSper, is essential for male fertility. It's the main receptor for progesterone, which causes an influx of calcium ions into the sperm cell to help it fertilize the egg.

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen and Copenhagen University Hospital tested 29 of the 31 UV filters that can currently be included in sunscreens sold in the U.S. and EU. They tested them on live, healthy sperm cells from a number of healthy donors. They found that 13 (45%) of the 29 filters also caused calcium ion influxes into the sperm cell. What’s more, 9 of these 13 directly affected the CatSper channel, imitating progesterone. This interference can affect a number of the sperm’s functions, including motility, thereby decreasing fertility.

Of the 13 filters that affected the CatSper channel, the FDA has approved eight for sale in the U.S.: avobenzone, homosalate, meradimate, octisalate (or octyl salicylate), octinoxate (or octyl methoxycinnamate), octocrylene, oxybenzone (or benzophenone-3 or BP-3), and padimate O.

Maybe you aren’t trying to conceive. But these effects mean that the chemicals are disrupting the endocrine system. And that’s bad news whether you’re male or female. Hopefully, the FDA will consider these effects when it evaluates these ingredients.

What to Use Instead

In general, I’m very wary of putting chemicals on the skin to deal with UV radiation. As the skin absorbs these chemicals, they can have many unintended consequences throughout the body. That’s why I’ve been recommending physical blocks rather than chemical blocks for years.

The two sunscreen ingredients that I like are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Yes, you guessed it: these are the only two ingredients the FDA has deemed safe out of the 16 previously approved. So, if you’ve been a reader for long, you probably don’t need to go weed through your sunscreen stash.

These ingredients can do a great job of protecting your skin from the sun. But you do need to develop good habits with them. No sunscreen will last all day – especially if you’re sweating or swimming in the pool or at the beach. So you need to reapply every two to three hours.

Many people are vigilant about putting sunscreen on their faces every morning. But they don’t always think about it wearing off by the end of the day. We often only remember to reapply after sweating or swimming.

Even if you’ve been sitting in an office all day, your SPF won’t do you much good after a few hours. If your evening commute takes you back outside before the sun goes down or you’re heading out for lunch, you really should reapply. But many women complain that doing this ruins their makeup.

This is understandable. But ruining your skin to save your makeup doesn’t make sense in the long run. You’ll just end up needing more and more makeup to cover age spots and wrinkles. And there’s not a makeup on the planet that will cure skin cancer.

How to Apply Sunscreen Without Ruining Your Makeup

If this is a struggle for you, let me share a tip. There is a way that you can add more sunscreen on top of your foundation without ruining it.

Grab a clean, non-absorbent beauty sponge and apply your sunscreen to the sponge. Then carefully dot the sunscreen across your cheekbones and forehead. Continue to dot the sponge across these areas to blend the sunscreen. Just don’t drag it – that’s how makeup gets ruined.

Repeat the process across the bottom half of your face. You may need to reapply blush or bronzer. But your foundation should still be in place. And many women report that this strategy even gives them a dewy glow.

This isn’t enough sunscreen if you’re going to be spending a lot of time outside. But it’s definitely better than nothing and probably good enough to get you from your office to a dinner date, for example.

f you will be outside for an extended period, make sure you apply at least a teaspoon of sunscreen to your face every couple of hours. Hopefully, you’ll be having so much fun getting some exercise in the pool or in the waves that you won’t be worried about your makeup anyway.

And of course, you’ll need to add more than a teaspoon to the rest of your body. Go for at least an ounce, and choose your ingredients wisely.

The FDA needs to make a final ruling by the end of November. And then manufacturers will have to jump on board to follow the new regulations. But I don’t think you should take a chance this summer. Don’t apply ingredients to your body that even the FDA might deem unsafe in a few months. Stick with the physical blocks of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. And keep checking in here for the truth about other toxins that the FDA may wait another 40 years to declare unsafe.

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