Which sunscreen is safe to use?

Which sunscreen is safe to use?

January 26, 2020

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Can you explain the news on studies related to sunscreen safety?


For those that did not catch recent news, another study came out in JAMA last week studying more chemical sunscreens on volunteers and examined how much sunscreen was absorbed into their bloodstream.  


The study looked at 6 common chemical sunscreen ingredients:


  • Avobenzone
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octinoxate
  • Homosalate


 importance of sunscreen

What did the researchers find?


This study confirmed that after just one day of use these chemicals were found in the bloodstream of the volunteers tested in concentrations higher than deemed safe by the FDA.  Although we do not yet know of any direct health risk that these chemicals can pose as a result of being in the bloodstream, the news is alarming. During a recent interview with Everyday Health, I stressed the importance of using safe sunscreens in light of the unknown risks associated with these chemical sunscreens.


Are there any health risks found with chemical sunscreens?

The next most common question we have been asked with regards to these studies is if chemical sunscreens are absorbed into our bloodstream, what happens next? How are they impacting our health?

The reason that these sunscreens are still widely available is simply that we do not have enough information to know if they actually have a negative impact on our health from absorption.  We do know that they have a positive effect on our health by reducing the incidence of skin cancer. This is important to understand.

Let’s look at Oxybenzone…


Oxybenzone is added to products to absorb UVB and some UVA rays.  

From a health perspective, did you know that :

  • Oxybenzone was found in the urine of 97% of people tested
  • Oxybenzone can react with chlorine in swimming pools to create potentially toxic compounds
  • Oxybenzone may act as an endocrine disruptor

From an environmental perspective, did you know that :

  • Oxybenzone has been found in waterways worldwide 
  • Oxybenzone has been shown to be toxic to coral and fish impacting marine life



“The most important thing to remember when it comes to sunscreens is that we do have choices. The sunscreens tested in this study were chemical sunscreen. As a Dermatologist and a mother I have always asked my patients to choose sunblock based on the ingredient label and not the brand. Look for active ingredients that you can pronounce- zinc and/or titanium - for most brands... Also remember that sunscreen is only one component of your sun safety plan. Hats, sunglasses and sunsafe clothing will limit your need for the use of sunscreen products.”


Erum Ilyas, MD, Practical Dermatology



What does “endocrine disruption” mean? 

We hear this term a lot when it comes to chemical sunscreens. It basically means that these sunscreens can look like estrogen, one of the main female hormones, to our bodies and have similar effects. 

They can also block the effects of androgen, one of the main male hormones. Some chemical sunscreens can also affect our stress response system referred to as the HPA axis (hypothalamic-pituitary axis).



What does it mean for our environment that sunscreen is in our waterways?

There are still limited studies to truly understand what the implications of finding this sunscreen in urine and in waterways mean overall.  However, we have so many options to choose from, it’s reasonable to consider looking for products that choose other ingredients.  

It is always important to limit our exposure overall to these products by limiting the amount needed.  Choose hats, sunglasses, and sun protective clothing to protect larger surface areas of your skin to minimize the need for sunscreen products.


What is the story behind ‘Reef-Safe Sunscreen’?

Key West banned sunscreens with ingredients that are thought to be harmful to coral reefs.  


There are two sunscreens in particular that have been shown to potentially impact coral reef. These are oxybenzone and octinoxate. Both are considered chemical sunscreens.


Chemical sunscreens are products that absorb UV to lessen its effects on the skin. It was discovered that coral was dying in tourist locations. Some areas can have thousands of tourists in the water on a particular day. So much so that the surface of the water can sometimes appear to have an ‘oil slick’ from all of the products people use!


Oxybenzone in many sunscreen products was shown to potentially damage the DNA of coral. This made coral sterile and unable to reproduce. Coral bleaching was another issue noted. 


The good news is that we have plenty of other products to choose from. There are currently 16 FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients. This leaves us with 14 other ingredients to choose from.



Why do companies even use chemical sunscreen in the first place? 

Companies that use chemical sunscreens are only using them because they are far more cosmetically acceptable to use- they do not tend to leave that whitish residue on our skin.  The goal is skin cancer prevention. These products can offer UV protection to potentially reduce the risk of skin cancer.


benzene in sunscreen

Which ingredients are considered safe in sunscreens?


The FDA proposed changes to sunscreen labeling that would deem certain ingredients as ‘GRASE’ or generally recognized as safe and effective. The two it would deem as GRASE are zinc and titanium. These are both physical sunblocks. These are also the two I tend to recommend using. The other sunscreen ingredients are currently considered safe to use however the FDA is requesting further information on safety.


What should I look for when I shop for sunscreen? 

In general, the safest sunscreens are the physical sunblocks that contain either zinc or titanium. These block the sun while chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays to diffuse its effects.  I had my research team go to drugstores, discount department stores, and grocery stores near my main office in King of Prussia to determine all available types of sunscreen and their ingredients. 


The goal of the study was to answer the basic question:


“If I recommend sunscreens that have only zinc or titanium in them, how easy is it for my patients to find these at their local stores?”



Sunscreen Expiration


What did they find?


The answer: It is not easy at all! Out of over 300 varieties of sunscreen products found around King of Prussia alone, only 36 sunscreens using only zinc and/or titanium as their active ingredient with no chemical sunscreens added were available. 


To find that only about 10% of sunscreens readily available on the shelves of our local stores had the ingredients I recommend was a real eye-opener in just how hard it is for our patients to navigate their sunscreen options.


Oxybenzone was found in 42% of the sunscreens found in local stores in our area by our research team during the summer of 2019. 

Is there a list of sunscreens you would recommend?

To make things easier, I have listed below the readily available sunscreens in our local stores that use only zinc or titanium as the active ingredient. This list is not exhaustive but a good start!  Always remember that the best way to protect your skin and minimize your exposure to products is through sun- protective clothing as this will cover a much larger surface area, minimizing the need for sunscreen products, and will work throughout the day.


Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin SPF 50

Babo Botanicals Clear for Babies Fragrance Free Zinc Sunscreen Lotion - SPF 30



Badger Clear Zinc Sunscreen Cream - SPF 35

Banana Boat Kids Sport 50 Tear Free, Sting Free

Banana Boat Simply Protect Baby 50+ Lotion

Bare Republic Mineral 30

Bare Republic Mineral Baby Lotion 50 Sport

Bare Republic Mineral Citrus Cooler 30 Spray

Bare Republic Mineral Diamond Dust 30

Bare Republic Mineral Sport 50

Bare Republic Sport Stick

Australian Gold Botanical 30

Australian Gold Botanical 50

Cerave Hydrating Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Body

Cerave Hydrating Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Face

Cerave Hydrating Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50

Cerave Hydrating Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Body

Coppertone Pure and Simple Baby 50

Coppertone Water Babies 50 Pure and Simple Tear Free

CVS Health  Broad Spectrum Lotion SPF 70

CVS Health Baby Pure and Gentle Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Stick 

SPF 60

Goddess Garden Baby Sunscreen Stick SPF 50

La Roche Posay Anthelios 50 Mineral

Neutrogena Pure and Free Baby 50

Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Broad Spectrum SPF 60+

Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Face Dry Touch Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50

NO AD Naturals 50 Baby

NO AD Naturals 50 Kids

Sun Bum Mineral Sunscreen Lotion - SPF 50

Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50

Two Peas Organics Mineral Sunscreens - SPF 30

Up & Up Kids' Mineral Formula Sunscreen Lotion - SPF 50

Walgreens Brand 50 Baby Lotion

Wegmans Baby Pure & Gentle Broad Spectrum SPF50 Sunscreen Stick 

Wegmans Mineral Broad Spectrum SPF 50 Sunscreen Stick 

AmberSkinCare by AmberNoon Mineral Sunscreen Lotion

AmberSkinCare by AmberNoon Tinted Mineral Sunscreen

** this list is based solely on products with physical sunscreen ingredients, Zinc and/or Titanium


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