You know you should wear sunscreen everyday, but with hundreds to choose from, how do you find a healthy, safe sunscreen? It starts with the list of ingredients. The skin is the largest organ in your body, so it’s crucial to take care of it. Anything you put on your skin can end up in your body. This goes for any product you put on your skin, even ones that claim to protect you, like sunscreen.
Here’s everything you need to know about choosing a safe sunscreen.
Retinyl palmitate and retinols are forms of vitamin A, which might not sound so bad, but too much of this vitamin can have negative effects. One study from U.S. government scientists found that retinyl palmitate can speed development of skin tumors when applied to the skin in sunlight (1). German researchers also warn that retinols in skin products could cause too much vitamin A in the body, putting people at risk for reduced bone density (2).
Oxybenzone and oxybenzene are common active ingredients in sunscreen, with oxybenzone found in 65 percent of the non-mineral sunscreens in the Environmental Working Group’s 2018 sunscreen database (3). These ingredients do help protect you from the sun, but they ’re also known hormone disruptors and possible carcinogens. Scientists have linked oxybenzone exposure to lower levels of testosterone in boys (4) and high male birth weight and low female birth weight (5). Not only are they bad for you, they can be bad for the environment, decreasing egg production in fish and causing bleaching in coral reefs (6).
Mineral sunscreens with both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as the active ingredients create a barrier between the sun and your skin, without actually penetrating the skin, so they’re safe and effective. Unlike chemical sunscreens, they don’t break down in the sun. Most mineral sunscreens are better than they used to be, so you don’t have to worry about a chalky-white face.
Slathering on a sunscreen with an SPF over 50 not only isn’t more effective, it may actually be less effective at protecting your skin from sun damage. Any SPF greater than 50 filters out UVB rays, but many do not filter out UVA rays, research has found (7). So although you may not feel like you’re getting a sunburn, your skin is still being damaged. They also provide a false sense of security—you think you’re getting better protection, so you’re less likely to reapply.
Aerosol sunscreen can easily be inhaled, and even ingredients that are safe on your skin, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can be harmful when inhaled. Inhaled in large doses, titanium dioxide is a possible carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Carcinogens (8).
Dr. Robin Berzin is the founder and CEO of Parsley Health. A Summa Cum Laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, Robin completed medical school at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, and trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.