Is Sunscreen Safe? And the 4 Biggest Sunscreen Myths

Sara Angle
June 11, 2019

Sunscreen ingredients have long been debated—here’s how to choose the best sunscreen for you.

It’s no surprise that here at Parsley, we’re all about that SPF, especially given that more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year than all other cancers combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation . We’ve previously covered how to choose a safe sunscreen , but with research constantly evolving, it’s worth revisiting. Here’s what we know about the stuff, and how you can make smart decisions when it comes to sun protection.

Earlier this year, the FDA released new proposed sunscreen regulations that revealed quite a bit about the way scientists are thinking about sunscreen now. While the new guidelines won’t be officially released until November 2019, the proposal says that only two of the 16 ingredients currently being used in sunscreens are recognized safe and effective—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, both of which are found in mineral sunscreens. Two other ingredients, PABA and trolamine salicylate, are no longer recognized as safe, but have not been used in sunscreen for some time. The FDA said that there is not enough info yet about the remaining 12 ingredients, which are all found in chemical sunscreens.

Since this announcement, more sunscreen research has come out that will help the FDA further develop its regulations, including one study in the journal JAMA , that found that the sunscreen chemicals avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule soak all the way into peoples’ bloodstream. You may be thinking “duh,” but safety testing like this actually hadn’t been done on the active ingredients in sunscreen before because the ingredients were approved by the FDA decades ago. The study authors note that there still isn’t evidence to suggest that these ingredients cause any harmful effects in the body, but that more research is needed to investigate.

All of the info out there about sunscreen can be pretty confusing, and with that some sunscreen myths continue to circulate. We’re separating some fact from fiction to help you choose a safe sunscreen.

Myth # 1: All chemical sunscreens are bad.

Sunscreens can be split into two camps: chemical sunscreens, which absorb into your skin, convert the sun’s rays into energy, and then release them from the body, and physical, or mineral sunscreens, which sit on top of your skin and reflect the sun’s rays. “Currently, there is not enough evidence to say that all chemical sunscreens are bad, however, we do know that oxybenzone, an ingredient commonly found in chemical sunscreens, is associated with endocrine disruption and has anti-androgenic effects in animal and cell studies,” says Parsley Health doctor Lilli Link, MD . “For this reason, we usually recommend mineral sunscreens, though more human studies are needed to understand the potential effects.” More natural sunscreens typically do not contain as many harmful ingredients.

Myth #2: The higher the sunscreen SPF the better.

Opting for an SPF 100 sunscreen isn’t necessarily better than, say, an SPF 50, and it also doesn’t mean you can skip reapplying. That’s because SPF ratings and the amount of sun protection you are getting from them do not have a linear relationship. An SPF 15 means it filters out around 93 percent of UVB rays (the kind that burn your skin), while SPF 30 filters out 97 percent and SPF 50 filters 98 percent, per the Skin Cancer Foundation . Most dermatologists recommend an SPF 30 or higher and reapplying every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating.

Note that SPF doesn’t account for UVA rays—the kind that lead to wrinkles and premature skin aging. Look for a sunscreen that also says “broad spectrum,” meaning it protects from UVA rays as well. Even still, some research shows that American sunscreens labeled as “broad spectrum” may not block UVA rays as effectively as sunscreens produced in Europe, where sunscreen regulations are more stringent and advanced.

Myth #3: Sunscreen blocks Vitamin D production.

While you may have seen headlines that over-slathering on sunscreen is contributing to the nearly 1 billion people in the world with insufficient Vitamin D levels , research on the topic is still pretty mixed. One 2017 clinical review from The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association suggested that because they believe using sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher can reduce the body’s vitamin D3 production by 99 percent, individuals should avoid sunscreen use in midday sun for up to 30 minutes twice a week. However, another 2017 study found that while short-term sunscreen use blocked vitamin D production, it didn’t affect levels of vitamin D in the blood. A more recent review in the British Journal of Dermatology , concluded that sunscreen was unlikely to affect Vitamin D status, however.

So what does that mean for you? “A dermatologist will tell you to never go out without sunscreen in the warm weather, because your skin is their top priority,” says Dr. Link. “But I usually recommend going outside without sunscreen before 9am or after 4pm, and when you go out and the sun is stronger, wait about 10 minutes before applying sunscreen to increase your Vitamin D absorption while posing minimal risk to your skin,” she says.

Myth #4: Sunscreen is the only way to protect yourself from harmful rays.

Sunscreen should always be your first line of defense, especially because research has shown that just sticking to the shade doesn’t cut it. When people used a standard beach umbrella versus wearing sunscreen, 78 percent of people that used just the beach umbrella burned, while only 25 percent of people who wore sunscreen burned. But you can further protect yourself by seeking shade when the sun is strongest, between 10a.m. and 2p.m. and wearing UPF clothing (aka clothing with built-in sunscreen).

What is a safe sunscreen to buy?

“I recommend avoiding ingredients like oxybenzone and oxybenzene and looking for cream-based titanium dioxide and zinc oxide sunscreens,” says Dr. Link.

While Dr. Link recommends cream sunscreens to avoid the risk of inhaling aerosols, if you prefer a spray sunscreen, Babo Botanicals Sheer Zinc Continuous Spray Sunscreen SPF 30 is an option our health coaches like.
Other brands our doctors and health coaches like include Badger, Kabana, Suntegrity, Goddess Garden Organics, Coola, and Poofy Organics. When shopping for sunscreens, you can use the EWG’s Healthy Living app to scan barcodes and check their toxin rating, or check their 2019 Guide to Sunscreens .

Sara Angle

Sara is a content creator who has worked with outlets such as Outside Magazine, Well + Good, Healthline, and Men's Journal, and as a journalist at Shape and Self and publications in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Rome. She is also an ACE-certified personal trainer. She has a degree in communication with concentrated studies in journalism from Villanova University.

Outside of office hours, you can usually find her taking a dance class, trying out the latest fitness craze, or teaching and performing synchronized swimming with The Brooklyn Peaches.

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