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Sunscreen Ingredients:
How Do You Know Which Ones Are Best?

There's so many different sunscreen ingredients being used these days that it's difficult to decide which is the best sunblock to get. You'd naturally assume that the ingredients in sunscreens are safe as well as effective, but that's hardly the case at all. Almost all commercial sunscreen products contain chemicals that may be harmful to your health.

Let's take a look at some very basic sunscreen information and show you how to tell a healthy product from one that's toxic.



Sunscreen Facts: Types of Sunscreens

There are two types of sunscreens: physical barrier and chemical barrier.

Physical barrier sunscreens create a reflective surface on the skin that reflects UV light or scatters it off of the skin's surface. The active ingredients in these sunscreens are zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide. These types of sunscreens are very effective in blocking both UVB and UVA sun rays and are considered to be the safest sunscreens to use. The best products of this type will contain all-natural ingredients; mostly names that are recognizable to the average user.

Chemical barrier sunscreens, on the other hand, contain sunscreen ingredients that absorb UV light before it can cause any skin damage. These sunscreens (which includes most commercial brands) have been proven to be effective in preventing sunburns, but the chemicals in them have never been tested and approved for safety.

To get "broad spectrum" protection with chemical barrier sunscreens, you need to purchase a product with more than one active chemical ingredient. However, the more chemicals present in the sunscreen, the more potentially hazardous they become.


Dangers of Sunscreen Ingredients
Are Largely Ignored

FDA last reviewed the safety of sunscreen ingredients in 1978. At that time, it announced plans to develop comprehensive standards for sunscreen safety and effectiveness. More than 30 years later, the agency has yet to publish any standards for sunscreen ingredients. As a result, manufacturers in the U.S. are free to market products containing ingredients that have not been proven safe.

As is increasingly the case, non-profit groups are now doing the job the FDA should be doing. One such group, the Environmental Working Group, has tested 1700 name-brand sunscreens and skin care products and analyzed them for toxic chemicals. Most of them fail — EWG researchers only recommended a very, very small percentage of all the beach and sport sunscreens they test.

You can't go by the evaluation of sunscreens done by other consumer groups such as Consumer Reports. They test leading sunscreens to see how effective they are at blocking both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation, but they don't address the issue of toxic ingredients in the sunscreens.



Dangerous Sunscreen Ingredients

Oxybenzone is a common ingredient found in many sunscreens, including leading brand names like Hawaiian Tropic, Coppertone, and Banana Boat — and many facial moisturizers, lip balms and lipstick as well. Oxybenzone is used as a penetration enhancer, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin.

Oxybenzone can trigger allergic reactions, is a potential hormone disruptor and penetrates the skin in relatively large amounts. Scientists have called for parents to avoid using oxybenzone on children due to toxicity concerns.

Sunlight actually causes oxybenzone to form free radicals that cause premature aging! Not exactly the results you're looking for.

Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC for short) is the main chemical used in sunscreens to filter out UVB light. OMC is present in almost ALL wide-spectrum sunscreen brands. Worse yet, OMC has been shown to be particularly toxic when exposed to sunshine.

Retinyl Palmitate, a form of vitamin A, is found in about half of all chemical sunscreens. It's used frequently because of it's an antioxidant that slows skin aging. However, scientists have known for some time that vitamin A can form free radicals and cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.

Solay salt lamp

Several studies show that many other sunscreen ingredients have toxic properties that are absorbed through the skin and end up circulating in your bloodstream. Here's a list of some of the most common ones:

  • avobenzone
  • benzophenone-3
  • butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane
  • cinoxate
  • dioxybenzone

  • homosalate
  • menthyl anthranilate
  • octocrylene
  • octyl salicyclate
  • octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)
  • oxybenzone

  • padimate O
  • para amino benzoic acid and PABA esters
  • phenylbenzimidazole
  • sulisobenzone
  • any type of salicylate


The good news is that choosing a safe sunscreen is really easy — there are really only two ingredients you need to look for. You can assume that all the others haven't been tested for safety, and avoid them. I'll tell you what ingredients you want and recommend products that use them at my page on Best Sunblocks.

Also see my page on Sunscreen Facts for more
useful sunscreen information.

Antioxidants Home Page from Sunscreen Ingredients


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