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


Here’s how to avoid sunburn while exposing yourself to the least amount of chemicals possible:

• Know the four potentially dangerous characteristics of some sunscreens, and avoid them.

1. Aerosols
Spraying on your sunscreen protection is not a good idea because the chemicals will find an alternate route into your body via the nose-to-lung route.

2. Fragrance
Emerging research suggests that synthetic fragrance chemicals, listed as fragrance or parfum on the ingredients label, can lead to allergies and asthma. “Fragrance” is also a catchall term that can be used for thousands of different chemicals, including some that are carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

3. Hormone-disrupting chemicals
We’re exposed to hormone-disrupting chemicals in our soap, shampoo, laundry detergents, and countless other personal-care products. Issues range from thyroid problems to possibly cancer. They’re in many sunscreens, too, and they’re not just tainting our systems, either. In 2008, scientists found that octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and butylparaben wipe out algae associated with coral reefs. Without this algae, reefs turn white and die.

4. Nanoparticles
EWG rates sunscreens containing nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as safer because they don’t disrupt hormones the way the aforementioned chemicals have been shown to. However, the jury’s still out on how safe these teeny particles really are. Emerging data suggests they can enter cells and produce toxic effects when they accumulate in the body. Research also suggests titanium dioxide nanoparticles are destroying beneficial microorganisms that help keep our watersheds healthy.

Pick sunscreen wisely
Check EWG’s Sunscreen Guide to check the safety of your sunscreen. If you prefer to look for a brand without nanoparticles, you can customize your search. As it stands, it seems sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are much safer. Call the company to see what size particles they use, or simply pay attention when you rub it on. If it’s whitish and harder to rub in, the particles are larger. We like Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30. (You should always go for at least SPF 15, according to the American Academy of Dermatologists, or AAD.)

Avoid peak sun
The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. AAD reminds us that if our shadows are shorter than we are, we should find some shade. And be extra defensive when you’re near water, snow, or sand…the reflection can boost your risk of a dangerous burn.

Wear your SPF
Opt for SPF-30 clothing, which protects you without using sunscreen. Solumbra clothing, for example, isn’t impregnated with chemicals to protect you, it’s just woven in a way that keeps the sun out. Their beach and workout clothing and hats are actually registered as medical devices because of their ability to protect you from the sun’s rays.

Supplement with vitamin D
If you’re at the right location and it’s the right time of day, your body makes vitamin D when sun hits your skin. But going to a tanning booth or laying out isn’t the way to go. Take a 1,000-IU vitamin D supplement to make sure you’re getting enough of the vitamin, which studies suggest could be a cancer preventer.

Web Extra: 13 Foods That Fight Sunburn