Don’t Get Burned by Unsafe Sunscreen

Not all sunscreen is created equal—some varieties may even harm you or the environment.

By Leah Zerbe


Is the white-nosed look about to make a comeback? Over the years, the sunscreen industry has developed new chemicals to protect us from the ultraviolet rays that cause wrinkles, premature aging, and skin cancer—while sparing us all from looking like white-nosed lifeguards from the old days. Skin scientists took zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—the two traditional forms of sunscreen that used to leave a white coating on the skin—and shrank them down to a size barely larger than an atom, or 1/5,000th the thickness of a piece of paper. The problem is, the more sheer forms of sunscreen may not be protecting our health—or the environment—in the long run.

There are no federal safety standards for consumer sunscreens in this country. Last year, the Environmental Working Group looked at nearly 1,000 brand-name sunscreens and found that barely any were as effective as they claimed, or free of questionable ingredients. Just 15 percent of the products tested were considered low-risk, and most of them were obscure products not typically found on a CVS shelf. What we do often find in most stores, though, are brands full of benzophenone-3 (BP-3), commonly referred to as oxybenzone or 2-hydroxy-4-methoxybenzophenone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found the chemical is detectable in 97 percent of the population. Although it’s not completely clear how the hormone-disrupting chemical is affecting humans, animal studies show damage to the liver, kidney, and reproductive organs.

Sunscreen is a key defense against skin cancer, but it’s important to note that not all brands are created equal. Because of a lack of regulation around what goes into these products (and how they affect our health), you may have to spend a little extra time reading labels, and maybe even ordering from smaller companies online, to find safer sunscreen.

Keep reading to learn how to avoid sunburn while exposing yourself to the least amount of chemicals possible.