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According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. While we can turn to sunscreens to help protect ourselves from some of the negative side effects of too much sun, all sunscreens are not created equal. In fact, some controversial research suggests that sunscreens may even contribute to cancer by forming potentially harmful breakdown products when absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream. Whether or not a link actually exists, we can't deny that most sunscreens contain many dangerous chemicals that are harmful to our health.  

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We also can’t deny that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), skin cancer rates have doubled in the last 30 years, as has sunscreen use. And despite this data, the CDC, AMA, and cancer industry continue to recommend that we avoid the sun and use sunscreen (without pointing out that many of these sunscreens contain dangerous chemicals that can actually cause cancer), while ignoring the importance of vitamin D and a healthy diet in skin cancer prevention.

Worse yet, according to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) report, about 73% of sunscreens n the market don't even work.

So, how do you choose a sunscreen that's effective and healthy? You can start by following the following guidelines:


Simply put, aerosol sunscreens are NOT safe for the skin or the lungs.  The FDA announced its plan to investigate the potentially harmful effects of inhaling aerosol sunscreens in 2011 (but never finalized their recommendations) and Consumer Reports recently issued a warning against the sprays that advises parents to stay away from using them on children. 

First, it's very difficult to apply aerosol sunscreens in a thickness that will provide adequate protection from the sun (especially those aerosols that are alcohol-based). Aerosol sunscreens are thinner and during application, it’s likely that you’ll miss some spots that will be vulnerable to sun damage.

Second, and even more importantly, spraying your aerosol sunscreen releases millions of nanoparticles (i.e., particles known for causing lung damage as well as developmental issues in animals) into the air, increasing your risk of inhaling harmful chemicals directly into your lungs and RUDELY subjecting everyone around you to the same threat.

In the same way as secondhand smoke can cause cancer, the harmful chemicals in spray sunscreen (and there are plenty!) are being delivered to your (and your kids’) lungs. Allergy doctors in particular are concerned about its potential to trigger allergies or asthma in children.

And if you do use a sunscreen spray, even if it’s a safer product, NEVER haphazardly spray it all over your body, and especially not your face. Spray it in your hand, holding the nozzle close to the skin to keep it from becoming airborne, and then rub it thoroughly into your skin to ensure you didn’t miss any spots and that you have an even layer of coverage.


Sunscreen is one of the most health-damaging products you put your skin. Not only does it contain dangerously toxic ingredients, but you’re slathering it thickly ALL OVER your body, sometimes several times a day, and ALL SUMMER LONG!

So let's look at some of the most toxic chemicals in most sunscreens:

🚫 OXYBENZONE has been rated an 8 (on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the safest and 10 being the most harmful) on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) toxicity rating scale. This means that it is one of the most toxic ingredients found in cosmetic and personal care products. Oxybenzone has been linked to hormone disruption and has the potential to damage cells that may lead to skin cancer. Because it may mimic hormones, oxybenzone can cause endometriosis and can pose a risk to reproductive systems. It has also been increasingly linked to early puberty in girls, low sperm count and male infertility, and an increase in hormone-related cancers. Researchers state that oxybenzone may be even more estrogenic than BPA, and it was named “Allergen of the Year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society in 2014. And don’t forget that oxybenzone is not only toxic to our bodies, but it destroys coral reefs, which is why it has been banned in places like Hawaii and Key West.

🚫 RETINYL PALMITATE (VITAMIN A PALMITATE) is a form of vitamin A and can be found in many sunscreens, which is ironic given that it does most of its damage when skin is exposed to the sun. This known human reproductive toxicant has been banned in the EU and restricted in Canada because it may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (so why in the world would they put this in sunscreen???!!!). Vitamin A can spur excess skin growth (a.k.a. hyperplasia), and retinyl palmitate can form free radicals that damage DNA when exposed to sunlight. In addition, its presence in cosmetics, sunscreens and personal care products could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure.

🚫 FRAGRANCE or PARFUM (which should just be listed on the ingredients label as “hidden toxins”) is packed with dangerous, synthetic chemicals, such as phthalates, which are powerful hormone disruptors linked to pre-term births, birth defects, decreased sperm counts, reduced female fertility, and a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms. However, this innocuous but misleading term is meant to hide hundreds of these ingredients because they are considered “trade secrets” in the eyes of the government, which obviously places the interests of the corporation above the safety of us, the consumers.

🚫 AVOBENZONE is one of the most popular UV filters but when exposed to chlorine, it can break down into hazardous chemical compounds right on the skin. Moreover, according to the EWG, “Sunlight can cause this ingredient to break down and lose its effectiveness for skin protection.” Kind of counterintuitive, don’t you think?

🚫 ISOBUTANE is a compressed gas that‘s used as aerosol propellants. It is in the propane family.  It is flammable.  It is industrial.  It is not good for our lungs!.

🚫 NANOPARTICLES are minute ingredients that can cross the blood-brain barrier. They are used in sunscreen because they penetrate easily and don’t leave behind a chalky, white finish on the skin.  Nanoparticles are so small they can enter individual cells, even DNA.  When applied to the skin, they can cause gene damage, bioaccumulate in the body (i.e., they can’t be metabolized or flushed out by our organs, and just keep piling up until they make us sick), and they can be carcinogenic.  The consequences are even more dangerous when they are inhaled. Just think of how many poor kids you’ve seen being doused with this stuff by one of their parents. 🙈



Of the three sunscreen options - non-mineral, mineral, and a combination of the two - always select a mineral sunscreen, since the non-mineral options could penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, where they may disrupt hormones, trigger allergic responses and release free radicals as they break down. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, contain zinc or titanium, which do not break down in sunlight, are not usually absorbed, and are non-allergenic. They also tend to be more effective at blocking UVA rays than non-mineral sunscreens and are generally considered safer, although they sometimes contain nanoparticles, which are not tightly regulated and haven't been studied for long-term impact.


Australia caps SPF values at 30, the EU and Japan at 50, and Canada allows a maximum of “50+."

The FDA has long contended that any SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading” (FDA 2007), and in 2011 they proposed a regulation to ban the sales of labels higher than SPF 50+ but, as in the case of aerosol sunscreens, the agency has neither completed work on this rule or enforced it. The EWG believes that that there are at least five solid reasons to never buy any SPF above 50:

1) They offer marginally better sunburn protection:  


Contrary to popular belief, SPF15 is NOT half as effective as an SPF30. In reality, SPF15 filters about 93% of UV-B rays; SPF30 about 97%; and SPF50 98%. The difference between SPF30 and SPF50 is a mere 1% filtering improvement. Dermatologists generally recommend a sunscreen with SPF30 protection, and even people who are most sensitive to sunburn will be adequately protected with an SPF between 30-50 (as long as they are applied correctly). 

2) They protect less effectively against UVA rays

Although UVA rays do not cause a sunburn, they have been shown to penetrate deeper into the skin, cause skin aging and wrinkling, and are associated with a higher risk of developing melanoma. Most US sunscreens are designed and oriented to block UVB rays which cause sunburn. Because the ingredients used to focus on blocking UVB rays do not harmonize with those used against UVA rays, higher SPF sunscreens are actually less effective at blocking the latter. 


3) SPF labs are not the real world:  The intense UV light used in laboratory SPF tests is different than the conditions experienced in the real world (not to mention inconsistent results between different labs). What one company calculates to be SPF100 another company may determine to be SPF30, with only the slightest change to light intensity or the thickness applied.  In 2011, P&G wrote the FDA, warning that SPF values should be capped at 50+ because the current system is “at best, misleading to consumers” and “may inappropriately influence their purchase decision."

4) They provide a false sense of security, which leads to bad behavior

Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) have shown that high-SPF products spur “profound changes in sun behavior,” including staying in the sun longer, forgeting to reapply, going in the water too soon, and failing to compensate with supplemental protection, such as hats and umbrellas. The effect is increased sun exposure and an increased risk of skin damage and melanoma.

5) They contain toxic ingredients that pose greater health risks

High-SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals, which can penetrate the skin causing tissue damage, hormone disruption, and allergic reaction.  Without the additional gains in the area of proven extra protection from skin damage, these high SPF products are just not worth the additional health risk.



Neutrogena Age Shield Face

In 2011, the FDA banned the use of claims such as "waterproof" and "sweatproof" on sunscreen bottles, because these marketing terms misled consumers. However, marketers are still allowed to use many other terms, like "sun shield" and "age shield," with the intent of making you believe that their products offer full protection against any potential harmful effects from the sun.  As a result, many consumers trust that sunscreen is all they need to protect their skin, and this is simply not so.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Victoria Gregory is an Integrative Nutritionist and founder of NEWTRITION NEWYOU. Her focus—whether with private clients, readers of her blog, or her followers on social media— is whole body wellness, incorporating whole-food nutrition, supplementation, exercise, toxin-free living, and mindset coaching. Victoria’s personal mission is to help make the world a healthier place, one person at a time, and she has helped thousands of people find joy and self-love through better eating habits and mindfulness.