Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients

What to Know About Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients

Most people reach for sunscreen when headed for a day at the beach, but did you ever stop to consider what’s actually in that bottle? While sunscreen is often touted as an essential part of protecting our skin from the sun’s harmful rays, it is critical to understand that not all sunscreen is created equal, and some contain potentially harmful ingredients. You’ll want to pay attention to active ingredients because those are the ingredients in sunscreen actually working to block UV radiation. Other ingredients are just along for the ride, but that doesn’t mean those are necessarily safe, either.

Many people are surprised to learn about these harmful sunscreen ingredients. Because many of us have been taught that slathering on sunscreen is essential for preventing skin cancer, and melanoma, in particular, it’s time for a wake-up call to start reading the labels.

What are Chemical Sunscreens?

Chemical sunscreens use specific chemicals to absorb into your skin and then absorb UV radiation, creating a chemical reaction that changes UV rays into heat. Then, they release that heat from your skin.

Some of those chemicals, however, are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream. Even though chemical sunscreens are the most common type available, concerns about certain chemical filters’ potential health and environmental effects have grown in recent years. This has led to increased demand for mineral-based sunscreens and prompted some governments to restrict or ban certain chemical filters in sunscreen products.

The United States, unlike many other countries, does not regulate cosmetics very much, so you are likely exposed to more chemicals than in other parts of the world. Many countries banned some of these ingredients because of their impact on the environment, namely, coral reefs.

Harmful Chemical Sunscreen Ingredients

harmful sunscreen ingredients
harmful sunscreen ingredients

Before we talk about specific sunscreen ingredients, let’s break down UV radiation. UV radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation coming from the sun and has shorter wavelengths than visible light, making it invisible to the naked eye. It’s a significant factor in the risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging.

To understand which ingredients you should avoid, it’s important first to have a good grasp of UVA and UVB radiation:

  • UVA rays have a longer wavelength and can penetrate deeper into the skin’s layers, contributing significantly to skin aging and wrinkle formation. These are also a risk factor for melanoma. UVA is present with relatively the same intensity during all daylight hours throughout the year.
  • UVB, conversely, has shorter wavelengths that are primarily absorbed by the epidermis, the skin’s outermost layer, making them a significant contributor to sunburns and a leading cause of non-melanoma skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

The fact that most sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed into your body should give you pause before lathering up any old product on your skin because researchers do not know the long-term impact. There is a long list of chemicals in sunscreen that the scientific community needs to take a harder look at so we fully understand the implications of consistent and long-term exposure to them.

This constant exposure to sunscreen chemicals, particularly ones that may disrupt our endocrine systems or mimic estrogen, raises concerns. In 2019, the FDA announced a sunscreen reassessment proposal. They asked companies to test the chemicals in their products better and submit their data for a safety assessment. This reassessment included looking at safety data and the potential endocrine activity of ingredients.

Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients List

Here is a list of the biggest offenders and why you should take pause before applying sunscreen products containing these ingredients, according to current data. Did you know that disease control and prevention start with being aware of what we are applying to our skin?

Harmful Sunscreen IngredientWhat is it?Why Avoid it?
OxybenzoneA chemical UV filter added to many sunscreens to absorb UVB and short-wave UVA (ultraviolet A) rays. Applying sunscreen with this ingredient could lead to oxybenzone exposure.This chemical is a hormone disruptor. Researchers found that those with higher oxybenzone measurements had lower levels of testosterone. The FDA proposed a 2.2 percent concentration restriction. Hawaii and Key West banned its use in sunscreen due to concerns about its impact on the environment. It can also contribute to skin allergies.
OctinoxateThis chemical is a UV filter. Octinoxate, also called Octyl methoxycinnamate, is supposed to protect the skin from sun damage by absorbing UVB rays.It’s a potential endocrine disruptor with evidence suggesting negative impacts on hormones and the reproductive system. Octinoxate is easily absorbed through the skin, and research shows it disrupts hormone production and thyroid hormone in animals. Like oxybenzone, Hawaii and Key West banned its use due to concerns about its impact on coral reef ecosystems.
HomosalateA common ingredient that absorbs UVB rays.Homosalate is easily absorbed into the skin and can build up in the body faster than we can get rid of it. Because this is also an endocrine disruptor, it is important to limit exposure. The European Commission went so far as to publish a document concluding this chemical was not safe and suggesting a much lower concentration limit.
OctisalateOctisalate is another ingredient added to products to absorb UVB rays from the sun.While we need more research to determine whether octisalate is safe for humans, it is easily absorbed through the skin. According to a 2019 FDA study, Octisalate showed up in the bloodstream at levels ten times higher than previously thought and is considered a penetration enhancer for other ingredients. There has not been sufficient data to show octisalate is either safe or effective, so the jury is still out on this one.
OctocryleneThis ingredient helps stabilize other sunscreen ingredients and is usually added to chemical sunscreen formulations containing avobenzone to prevent this ingredient from degrading in sunlight.Like several of the others on this list, this chemical is easily absorbed into the body. This chemical is commonly contaminated with benzophenone. And, surprise. It’s another hormone-disrupting chemical that may disrupt hormone production and could have significant health implications. This one is particularly alarming to me because although the levels of benzophenone were minimal initially, they became higher over time. The implication for me is if I diligently apply this type of sunscreen, making sure I am using it up in a timely manner as directed on the label, am I potentially increasing my risk later?
AvobenzoneA common UVA filtering chemical added to a wide array of sunscreen products.This is a hormone disruptor that can block the effects of testosterone. Research also suggests it degrades quickly, making it ineffective at higher temperatures. And once it’s degraded, avobenzone produces free radicals, which we know damage the skin and may even be carcinogenic.

What about Spray Sunscreens?

Spray Sunscreens
Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

What about those convenient spray-on sunscreens? The same ingredients noted in chemical sunscreen can be in spray sunscreen products as well. However, with spray-on products, there are concerns about inhalation, particularly with ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. This concern is primarily with the loose powders found in these products, so if you can smell it, you are likely inhaling it. This is a concern for those with sensitive lungs, as some evidence indicates inhaling large quantities could be harmful.

Additional Sunscreen Ingredients to Consider

As you have likely surmised, regulating this area is murky at best. It’s a great illustration of why it’s important to do your homework about products before using them. Consider the European Commission, for example, and its response to scientific data about certain ingredients. The United States still allows many ingredients that European regulators find worrisome.

A great resource is the EWG Sunscreen guide.

Inactive Ingredients in Sunscreen

As you saw above, the ingredients in sunscreen actually blocking those damaging UV rays may harm you more than good. It leads us to inactive ingredients – those ingredients in a product’s formula not intended to actively treat your skin condition but that can still impact your health.

The fact is, most skincare products contain preservatives to help increase shelf life and keep them from going rancid. But there’s a hidden truth – preservatives in skincare aren’t regulated as much as active ingredients are. So what other inactive ingredients are lurking in your sunscreen products? For one, studies published show that certain ingredients, like parabens, can be found in breast milk. It’s unknown what the long-term health implications are, which is why some consumers avoid them.

  • Fragrances: Added fragrance is one of the biggest culprits of allergies. Many people report allergic reactions, contact dermatitis, and skin issues. Plus, it doesn’t take much added fragrance in a product to cause problems. Look for products listing “fragrance-free” on their labels. You can rest assured that if there is no added fragrance, then it’s not an issue for you.
  • Parabens: Companies add parabens to extend a product’s shelf life. These hormone-disrupting chemicals, according to research, are easily absorbed into the bloodstream, and we don’t fully understand the implications yet on human health. Because of the evidence already found linking parabens to breast cancer and reproductive toxicity, I avoid this.
  • SLS/SLES: You know how satisfying those sudsy products are? Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) are the chemicals responsible for creating that lather, but unfortunately, SLS is toxic to marine life. For environmentally-conscious consumers, this is important to consider. It is readily absorbed into the skin and is a skin irritant.

What Are Mineral Sunscreens?

organic face sunscreen

Skorcha Face


5 star rating
5 star rating
5 star rating
5 star rating
5 star rating


Hydrating, antioxidant-boosted natural face sunscreen crafted for adventure and endurance sports.

Mineral sunscreens work entirely differently from chemical ones. Instead of being absorbed into your skin, mineral sunscreen ingredients create a physical barrier that sits on top of your skin and works by blocking and reflecting those dangerous UV rays. There are just two mineral active ingredients used in sunscreens: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

These minerals, often touted as the “safer” sunscreen option, are gentler on the skin and have less potential for irritation.

Are There Downsides to Mineral Sunscreens?

Most mineral sunscreens are considered safer from an environmental perspective, although scientists still have concerns about certain forms, particularly nanoparticles in sunscreen or aerosol spray for inhalation risk. Just make sure you are using a non-nano zinc-based cream, and check out our massive list of reasons to change to natural zinc-based sunscreen.

FAQs About Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients

What ingredient should you avoid in sunscreen?

Although there are several to watch out for, oxybenzone is one of the biggest offenders. This one scores high on the danger list, not just for its hormone-disrupting characteristics but for the environment, too.

What is the safest sunscreen to use?

If your goal is to limit your exposure to harmful ingredients and chemicals, choose a sunscreen product using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients.

What is the least toxic sunscreen?

Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients are considered less toxic. It is critical, though, to make sure you choose a non-nano particle formula and one that is fragrance-free.

What brands of sunscreen are not safe?

Unfortunately, I cannot make specific recommendations on sunscreen brands to avoid, as that information changes quickly, and I do not have access to private company data. Plus, one person considers “safe” will vary wildly from someone else’s criteria. The best advice is to conduct your due diligence and educate yourself before buying.


There are many sunscreen ingredients on the market with very little regulation or oversight regarding their impact on humans and the environment. Since consumers do not readily have access to long-term studies of all ingredients, they must become informed consumers if this is important to them. While I applaud anyone taking proactive steps to protect themselves and their families from the harmful effects of UV rays, we need to do our homework and familiarize ourselves with the chemicals we’re putting on our bodies.

Consumers should also pay attention to potentially harmful sunscreen ingredients and perhaps encourage stronger regulations surrounding ingredients that come into contact with our skin, absorb into our bodies, and could have potentially dangerous health ramifications. Ultimately, staying informed about the ingredients in your sunscreen will ensure you make healthy and eco-friendly choices. Have you considered the impact of harmful sunscreen ingredients in your favorite products?

It’s clear that navigating the world of sun protection requires a discerning eye. By understanding the potential risks associated with harmful sunscreen ingredients, you can make more informed decisions for you and your family. While more research is always needed, arming yourself with the right information can lead to a safer, healthier relationship with the sun. Remember that this information about harmful sunscreen ingredients changes often, so conducting periodic reviews is important. Protecting ourselves from harmful UV rays doesn’t need to be scary when we know what to look for.

Mick Wadley

Mick Wadley – Founder of Skorcha

After a decade in the scorching sun as a roofer and going door-to-door in sales – I was forced to take my skin health seriously following a skin cancer scare before the age of 30.

So began my passion for suncare, which is both effective and natural. Crafted for adventure and endurance sports, Skorcha formulas are non-greasy, have no eye sting and absolutely no bullshit (100% Organic).

My goal is to share what I’ve learned about skin health and safe ingredients, inspiring happier, healthier lives through adventure, organic goodness and conservation!

Help us plant a mangrove tree with every Skorcha product sold to protect fragile marine ecosystems and support underprivileged communities around the world.

Statements made on this website have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Products sold on this website are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Information provided by this website or this company is not a substitute for direct, individual medical treatment or advice. It is the responsibility of you and your healthcare providers to make all decisions regarding your health. Skorcha recommends that you consult with your healthcare providers regarding the diagnosis and treatment of any disease or condition.