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Are Chemical Sunscreens Safe?

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 4 10

How to find a safe sunscreen for your whole family

In today’s world, the labels “organic” and “all natural” are all the rage, but does this truly make a difference in sunscreen?  Are chemical sunscreens actually safe, or is this just hype?  And really, what does “organic sunscreen” actually mean?  While the long term effects of chemicals in conventional sunscreens is still somewhat inconclusive, it has become quite apparent that chemical sunscreens are not nearly as safe or effective as the mineral-based organic alternatives. 


Why is natural sunscreen more effective than chemical sunscreen?

Mineral sunscreens are effective immediately

Organic, natural sunscreens are all mineral-based.  Generally, this means that active mineral ingredients such as Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are too large to be absorbed into your skin.  With this being the case, mineral sunscreens are effective immediately because these minerals sits on the surface of your skin[3916]

Unlike mineral sunscreens, the chemicals in conventional sunscreens are small enough to penetrate your skin (these are called nanoparticles), and it takes some time for these chemicals to form a protective barrier around your skin.  Generally, it takes 20 to 30 minutes before for these sunscreens are effective[3915].  This, obviously, is not very convenient if you have a group of kids wanting to get into the sun right away.


Natural Sunscreens Offer Broad Spectrum Protection

This is perhaps the most important issue when determining if chemical sunscreens are safe.  Some chemical sunscreens only protect from UVB rays, which cause sunburns, but all mineral sunscreen protect against both UVB rays and UVA rays, which cause aging.  According to the American Academy of Dermatology, a sunscreen must offer broad-spectrum protection to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early aging skin[3914].  Whether you choose to purchase a chemical or mineral sunscreen, it is extremely important to use a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection. 

Natural Sunscreens Reflect the Sunlight

Because minerals in natural sunscreens are not nanoparticles, these sunscreens physically block sunlight from the skin.  As you might imagine, chemical sunscreens allow UV rays to enter into and disperse throughout your body. 

How to Choose you Sunscreen - Banana Boat(100752)

Active Ingredients in Sunscreens and Their Effects

Active Ingredients in Chemical Sunscreens

Look at the ingredients on a tube of conventional sunscreen.  Chances are you will find words like oxybenzone, octisalate, and avobenzone, and each of these chemicals can be toxic when they penetrate your skin.  While research is still ongoing on the effects of these chemicals, many experts do not look very highly on these chemicals.  For example, many experts recommend that oxybenzone should not be used on children.  Additionally, other studies have shown that oxybenzone is linked to allergies and potential hormone disruption of the reproductive, nervous, thyroid and immune systems.  Still, other chemicals such as octyl methoxycinnamate have multiple estrogenic effects and cause other chemicals to be more easily absorbed by the body. 

Since these chemicals are so small, they can be absorbed by the pores on your skin.  Once these chemicals penetrate the skin, they break down over time into free radicals, which is a carcinogen.  Also of note is simply the fact that many people are allergic to these chemicals. While an allergic reaction may seem small in comparison to some of the other effects of these chemicals, it can still be enough reason to change from a chemical to mineral sunscreen[3913]

As stated, research regarding the effects of these chemical ingredients is still ongoing.  While no scientific consensus has developed around these chemicals, it is quite clear that these minerals penetrate the skin in large amounts.  Once these chemicals enter the skin, they stay in the bloodstream for a period of time.  However, it seems as if time will tell how these chemicals ultimately effect our bodies.

Camp Essentials - Sunscreen

Active Ingredients in Mineral Sunscreens

While oxybenzone is one of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the active ingredients in natural sunscreens.  Both of these two minerals are naturally occurring and both have extremely limited skin absorption.  Neither of these chemicals have the hormone disrupting effects of the chemicals from above.  In an effort of full disclosure, these two minerals are indeed harmful when ingested via the mouth.  So, unless you like to eat your sunscreen, you will be 100% safe using a mineral sunscreen.


Disadvantages of Natural Sunscreen

Mineral Sunscreens can be Whitening

Since mineral sunscreens sit on top of your skin, they will never apply quite as clear as conventional sunscreens.  Zinc oxide, one of the active ingredients in natural sunscreens, is what causes this whitening effect.  However, with new and better technologies, many companies have developed natural sunscreens that are non-whitening.  When these sunscreens are applied, they go on sheer, but many will still notice a slight change in skin color.  This can actually work to the advantage of mineral sunscreens because you can see exactly where you have applied your sunscreen.  If you notice a spot that you missed, you simply need to add a little more sunscreen.

It’s “Waterproofness”

Since natural sunscreens sit atop your skin, it is true that you may need to apply sunscreen more often after you get wet.  However, to be truly safe in the sun, you should reapply conventional sunscreens every time you get out of the pool.  In all actuality, there is no truly “waterproof” sunscreen, and the FDA no longer allows sunscreens to claim to be waterproof.  Instead, sunscreen companies now offer a water resistance period, generally 40 or 80 minutes. 

Be sure to read the following article for more information on how to choose your sunscreen.  Waterproofness, SPF, and sunscreen application are all covered. 

Natural Sunscreen is Expensive

Just like anything with the “natural” or “organic” label, natural sunscreens certainly cost more than their conventional counterparts.  A 10 ounce tube of Banana Boat sunscreen often runs less than $10, while a 6 ounce tube of Goddess Garden Natural Sunscreen will run about twice as much (and Goddess Garden is actually one of the less expensive natural brands).

On final word of caution before you dive into a natural sunscreen—read the label first.  There are many companies out there that claim to be “natural,” when in fact they contain some of the harmful chemicals mentioned above.  So be careful what you purchase and read labels carefully.  Regardless of what you buy, just make sure to wear your sunscreen.  In the end, chemical sunscreens may not be safe, but it is certainly better than nothing.      




Jun 4, 2012 12:30am
Thank you for a great review of sunscreens. Thumbs up!
Jun 4, 2012 9:28pm
Much appreciated! There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there, and this is my small part to begin to turn things around :)
Jun 4, 2012 8:30am
this is great i have swapped to using natural sunscreen for me and the kids, youre right the whitening effect is a small issue (especially with the 15 year old!!) but really it becomes unnoticeable after a short while
Jun 4, 2012 9:34pm
I've found that those who are used to chemical sunscreens have a difficult time adjusting to the "whitening" effect of natural sunscreens. If you find a good natural sunscreen though, it should go on pretty sheer. I work for an organic sunscreen company whose sunscreen gives off just a slight tint that is completely non-whitening.
Jun 4, 2012 7:49pm
Great article about sunscreens - right on time for the summer!


Jun 4, 2012 9:34pm
Thanks! Your comments are much appreciated!
Jun 6, 2012 5:55am
Excellent info. As a mom, I try to buy natural and organic as often as possible, but I never realized there were natural sunscreens available. Thanks so much for the timely article! :)
Jun 6, 2012 6:27am
Glad I could be of help.

Be careful when you purchase your "natural" sunscreens though. Just like with other foods, the term natural often means very little. If nothing else, make sure you stay away from oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, homosalate and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor. Do you really want to put those chemicals on your kids?!?
Jun 9, 2012 9:15pm
Thanks so much for sharing the information in this article. I am bookmarking it for future reference. Congratulations on being featured. Thumbs Up!
Nov 1, 2012 11:15am
Great article, thanks for the information! Is there more information on the side affects of these chemicals?
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  1. "Why Natural Sunscreen?." Goddess Garden. 24/05/2012 <Web >
  2. "Nanomaterials and Hormone Disrupters in Sunscreens." Environmental Working Group. 24/05/2012 <Web >
  3. "Sunscreens." American Academy of Dermatologists. 24/05/2012 <Web >
  4. "Sun Care Tips - Family." Banana Boat. 05/24/2012 <Web >
  5. "Why Natural Sunscreen?." Goddess Garden. 05/24/2012 <Web >

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