Your Sunscreen Is Toxic: How to Buy Sunscreen That’s Safe for You & the Environment

Spoiler alert: That “reef safe” label is misleading.

Health + Wellness
Credit: Cinzia Osele Bismarck / Ocean Image Bank

The temperatures are heating up, kids are getting out of school and airline data is telling us that everyone has vacation on the brain.1 If beach trips are part of your summer agenda, we hope you’re packing your sunscreen.

…But not just any sunscreen.

By now, you’ve likely heard that many sunscreens contain many chemicals that are toxic to oceanic ecosystems, especially coral reefs. Scientists have been sounding this alarm since 2008.2

And yet, we can’t just stop wearing sunscreen. We all know it’s critical to protect us from the sun’s harmful UV rays that can cause sunburns, skin cancer and other types of skin damage. But if the chemicals in certain sunscreens are hurting marine ecosystems, the question also begs to be asked: How safe is this sunscreen for humans?

EcoWatch spoke with the CEOs of two eco-conscious sunscreen companies certified safe by the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL) — Stream2Sea and Badger. They had alarming things to say about the sunscreen bottle you might have in your beach bag — yes, even that one that claims it’s “reef safe.” Let’s dive in.

Jump to: Understanding Labels | How Sunscreen Affects Ocean Health | How Sunscreen Affects Human Health | Sunscreen Buying Guide | Mineral Vs. Chemical Sunscreen | EcoWatch Sunscreen Picks

What do ‘Reef Safe’ and ‘Reef Friendly’ Labels Mean?

Summary: “Reef safe” and “reef friendly” language on sunscreen products may just be another example of greenwashing — a deceptive marketing tactic that brands use to come across as more eco-friendly.

The intended meaning of these labels is self-explanatory: “This product is not harmful to coral reefs.” The problem is that there’s no regulation when it comes to reef-safe labels.

“There’s no universally recognized definition of what is ‘reef safe.’ So what reef safe means to me versus what it might mean to a Fortune 500 company, or a marketing company, can be very different,” said Autumn Blum, formulator and CEO at Stream2Sea.

Often, what a sunscreen company is saying with a “reef safe” label is that the product doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate — two ingredients that have been recognized as harmful to both humans and marine life. But research shows those aren’t the only harmful chemicals found in sunscreens.

“Instead of using oxybenzone and octinoxate, they simply replaced it with avobenzone and octocrylene, which are now being shown to be equally or, in some cases, even more harmful than the initial,” said Blum. “The absence of two toxic chemicals does not make it ‘safe,’ right? But who is it to decide that?”

Sunscreen’s Negative Effect on Aquatic Ecosystems

Scientists found that many personal care products, like sunscreen, negatively impact marine systems back in 2008 after a coral bleaching event.3 Several places, including Hawaii and Key West, Florida, have banned certain reef-harming sunscreens, but new data shows that it’s still a very real concern.

For instance, more than 90% of the Great Barrier Reef — that’s 654 reefs — experienced some sort of bleaching during the 2021-2022 Australian summer. While bleaching isn’t solely due to harmful chemicals — climate change and ocean warming play the biggest roles — they can certainly worsen the issue. And researchers are actively studying more environmental impacts of sunscreen ingredients, with results expected to be released sometime in 2022.4

Coral reefs are a vital part of the ocean ecosystem and a huge draw for tourism, so it makes sense that “reef friendly” is the term sunscreen companies are going with. But corals aren’t the only species at risk. Sunscreen chemicals can also negatively affect dolphins, fish, green algae, mussels and sea urchins.5

Source: NOAA

While most scientists are researching the negative impact on marine life, more recent studies have also shown that active chemicals in sunscreen are also harming freshwater ecosystems like lakes and rivers.6

And aquatic species aren’t the only ones at risk.

“I think there is a real concern with human health as well,” said Rebecca Hamilton, Co-CEO of Badger, an organic skincare company.

How Sunscreen Can Be Toxic for Humans

Summary: Research shows that sunscreens contain toxic chemicals that have been linked to skin reactions as well as cancers and birth and reproductive defects.

Sunscreen is a double-edged sword. It’s full of ingredients proven to protect our skin from damaging UV rays, but at what cost? The table below outlines some of the human concerns for eight common sunscreen ingredients approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Common Sunscreen IngredientFDA Classified as Safe and Effective?Potential Risks for Humans*
OxybenzoneNoAllergic skin reactions; breast cancer; hormonal disruptor; abnormal birth patterns; endometriosis
OctinoxateNoHormonal disruptor affecting the metabolic system, thyroid, androgen and progesterone signaling; allergic reactions 
HomosalateNoHormonal disruptor; produces toxic breakdown byproducts over time
OctisalateNoAllergic contact dermatitis; potential hormonal disruptor
OctocryleneNoHigh rates of skin allergies; often contaminated with carcinogen benzophenone
AvobenzoneNoHormonal disruptor; allergic reactions
Titanium dioxideYesPossibly carcinogenic if inhaled (spray and powder products should be avoided)
Zinc OxideYesPossibly carcinogenic if inhaled (spray and powder products should be avoided)

*Note: Although these findings have been supported by scientific studies, they are not a definite outcome of chemical exposure. Data: Environmental Working Group (EWG)

Sunscreen Chemicals Seep Into the Bloodstream

Studies as far back as 2008 have found traces of sunscreen ingredients in breast milk and urine samples.7,8 But a 2019 study published by the FDA revealed that sunscreen chemicals seep into our bloodstreams and can be detected on our skin and in our blood weeks after we apply it.9

When that 2019 study was published, the FDA only classified two sunscreen ingredients as “safe and effective” — titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. As for the others, the administration said the presence of these ingredients in our blood is not necessarily a health hazard, but that it’s definitely a high enough amount to warrant “further testing.”10

As Blum points out, we’re still waiting on that research.

“[The FDA] declared that only titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are generally recognized as safe and effective for humans, which is a great start, right? So all of those other ingredients that we’re seeing that are still allowed in our sunscreens, the FDA says, ‘We’re not so sure about that, can you give us more data?’ And the [sunscreen] industry still has not given more data,” Blum told EcoWatch.

The FDA did propose further data and stricter regulations on sunscreen companies after that 2019 study was published. However, the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act reformed the way the FDA regulates certain over-the-counter products, including sunscreen, and essentially put those plans on hold.11

Cancer-Causing Chemicals Found in Sunscreen

A more recent study from 2021 found that the sunscreen ingredient octocrylene degrades into benzophenone, which is a compound suspected to cause cancer and interfere with the body’s hormones.12

That same year, we saw recalls for five Johnson & Johnson aerosol sunscreen products that contained the carcinogen benzene.13 The recalls included certain products from many top brands, including Coppertone, Banana Boat, Neutrogena and Aveeno.14

Sunscreen Concerns for Pregnant and Nursing Women

Meanwhile, oxybenzone products have been found to pose a risk specifically for pregnant and nursing mothers.

Studies have found this chemical in the urine and blood of pregnant women as well as in fetal and umbilical cord blood.15 And women with medium to high levels of oxybenzone in their urine showed a correlation to giving birth to babies with Hirschsprung’s Disease — a colon condition that makes it difficult for babies to pass stool.16

Sunscreen Product Guide: What to Look for and What to Avoid

Despite the numerous studies that have raised concerns about many of these chemicals, the majority of them are still FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients. And unfortunately, that means you’ll need to put in a little extra work to find products that are safe for both you and the environment.

“It really is up to the consumer to move beyond what’s on the front package and flip over the bottle and be informed,” Blum said. “You have to read those ingredients.”

EcoWatch has compiled the following list of what you should be avoiding, according to the EWG and HEL.15,16 Again, the FDA hasn’t explicitly said any of these sunscreen ingredients are unsafe, but none of them is classified as “safe and effective” by the administration.17

You can save this list of ingredients to avoid for easy access when browsing the sunscreen aisle, but Hamilton suggests an even easier approach: Just look for products with fewer, more natural ingredients altogether.

“The simpler the ingredients, the easier it is to tell,” she said. “Because it gets really complicated.”

Below are a few other products to look for and avoid.

Avoid: Sunscreen Sprays

We know spray sunscreens are popular for their ease and convenience, but you should avoid them. People using spray sunscreens have a much higher risk of sunburn, especially since most don’t rub the spray in (yes, you’re supposed to).18

But beyond that, aerosol sunscreens can be damaging to your lungs and to the ecosystems that are getting drenched by it.

“You’re using all of these chemical ingredients that have been shown to be harmful for the environment, and you’re just spraying them all over the place,” Blum said of aerosol sunscreens. “If you spray it on your body on a boat, I can smell it 100 yards away. That’s been proven.”

According to EWG, the FDA found that three of 14 tested sprays would not meet the administration’s proposed inhalation standard, but it did not reveal which three products failed the test, so it’s best to just avoid them altogether.19

Human and environmental hazards aside, Blum also points out that spray sunscreens are a boat owner’s worst nightmare, shown to stain and damage vinyl.

Avoid: Sunscreen Powders

Sunscreen powders, or brush-on sunscreens, have shown effectiveness at preventing UV rays from damaging our cells, but they pose an inhalation threat similar to that of spray sunscreens. Especially since the “safe” sunscreen ingredients (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) are dangerous in powder form.

“When titanium is inhaled in a fine powder, it behaves in your lungs similar to asbestos would. That’s bad news — you shouldn’t inhale these things,” Blum said.

Avoid: SPF Above 50+

If your sunscreen says it has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 100, it’s misleading.

The FDA tried to ban sunscreen companies from putting anything higher than “SPF 50+” on labels in 2011. Since then, the administration reportedly found evidence of clinical benefits of sunscreen products up to SPF 60 and currently recommends 60+ as the maximum labeled value.20

EWG still recommends you avoid products with an SPF label over 50+.

Source: Environmental Working Group

Look For: Mineral Sunscreen

Mineral sunscreens primarily use only organic ingredients as well as the only two sunscreen ingredients certified safe and effective by the FDA. So if you see a mineral sunscreen, you can save yourself the trouble of having to remember all of those long and confusing products that you should stay away from.

However, Blum says not all mineral sunscreens are created equal.

“I would only recommend using a sunscreen product that has non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide. Anything else that’s in there has not been proven safe,” she said.

Mineral sunscreens still have to earn FDA approval for UV effectiveness.

Mineral Vs. Chemical Sunscreen: What’s the Difference?

“I think people will just have to get familiarized with using a mineral-based sunscreen. It’s a different experience than the chemical sunscreens,” Hamilton told EcoWatch. “It requires people recognizing that, you know, to have sunscreen that’s safe for them and safe for the environment, it might be a little bit of a different user experience.”

So, what’s so different about mineral sunscreens?

Mineral Sunscreens Take Longer to Apply

Chemical sunscreens are easy to glob or spray on and rub all over our bodies within seconds, while mineral sunscreens require more time and strategy.

“The best way to apply mineral sunscreen is to take a very small amount, put it on your face, another small amount on your chest, another small amount, put it on your shoulders and keep on going,” Blum said. “It might take an extra minute, maybe even two to apply it properly. But it’s so well worth the extra effort [to use] the safer product for you and for the planet.”

Mineral Sunscreens May Leave a White Cast

Mineral sunscreen basically works by formulating chalky ingredients into lotion, and that can leave a white sheen or residue on the skin. But Blum and Hamilton both told EcoWatch that newer technology is improving this issue.

“It’s not quite like the old zinc lifeguard streak on your nose anymore, but it’s still a mineral powder dispersed into a lotion,” Blum said. “If you tried using a mineral sunscreen 20 years ago and you hated it, [know that] technology has come a long way.”

Mineral Sunscreens Won’t Break You Out

Because they’re full of zinc oxide, mineral sunscreens are skin-calming and best for sensitive and acne-prone skin.

“With mainstream sunscreens, a lot of people will say, ‘I can’t wear sunscreen because it burns my eyes’ or ‘it causes me to break out.’ And typically those are the ingredients from the chemicals,” Blum said.

Final Thoughts: EcoWatch’s Favorite Mineral Sunscreens

We know we just overloaded you with more information about sunscreen than you’ve probably ever wanted. If you’re a little overwhelmed, here’s a short list of EcoWatch-recommended, human and environmentally safe sunscreen products that have been Protect Land and Sea Certified by the HEL:

  • Badger
  • Stream2Sea
  • Olen
  • Tropic
  • Odacité

You can read how these products fared in the HEL’s lab here.

Looking for a safe, non-mineral sunscreen? The EWG has a list of non-mineral sunscreens that still meet its environmental standards here.

Kristina Zagame is a journalist and content writer with expertise in solar and other energy-related topics. Before joining EcoWatch, Kristina was a TV news reporter and producer, covering a wide variety of topics including West Coast wildfires and hurricane relief efforts. Kristina’s reporting has taken her all over the U.S., as well as to Puerto Rico and Chile.

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