Toxic-Free Fun in the Sun Follow-Up: Avoiding Toxic Chemicals & Choosing Safer Products

This is a follow-up to my Toxic-Free Fun in the Sun post last week where I provided an overview on the current research regarding health and environmental impacts of sunscreen chemicals. As part of this, I created a list of sunscreens that I think are safe to use for you and the ecosystem, which you can find down at the end of this blog post, past the sciencey stuff!

Photo my mom took snorkeling at Kahalu’u Bay, Hawaii. You can see bleached coral here, which I think is Lobe Coral.

I wanted to investigate the specific toxic chemicals in sunscreens and dig a little deeper into the possibility of “natural” sunscreens still being toxic to aquatic life. What is learned is this: while there is some indication that natural ingredients with insecticidal properties may pose a danger to some marine life, mineral sunscreens are still the much, much better option over chemical ones.

The natural ingredients that may harm marine life include neem oil, citrus essential oils, clove, cedarwood, cinnamon, citronella, eucalyptus, fennel, geranium, lemon grass, Manuka, niaouli, patchouli, peppermint, and tea tree essential oils.

Healthy Lobe Coral, from

There is also concern over the use of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in mineral sunscreens, especially at the nanoparticle level. Here is the simplified version of the issue: “nanoparticles” became a hot buzz word and people started using them in all sorts of products from skin care to socks. Then there was a backlash and concern over health implications from using microscopic version of these materials. There is weak data suggesting health risks associated with nanoparticles unless they are inhaled – this goes for most fine powders when inhaled. It is difficult to accurately measure, and thus, define what constitutes a nanoparticle; the FDA has not taken an official stance on defining what constitutes nanomaterial. Many companies choose to use non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to be on the safe side, and hopefully they do enough testing on the ingredients that their claims are true for the final product. Badger Balm has a good article on the issue of nanoparticles in sunscreens and how they conduct testing to ensure their products are true to size. EWG still recommends coated nanoparticles over traditional chemical UV filters.

I had an email exchange with someone from the NGO MarineSafe and their opinion was that “chemicals such as oxybenzone will do far more and wide reaching damage in the ocean than natural ingredients. These chemicals are persistent and long lived in their impact so switching to products that avoid this substance will make an immediate positive impact on the environment.”

For sunscreens, active and inactive ingredients can be toxic, so it’s important to not just find a mineral based sunscreen, but also find one that is free of other toxic chemicals. I would recommend you follow the same precautions as you would with other skin products as a general rule of thumb, but I’ve highlighted some of the common ingredients in sunscreen that are essential to avoid:

Oxybenzone: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG score: 8

  • Carcinogenic (increase production of free radicals) & possible mutagen
  • Studies link high level exposure to other health concerns including eczema, skin allergy reactions, breast cancer, low birthweights, and endometriosis in older women
  • Coral bleaching, damages coral DNA & disrupts endocrine function (One drop in amount of water equal to 6 ½ Olympic-size swimming pools is enough to cause harm to coral)
  • Harmful to algae, sea urchins, fish & mammals

Methylisothiazolinone: Preservative  |  EWG score: N/A

  • “2013 allergen of the year” by American Contact Dermatitis Society
  • Possible neurotoxicity
  • Possible harm to marine life as it inhibits growth of bacterial & microorganisms (some of which are beneficial); data seems limited

Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A):  …  |  EWG score: 5-9
The “…” is because it doesn’t serve much function, they say it’s to enhance performance, but that’s just what they say…

  • Link to skin tumors & lesions on sun-exposed skin: may accelerate cancer growth
  • Frequent use might pose danger to fetuses (brain swelling, DNA changes, developmental problems, organ toxicity)
  • Highly persistent and toxic to aquatic life (didn’t find much info on this though)
  • Other names: retinyl acetate, retinyl linoleate, retinol

Octinoxate: Penetration enhancer   |  EWG score: 6

  • EDC* (mimics estrogen & can disrupt thyroid function)
  • May contribute to premature aging (damages skin cells by producing free radicals)
  • Development & reproductive toxicity
  • Highest risk: pregnant women & children due to estrogen mimicking

(*EDC = Endocrine Disrupting Chemical)

Homosalate: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG Score: 4

  • Possible EDC/might enhance pesticide absorption in body
  • Possible environmental toxin; persistent/bioaccumulative

Octisalate: Chemical UV Filter & penetration enhancer  |  EWG Score: 3

  • Weak hormone disruptor & breaks down into toxic metabolites
  • Possibility that is can enhance herbicide absorption

Octocylene: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG Score: 3

  • Accumulates in body
  • Creates free radicals leading to cell damage & DNA changes

4-methylbenzylidene camphor: Chemical UV Filter  |  EWG Score: 7

  • EDC; possible developmental toxicity
  • Persistent/bioaccumulative

Parabens: Preservative  |  EWG Score: 4-7

  • EDC (estrogen mimicker, which causes a cascade of other health problems including cancer)

Fragrance (parfum): Artificial scent  |  EWG Score: 8

  • EDC; cancer, neurotoxicity, allergies, birth defects

Mineral Sunscreens

So, now that we know what to avoid, what are some products that we can use? There are thousands of sunscreen products out there, but after digging through EWG’s recommendations, scuba or Caribbean tourist websites, and other blogs, I’ve developed a list of brands/products that I think would be safe and affordable options.

Also, remember, there are non-sunscreen options to reducing your chance of skin cancer and avoiding sun burns. For example, staying indoors during the midafternoon when UV rays are most potent, staying in the shade, or wearing sun protective clothing are all good options. Good luck and stay unburned out there!