How to Choose a Clean Sunscreen for Summer- Plus which harmful chemical in sunscreen to avoid

Wearing sunscreen is one of the most important things we can do to prevent sunburn and reduce our risk of skin cancer. After all, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun’s rays is associated with 80 to 90 percent of all skin cancers — and applying sunblock before spending time in the sun can dramatically reduce this risk. Sunscreen also prevents wrinkles, brown spots, and other signs of premature aging, as prolonged UV exposure increases the risk of skin cancer and photoaging. 

To protect our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends wearing sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher — applying it at least 15 to 30 minutes before heading outdoors. The AAD also recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming, sweating, or towel drying. There are several concerns with these recommendations, however. 

For one, SPF isn’t the only measure of UV protection. A product’s SPF value only measures how well it protects against UVB rays from the sun, whereas products labeled as broad-spectrum protect against UVA and UVB rays. Sunlight primarily produces UVA, UVB, and UVC rays, with UVA rays being the ones we most often come into contact with. 

Secondly, some chemicals in sunscreen are associated with adverse health effects — particularly commonly used sunscreen ingredients like octocrylene, avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and homosalate. The good news is you can find many clean sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum SPF protection and exclude harmful ingredients like these. 

Let’s take a closer look at these harmful ingredients in sunscreens and explore a few clean alternatives so you can protect your family from UV radiation without doing more harm than good. 

The problem with chemicals in sunscreen

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — a leading nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and the environment — only one in four sunscreens currently meets its sun protection and ingredient safety standards. Of the 1,700 SPF products it assessed in preparation for its 2024 Guide to Sunscreens, nearly 300 products contained octinoxate, oxybenzone, or both: two harmful chemicals in sunscreen that have been associated with hormone disruption, skin allergies, and skin penetration. 

For example, oxybenzone — arguably the most worrisome chemical in sunscreen — can still be found in some SPF products from major brands like Neutrogena, Garnier, Olay, and Clinique. Oxybenzone has been associated with endocrine disruption — possibly increasing the risk of endometriosis and breast cancer — and it’s been associated with an increased risk of thyroid tumors and uterine enlargement in female rats. 

Octinoxate is another concerning chemical in sunscreen that can disrupt thyroid function, mimic estrogen, and cause allergic reactions when applied to the skin. This ingredient is still found in many conventional SPF products from major brands like E.L.F., St. Ives, Pond’s, and Cerave, as well as in cosmetics, shampoos, and nail polish. 

Even some seemingly non-toxic sunscreen products from “natural” brands may contain octinoxate and other potentially harmful chemicals, meaning we as consumers need to be especially diligent about reading labels before applying anything to our skin. Of course, we can also look for EWG Verified® products to ensure we’re getting the best-rated natural sunscreen money can buy! 

Other harmful ingredients in sunscreen

Along with octinoxate and oxybenzone, other chemicals in sunscreen like avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, meradimate, ensulizole, cinoxate, sulisobenzone, padimate O, and dioxybenzone are not generally recognized as safe and effective under the FDA due to insufficient safety data. Abbreviated as GRASE, this is an acronym used to describe substances intended for human use (including over-the-counter drugs such as sunscreens) under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). 

Plus, there’s evidence that suggests: 

  • Homosalate and avobenzone can penetrate the skin, disrupt hormone function, and cause skin allergies. Homosalate is also associated with human breast cancer cell growth and multiplication.
  • Octocrylene and octisalate can penetrate the skin, become systemically absorbed into the body, and cause skin allergies. Plus, octocrylene is frequently contaminated with benzophenone, a known hormone disruptor and carcinogen (meaning it’s associated with an increased risk of developing cancer).

What’s most concerning about this information is that these potentially harmful ingredients in sunscreen can still be sold in most parts of the U.S. The only exceptions are oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, and octocrylene, as these cannot be sold in Hawaii due to their harmful effects on aquatic life. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are also banned in Key West for the very same reason. 

What to look for in a non-toxic sunscreen

Unlike chemical sunscreens that contain potentially harmful ingredients like octinoxate, oxybenzone, and avobenzone, mineral sunscreens contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide: the only two commonly used SPF ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE) under the FDA. For this reason, mineral sunscreens are the best choice for most. 

When looking for a natural sun lotion, it’s important to keep in mind that the formulation also matters. Sunscreen lotions and sticks are optimal, while aerosol or powdered formulations are associated with inhalation concerns. Sprays and powders are also difficult to apply evenly and adequately.

Furthermore, the EWG recommends choosing sunscreens with an SPF value of at least 15 but no higher than 50. This is because high-SPF products are not necessarily better. According to the EWG, high-SPF sunscreens often provide a false sense of security — leading to overexposure to the sun; poor UVA protection (remember: sunlight produces UVA, UVB; and UVC radiation), and an increased risk of adverse health effects. The higher the SPF, the greater the chemical exposure. 

Where to find clean sunscreens for summer

While finding a clean sunblock may seem challenging, you can take the guesswork out of the process by referring to the EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens. Using this guide, you can verify a product’s safety profile before deciding whether to purchase it, browse EWG Verified® products, and even purchase EWG Verified® sunscreens on Amazon. You can also download the EWG’s Healthy Living App to your mobile device to search for and verify products on the go. 

Wearing sunscreen is important for your overall health and well-being, but this doesn’t mean all sunscreens are created equal. Look for a broad-spectrum, non-toxic mineral sunscreen with an SPF value between 15 and 50, and choose creams, lotions, or sticks whenever possible. 

Sunscreens are meant to be worn daily throughout the course of a lifetime, and the ingredients they contain shouldn’t just protect your skin from UV radiation. Just as importantly, they should be free of chemicals that could negatively impact your health in any way. Check out our sunscreen guide on Instagram to learn more about the harmful ingredients in sunscreens and to find our easy DIY sunscreen recipe!

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