Frugally Rooted
Health & Wellness Product Reviews

Is Your Sunscreen Making You Sick? Shedding a Little Light on Safer Sunscreen

For many years, like 29 of them to be exact, I lived in a world where I believed that any product on the shelf was likely safe for me to use. Afterall, there are regulations in this country and we wouldn’t be allowed to just slather on toxic chemicals, right?

I was, and still am, the queen of bargain shopping.  I have totally been that girl at Target or Walgreens stocking up on essentials without even considering flipping a product over to inspect the label for harmful or toxic ingredients. My default was to reach for the big box store brand to shave a few dollars or cents off the more widely recognized brand as they often were the very same thing. It had literally never crossed my mind that I could be purchasing my very own health risks. The concept of safer sunscreen and skincare in general didn’t even enter my mind until the last few years. 

Sadly, (or fortunately perhaps) the days of living under a rock where I believed nothing was toxic or harmful are over. Once you begin to understand the risks of using most of the products on the market, you’ll no longer be able to take up residence under the rock either. Out here in the open it’s both scary and empowering to know the things that go into skincare these days and are passed off as “natural, clean, safer or organic.”

Colorado Mountains

It wasn’t until only recently that I developed brand loyalties when products are worth their ticket price, whatever that may be. I refuse to pay more for an item that has cooler packaging or an eye-catching logo if the product itself isn’t high-quality. I most definitely don’t always reach for the high-end option and never toss something in my cart without reading ingredients anymore. I’m 87% sure this means I am officially adulting.

Up until the last few years, sunscreen was thought to be a relatively safe product. The use of sunscreen has been linked to lower rates of malignant skin cancers such as melanoma. So, what could possibly be wrong with lathering up before a day at the beach or on a ski slope?

When I was doing research for this post, which I did A LOT of, I told my husband Josh that some brands of sunscreen should just go ahead and change their slogan to

“wear this sunscreen and get different cancer.”

Ok ok, maybe that’s too far, but the dangers of toxic sunscreen are REAL.

I am not a researcher or a clinician. I don’t have a degree in molecular biology or medicine. What I do have is access to the internet. I read upwards of 30 articles about toxic ingredients that are common in sunscreen and sunblock and have boiled down that information for you here. The information in this post is based on outside resources that I have read, re-read, and synthesized so that hopefully it makes sense to consumers.

Here’s what you need to know….

  • SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor- this is a relative measurement of the risk of sun overexposure. The higher the number the lower your risk, but not according to all researchers in the field.
  • Most sunscreen products that claim to be over SPF 50 contain a chemical that does not reduce the effects of sun exposure. Instead, it combats the red pigmentation in the skin. So, in short, there is literally no difference. Some researchers have even proposed that SPF at all is a myth and was simply created as a marketing tactic.
  • The FDA has not yet placed regulations of safer sunscreen ingredients but has made steps to require companies to warn consumers of the dangers, much like the requirements of cigarette companies to warn their consumers.
  • The state of Hawaii has recently banned the sales of toxic ingredient containing sunscreens. Many of these chemicals have proven to be dangerous for sea life and coral reefs (so… maybe don’t put them on your face either, ok?)
  • Recently, research has suggested a link between certain skin cancers and the frequent use of toxic sunscreen. You know those commercials for pharmaceuticals like migraine medicine that may cause migraines? This is the same idea.
  • The EWG (Environmental Working Group) conducts research to drive consumers to safer choices. However, marketing strategies from large companies often overshadow these recommendations (I’m looking at you Coppertone and Banana Boat)
  • Our skin is the largest organ we have. Anything that we put into our skin is absorbed into our bloodstream and must be processed by internal organs such as the liver. Sunscreen only protects the skin (not our internal organs) by filtering UVA and UVB light
  • The EWG has recommended using only cream or stick type sunscreens. Sunscreen sprays pose an inhalation risk and may not provide adequate coverage.

Ok so, what chemicals should I avoid? I’m glad you asked.

Here is a list of chemicals to avoid both in sunscreen and other skincare products:Toxic skincare

    • Oxybenzone- known allergen and chemical that turns into estrogen as its absorbed disrupting hormonal balance and thyroid function
    • Octinoxate- quickly absorbed through the dermis and effects thyroid and endocrine system
    • Homosalate- absorbed through the skin and processed through the liver increasing toxic burden in the bloodstream
    • Octocrylene- known to produce free radicals causing cell damage and mutation (aka cancer)
    • Retinyl palmitate (in the form of Vitamin A)- may increase the occurrence of tumors and skin lesions
    • Parabens- chemical compound used to prevent the growth of bacteria in many products. Linked to reproductive issues and increased risk for breast cancer
    • Propylene glycol- agent added to sunscreens, deodorants, and other cosmetics to increase their spreadability and likely linked to multiple cancers.
    • Phthalates- agent commonly used in the production of plastics that can disrupt reproductive health and function and can trigger premature cell death

Neat, so basically everything is the worst and I can never go into the sun safely again, right? Nope. There are many brands to choose from on the market now! Since safer sunscreen is in the spotlight as of late, many companies are stepping forward with safer and affordable options.

There is still some debate about the recommendation of mineral or non-mineral safer sunscreens. Mineral sunblocks are often the non-nano zinc based heavy duty stuff. Remember the neon streak on the lifeguard’s nose? Yeah, it’s that. Those literally block the sun from penetrating the skin, while sunscreens with titanium as active ingredients safely filter out the sun.

I have personally tried four or five options. My absolute favorite brand is ThinkBaby/ThinkSport. The two are almost identical except for the bottling and the fragrance. ThinkBaby provides significant coverage (SPF50), lasts up to 80 minutes before needing to reapply, is water resistant, and does not leave a heavy white residue which is the main complaint regarding most other brands.

Here is a list of some of the top-selling safer sunscreen brands on the market:

So if you consider the risk factors with some toxic sunscreens, it’s simply not worth saving a buck in my opinion. Yes, the brands I have listed are more expensive than many other brands available, but they are not associated with major health issues. The idea of developing a hormonal issue, cancer, or other health problems due to using popular but toxic brands makes me want to punch some companies in the kisser.

We have to be our own advocates for our own health and use the resources available to use to make choices for ourselves and our families and that includes choosing a safer sunscreen. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as plucking your favorite color bottle off the shelf.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; every purchase we make is a vote. We vote for the companies we stand behind to protect our well being with our dollar. I think of purchasing some more expensive products like safer sunscreen or organic produce as a way of preventing future medical bills. My method will certainly not act as a guarantee that I’ll stay out of harm’s way, but I see it as a necessary preventative measure.

If you’d like to skip the guesswork when it comes to sunning your buns, you can head over to my shop page where I have linked my top picks for safer sunscreen at some of the best prices.

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  • Reply
    July 1, 2018 at 7:40 am

    This might be random but made me think… what do you use for laundry detergent?

    • Reply
      The FruGal
      July 1, 2018 at 7:56 am

      Great question! Molly’s Suds has great non-toxic detergent and dryer balls.

  • Reply
    Lisa Huntington-Kinn
    July 2, 2018 at 10:57 am

    Thanks for the info Valerie! The sunscreen I have been using has 2 of the nasty ingredients, so I will be changing sunscreens. Is there a spray sunscreen that is safe?

    • Reply
      The FruGal
      July 2, 2018 at 11:58 am

      Hi Lisa! The EWG generally advises against using spray sunscreens when possible. However, I do like the Beautycounter brand for spray sunscreen. Thanks for asking!

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