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!



Toxic-Free Fun in the Sun: Review of EWG’s 2017 Sunscreen Guide

Since it is the beginning of summer and we are all eager to shed our winter clothes and spend some time in the sun, I decided it would be a good time to talk about sun protection. Or more specifically, the chemicals in many sunscreens that are toxic to our bodies and our beautiful oceans. The good news is that the market for safer sunscreens is growing and there are now many effective alternatives to toxic products.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released its 11th annual sunscreen guide, which you can find here: The highlights of this report are:

  • Sunscreens give false sense of security about risk of skin cancer and don’t block our skin from UV rays fully.
    • UVA rays penetrate deeper and produce free radicals, linked to skin cancer. Many sunscreens, especially those in the US, are not very effective at blocking UVA.
  • SPF is not a good rating system and exaggerates effectiveness of sunscreen.
    • Many consumers buy high SPF sunscreens thinking it affords them better sun protection. The value of SPF is not linear and effectiveness varies greatly depending on sun intensity, amount used, and reapplication. If used correctly, SPF 50 will protect you from 98% of UVB rays, while SPF 100 shields 99% of UVB rays. After about SPF 50, the difference in sun protection is pretty negligible.
  • Vitamin A can increase risk of skin cancer.
    • Studies have shown accelerated skin tumor growth in connection with some forms of Vitamin A, a common ingredient in sunscreens.
  • Mineral sunscreens, using Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide are the recommended alternatives, even if they use nanoparticles.
    • There has been great concern over the health impacts of nanoparticles, but according to EWG, there is little evidence that consumers need to worry about skin absorption. Compared to the health risks of chemical ingredients, mineral sunscreens are still the safer option.

Most sunscreen ingredients (chemical UV filters) have not been tested for health impacts and have been in use since the 1970s. This is connected to the deeper issue of the personal care industry having virtually no regulation by the government, which I will address in one of my next blog posts.

EWG lists oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate as the most common chemical UV filters. You can read more in-depth about this part of the report in the section Trouble with Sunscreen Chemicals. The most worrisome ingredient is Oxybenzone, which is a skin allergen and possible hormone disrupting chemical. The EWG also points to the preservative methylisothiazolinone, common in sunscreens, for causing skin sensitivities and allergies.

Additionally, many of the non-active ingredients in sunscreen can be harmful to your health. Like many other personal care products, sunscreens often contain “inactive” petrochemical ingredients. These include preservatives, fragrances, and skin penetration enhancers.

Aside from the health concerns, most commercial sunscreens have a huge impact on marine life. According to an article (Sunscreen Pollution) published last year by the NGO MarineSafe, Oxybenzone damages coral, algae, fish, and other animals in the ocean – it instigates coral bleaching and disrupts normal hormone function in animals. Many other ingredients in sunscreens, and personal care products more broadly, have profound ecological damage as well. This article also notes that some natural ingredients found in skin care products are toxic to marine life, which indicates we have further work to do in the area of finding ingredients that are safe to us and our wildlife counterparts.

Mineral sunscreens, which are free of chemical UV filters and other toxic chemicals, are highly recommended by the EWG. You can find a list of sunscreens that meet EWG’s criteria here: Some brands offer reef safe or eco-friendly sunscreens; unfortunately there is no official certification system for evaluating marine safe sunscreens.

My sunscreen brand of choice right now is Caribbean Sol, which EWG gives a rating of one (lower is better). I like this brand because they also tout the eco-friendly side of the product, not just human safety. I’ve found their water resistant 30 SPF sunscreen to work very well after a week of snorkeling in Hawaii. However, as EWG points out in their report, the effectiveness of a sunscreen does depend on how thick a coat is applied and how often you apply it. This is another reason to choose a toxic-free sunscreen – you’re supposed to slather that stuff on your skin in a pretty thick layer. The more you put on, the more you increase your exposure to toxic chemicals, and the health risks of those ingredients starts to outweigh the benefit of the product’s sun protection.

I find the information from MarineSafe’s article on sunscreen pollution quite unsettling – I was unaware that certain “natural” ingredients could also be toxic to marine life. I’m going to dig through the sunscreen list from EWG and do a little investigative work to determine which products are actually marine-safe and human safe. I will report my findings in a follow-up post next week.

Wellness Mama, another reducing-toxic-chemicals blog has a good article about toxic chemicals in sunscreens and offers a DIY recipe: