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The Truth About Mainstream Sunscreen

Updated: May 18, 2023

Everywhere we go, there are toxins. During the summertime, there are many toxins we may not realize are within our reach. Bug repellants. Sunless tanners. Sunscreen. After-sun products. The list goes on. Not only are these toxic to humans but also to the environment and aquatic life.

sunscreen buried in the sand on the beach

Summertime is my favorite – beaches, hiking, picnics, and other sun-related activities. During the summertime, many toxins lurk around us. Bug repellants. Sunless tanners. Sunscreen. After-sun products. The list goes on. Commercial products are toxic to humans, the environment, and aquatic life.

Did you know certain ingredients found in sunscreens have been banned in many locations, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Key West, Florida, Bonaire, Palau, and multiple Mexican vacation spots (1)? Certain ingredients can induce bleaching and damage DNA, deform or even kill coral. This is such a problem that the Center for Biological Diversity has petitioned the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) to nationally ban these coral-killing sunscreen ingredients (2).


The 7 Best Sunscreens on the Market

Did you see New York Post's article 7 Best Sunscreens to Protect the Whole Family, Per Experts published in 2022? This article featured sunscreen recommendations with chemical ingredients such as avobenzone and oxybenzone, which they claim work by absorbing UV rays and reducing their penetration into the skin. These are the same ingredients that have been banned in several locations. Aside from those chemicals, do you know what else is in these "best" sunscreens? What about the dangers associated with those ingredients? We are going to take a closer look into each of these specific sunscreens and their ingredients. Then we will take an even closer look at why these ingredients are toxic to us.

Active ingredients: Avobenzone (3%), Homosalate (10%), Octisalate (5%), Octocrylene (7.5%).

Inactive ingredients: Water, Acrylates Copolymer, Diisopropyl Sebacate, Glycerin, Isodecyl Neopentanoate, Isododecane, Lauryl Lactate, Cetyl Alcohol, Potassium Cetyl Phosphate, Brassica Campestris/Aleurites Fordi Oil Copolymer, Oryza Sativa (Rice) Bran Extract, Cetearyl Olivate, Ammonium Acryloyldimethyltaurate/VP Copolymer, Hydroxyacetophenone, Sorbitan Olivate, Diethylhexyl Syringylidenemalonate, Aniba Rosaeodora (Rosewood) Wood Oil, Chlorphenesin, Citrus Aurantium Dulcis (Orange) Peel Oil, Citrus Limon (Lemon) Peel Oil, Ethylhexylglycerin, Eucalyptus Globulus Leaf Oil, Ocimum Basilicum (Basil) Flower/Leaf Extract, Pelargonium Graveolens Flower Oil, Pogostemon Cablin Oil, Pentylene Glycol, 1,2-Hexanediol, Caprylyl Glycol, Xanthan Gum, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Extract, Behenic Acid, Cetyl Behenate, Isostearyl Isostearate, Trisodium Ethylenediamine Disuccinate, Tocopherol, Allantoin, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Dexpanthenol, Pentasodium Triphosphate, Citric Acid.

My Overall Rating: 1/10; horrible ingredients, brimming with toxins and unnecessary ingredients.

Ingredients: Zinc Oxide, Water, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Squalane, Glycerin, Cetearyl Alcohol, Methyl Dihydroabietate, Sorbitan Olivate, Coco-Glucoside, Cetyl Palmitate, Polyglyceryl-3 Polyricinoleate, Caprylyl/Capryl Glucoside, Nymphaea Alba Flower Extract, Acacia Senegal Gum, Ethyl Ferulate, Xanthan Gum, Sodium Gluconate, Lecithin, Sodium Palmitoyl Proline, Polyhydroxystearic Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Phenoxyethanol, Isostearic Acid.

My Overall Rating: 1/10; horrible ingredients, brimming with toxins and unnecessary ingredients.

Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 12%, Allantoin, Butyloctyl Salicylate, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Caprylyl Glycol, Dimethiconol/Propylsilsesquioxane/Silicate Crosspolymer, Glyceryl Behenate, Glyceryl Dibehenate, Glyceryl Stearate, Isodecyl Salicylate, Isopropyl Isostearate, Lecithin, Neopentyl Glycol Diheptanoate, 1,2-Hexanediol, Polyester-7, Polyglyceryl-3 Polyricinoleate, Propanediol, Silica Silylate, Sodium Chloride, Squalane, Tribehenin, Tridecyl Salicylate, Water.

My Overall Rating: 1/10; horrible ingredients, brimming with toxins and unnecessary ingredients.

Active Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide 8%, Zinc Oxide 10%.

Inactive Ingredients: Alumina Aluminum Stearate Beeswax C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate Caprylyl Glycol Cetyl Dimethicone Cetyl PEG/PPG -10/1 Dimethicone Chlorphenesin Dimethicone Disodium EDTA Ethylhexyl Palmitate Ethylhexyl Stearate Hexyl Laurate Hydrogenated Castor Oil Methyl Glucose Dioleate Octyldodecyl Neopentanoate PEG-7 Hydrogenated Castor Oil Phenoxyethanol Polyglyceryl-4 Isostearate Polyhydroxystearic Acid Propanediol Purified Water Sorbitan Oleate Stearic Acid Tocopheryl Acetate Trimethylsiloxy Silicate VP/Hexadecene Copolymer.

My Overall Rating: 1/10; horrible ingredients, brimming with toxins and unnecessary ingredients.

Active Ingredients: 9.0% Zinc oxide, 7.50% Octinoxate, 5.0% Octisalate.

Inactive Ingredients: Purified Water, Octyldodecyl Neopentanoate, Isopropyl Palmitate, Cetyl PEG/PPG-10/1 Dimethicone, Polyglyceryl-4 Isostearate, Hexyl Laurate, Cetyl Dimethicone, Tocopheryl Acetate, Bees Wax, Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Sodium Chloride, Disodium EDTA, Butylene Glycol, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate, Triethoxycaprylylsilane.

My Overall Rating: 1/10; horrible ingredients, brimming with toxins and unnecessary ingredients.

Active Ingredients: Titanium Dioxide 6%, Zinc Oxide 5%.

Inactive Ingredients: Water, Dimethicone, Isododecane, C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Undecane, Triethylhexanoin, Isohexadecane, Nylon-12, Caprylyl Methicone, Butyloctyl Salicylate, Phenethyl Benzoate, Styrene/Acrylates Copolymer, Silica, Tridecane, Dicaprylyl Carbonate, Dicaprylyl Ether, Talc, Dimethicone/Peg-10/15 Crosspolymer, Aluminum Stearate, Pentylene Glycol, Peg-9 Polydimethylsiloxyethyl Dimethicone, Alumina, Polyhydroxystearic Acid, Phenoxyethanol, Magnesium Sulfate, Caprylyl Glycol, Iron Oxides, Peg-8 Laurate, Disteardimonium Hectorite, Triethoxycaprylylsilane, Tocopherol, Propylene Carbonate, Artemia Extract, Benzoic Acid, C9-15 Fluoroalcohol Phosphate, Peg-9.

My Overall Rating: 1/10; horrible ingredients, brimming with toxins and unnecessary ingredients.

Ingredients: Avobenzone 3.00%, Homosalate 6.00%, Octisalate 5.00%, Octocrylene 2.00%, Alcohol Denat., C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Acrylates/Octylacrylamide Copolymer, PPG-5-Ceteth-20, Fragrance, Tocopherol.

My Overall Rating: 1/10; horrible ingredients, brimming with toxins and unnecessary ingredients.

The Toxic Impacts of Sunscreen

While swimmers and snorkelers standing on or touching the fragile ecosystems present their own threat, an even more pressing danger has emerged: toxic sunscreens chemicals from mainstream sunscreens. Mainstream sunscreens bleach the coral reefs, preventing them from reforming coral reefs and interfering with the reproduction of fish and turtles while harming the entire ocean (3). For good reason, the most commonly banned sunscreen ingredients are octocrylene, avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone. Studies have found that these four petrochemical sunscreens are toxic to human health, coral reefs, and marine species.

  • Octocrylene, although claimed to be a "pure" ingredient, is often contaminated with benzophenone, a mutagen, carcinogen, and endocrine disruptor (4). Benzophenone is a class of benzophenones, formaldehyde in which both hydrogens are replaced by phenyl groups (5). short-term exposure to formaldehyde has been linked to coughing, headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye, nose, and throat irritation, while long-term exposure to formaldehyde may cause certain types of cancer (6). Additionally, Benzophenone accumulates over time from the degradation of octocrylene in mainstream sunscreen products. A study examined six different study sites in Brazil for the presence of octocrylene in the livers of Franciscana dolphins. The dolphins were either stranded or accidentally caught in fishing nets along the Brazilian coast between 1994 and 2009. The study found high concentrations of octocrylene in 21 out of the 56 dolphin livers analyzed (7).

  • Avobenzone is an oil-soluble, light-sensitive ingredient derived from dibenzoylmethane (8). Oceanographers have found this petrochemical to damage marine and reef environments, increasing the rate of coral bleaching (9). According to Dibenzoylmethane Safety Data Sheet, upon skin contact with this chemical, you should "wash off immediately with soap and plenty of water while removing all contaminated clothes and shoes. Get medical attention (10)." Aside from that, Avobenzone degrades when sun exposure, resulting in harmful free radicals being released into the body (11). Avobenzone can disrupt the endocrine system and can be found in the blood weeks after use (12).

  • Octinoxate or Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) is often marketed as "natural" despite being a mix of sulfuric acid and methanol, a petroleum by-product (13). This chemical is dangerous to beaches, aquatic life, and coral reefs. This ingredient can also be found in some drinking water supplies (14). This ingredient is absorbed into the body quickly and has been detected in human urine, blood, and breast milk even after use (15). Octinoxate is an endocrine disruptor, mimicking estrogen, and can disrupt thyroid function (16).

  • Oxybenzone, known as benzophenone-3 amongst other names, is a chemical compound that blocks UV rays (17). This chemical releases toxins in the corals' water, stressing their symbiotic partners. Stress awakens dormant viral infections in algae, causing the coral to expel the algae, which may lead to death (18). Oxybenzone also affects humans and is considered a hazardous eye irritant and allergen (19). Additionally, this ingredient can interfere with hormones and has been found in human breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood. Finally, children may be more vulnerable to the health hazards associated with oxybenzone (20).

the true risks of mainstream sunscreen

Octocrylene, avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone aren’t the only toxic ingredients that can wreak havoc in the oceans. According to the National Ocean Service (NOAA), sunscreens' ingredients can cause marine life problems: benzophenones, OD-PABA, 4-methyl benzylidene camphor, 3-benzylidene camphor, nano-titanium dioxide, and nano-zinc oxide.

The issue affects more than our beautiful coral reef systems. The NOAA details the following impacts on marine life exposed to toxic sunscreen ingredients (21):

  • Green Algae: Can impair growth and photosynthesis.

  • Coral: Accumulates in tissues. It can induce bleaching, damage DNA, deform young, and even kill.

  • Mussels: Can induce defects in young.

  • Sea Urchins: Can damage immune and reproductive systems and deform young.

  • Fish: Can decrease fertility and reproduction and cause female characteristics in male fish.

  • Dolphins: Can accumulate in the tissue and be transferred to young.

marine life affected by mainstream sunscreen

Aside from the many dangers of the ingredients that make sunscreen, sunscreen, many additives cause additional toxicity to the body. To name a few:

  • Petroleum clogs pores and often causes acne breakouts as well as rashes. Petroleum has also been linked to estrogen dominance. Estrogen dominance is a common condition in which sufferers have a high ratio of estrogen, with little to no progesterone to balance its effects in the body (22).

  • Caprylyl Glycol is an alcohol derived from a fatty acid. It is a humectant that pulls water into the skin and helps to hold moisture into the skin. The problem is that it can irritate some skin types, particularly those already sensitized or irritated (23).

  • Dimethicone is silicone-based, which you do not want. Why don’t you want a silicone-based product? Silicone-based products will form a barrier on top of your skin that can trap dirt, sweat, bacteria, sebum, dead skin cells, and other debris, and it can dehydrate your skin and interfere with cell renewal, among other things (24).

  • Stearic Acid may cause a few side effects, including eye irritation, skin irritation, gastrointestinal irritation like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, and respiratory tract irritation (25).

This is a partial list of ingredients to watch out for. I have a growing list of common ingredients to avoid in my blog, The Truth About Greenwashing.

Natural Sun-Protection Recommendations

Remember, exposure to sun rays is not always considered bad. In fact, exposure to these rays has shown to be particularly helpful in treating vitamin D deficiency, seasonal affective disorders, psoriasis, sarcoidosis, mycosis fungoides, and numerous other cutaneous conditions (26). For optimal sun exposure, get around ten to forty minutes between 10 AM and 3 PM. It’s best to start slowly, around ten minutes, and work your way up to forty. Go in if you notice your skin starting to turn pink. Additionally, you can use some of these natural sun-protection recommendations:

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  • Badger's Natural Mineral Sunscreen sets the standard for simple safe sunscreens that protect you and your family. With nourishing and protecting properties and organic ingredients, this brand's mineral sunscreens are ideal for long days in the sun. With a wide variety of options for babies, kids, and adults, this reef and human-friendly option will surely have something for everyone.

  • Earthley's Sun Shield is a sun protectant lotion that provides a completely natural way of safeguarding your skin from sun damage. This lotion doesn’t absorb the sun’s rays or reflect them. Instead, it penetrates deeply into the skin to help prevent damage at the cellular level. Raspberry seed oil protects against UVA and UVB rays, while the oils and butters naturally have SPF ranging from 2 up to 50 SPF each. Sun Shield is NOT an official sunscreen. Depending on your skin type, you may prefer to pair this with a mineral-based sunscreen for particularly hot or sunny days, or you may find it to be enough protection on its own.

  • Two Peas Organics' All-Natural, Organic Mineral Sunscreen uses highly effective plant-derived and certified organic ingredients to provide superior sun protection that is biodegradable and coral reef safe. This sunscreen provides reliable SPF 30 broad spectrum UVA & UVB protection. Gentle enough for a baby's sensitive skin yet strong enough coverage for kids and adults.

⚠️ Warning: The Holistic Hipppie is not a functional medicine practitioner. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This content is not medical advice and should not be used to diagnose, treat, cure, or replace medical guidance. The Holistic Hipppie assumes no liability for the application of the information discussed.

What's your go-to natural sunscreen?



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