Most people don’t think twice about lathering on sunscreen to prevent skin cancer and sunburns, yet store-bought sunscreens carry a health risk too. Store-bought sunscreens are loaded with chemicals that are not only harmful, but downright toxic to the body. Yet the ingredients are often marketed as being healthy.
But it can be confusing to decipher those sunscreen bottles to know what’s truly harmful. Here are 6 ingredients to avoid in sunscreens – especially for kids.
6 Ingredients to Avoid in Sunscreens
1. Oxybenzone and Other Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals
Used in 80% of conventional sunscreens, the chemical ingredient oxybenzone provides UV coverage (including UVB and UVA rays). Oxybenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, octinoxate and avobenzone are used in combination as a chemical sunscreen. These chemicals are considered to be endocrine or hormone disruptors – with oxybenzone scoring the highest on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) health hazard score.1 Oxybenzone can trigger allergic reactions. Oxybenzone is used to chemically block. It also acts like estrogen in the body (endocrine disruptor) and has been been linked to endometriosis in older women.2
2. Retinol or Retinyl Palmitate
This form of vitamin A is often added to sunscreens to slow aging, yet it may actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin.1 So watch out for “retinol” or “retinyl palmitate” – or pretty much any sunscreen that touts itself as being “anti-aging” or “fights wrinkles”.
3. Nanoparticles in Spray, Aerosol or Powder Sunscreens
While it may seem easier to spray on sunscreen for hard-to-reach areas or squirmy kids, these aerosol sprays and powders pose a dangerous inhalation health risk. Even Consumer Reports suggests avoiding aerosol or spray sunscreens, especially on kids, until the FDA has completed an assessment of the health risks of spray sunscreens.3
Spray and powder sunscreens usually contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (also known as mineral sunscreens). While generally these ingredients are relatively safe , they do contain nanoparticles. Nanoparticles at 100 mm or smaller could get carried into the lungs and cause damage to the internal organs.1 Nanoparticles in lotion sunscreens are generally regarded as safe. Just avoid the spray or aerosol sunscreens.
EWG discourages the use of sunscreen powders or sprays with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (4 on the EWG hazard score) due to serious inhalation risks, but lotions are ok.2
4. High SPF Sunscreens
It’s easy to think that sunscreens with SPF 70 or 100 would provide better coverage. But higher SPF is really just clever marketing. In a Procter & Gamble study in 2011, the company found marginal differences between SPF 37 and SPF 75.3 Plus, a higher SPF may actually give you a false sense of protection (and you may stay out longer in the sun or forget to re-apply sunscreen after getting out from the water), thus you may actually burn more.
Sure, the coconut scent in your favorite sunscreen may smell like you’re on a tropical beach in paradise, but the reality is that the scent is likely an artificial fragrance. These fragrances are typically not disclosed on sunscreen labels (other than “fragrance”) and contain toxic chemicals such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrances have been linked with allergies, dermatitis and respiratory issues.3
6. Bug Repellant Sunscreens
While it seems like a good idea to combine a bug repellant and a sunscreen in one product, there are some health risks to consider. For one, the main bug repellent ingredient is DEET – an insecticide that can cause eye irritation, skin rashes, and even neurological damage when exposed in high concentrations.5
Plus, DEET may reduce the efficacy of sunscreens by 30% or more in SPF, and sunscreens increase the absorption of DEET into the skin, which can increase toxicity – especially for children.6
A better alternative is to use a DIY natural bug repellent in addition to a homemade sunscreen.
How to Make Your Own Sunscreen
Making your own sunscreen is easier than you think. You can use mineral sunscreen ingredients such as zinc oxide to protect against sun damage – as well as simple (which is great for all-natural sun protection).
Want to make sunscreen yourself? Here are 15 homemade sunscreen recipes
1. What Not to Bring on Vacation, Environmental Working Group.
2. Oxybenzone, Environmental Working Group.
3. Fragrances, Environmental Working Group.
4. Don’t Spray Sunscreens on Kids, At Least for Now, Consumer Reports.
5. Guide to Bug Repellents: Repellent Chemicals, Environmental Working Group.
6. Would it be better to use a product that combines insect repellent and sunscreen, or use two separate products? Skin Cancer Foundation.
Photo credit: DepositPhotos.com / shalamov
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