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11 Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients to Stay Away From (plus what to use instead)

Summer is right around the corner (June 21st).


Which means that stores are stocking up on sunscreen with every SPF under the sun. And you’re slathering it all over your skin, the kids, the grandkids, and whoever else you can get your hands on.


Because protecting your skin from the ultra-radiant sun and its UV rays is your most important mission every single summer.


In this article, you’ll learn what UV rays are, the 11 toxic sunscreen chemicals to avoid, and the more natural sunscreen you and your family will want to reach for this summer.

What Are UV Rays?

Ultraviolet (UV) light is a type of invisible electromagnetic radiation that is emitted by the sun (1).


There are a few different types of solar UV energy—UVA, UVB, and UVC. The two that are the strongest and most damaging to living things are UVA and UVB (2).


Here’s how it works: Of the solar energy that reaches the equator, 95% is UVA and 5% is UVB. UVC is very unlikely to reach the earth’s surface due to things like ozone, molecular oxygen, and water vapor in the upper atmosphere (3).

UVA and UVB skin protection infographic.

Although the sun gets bashed for transmitting so much radiation, only 10% of its sunlight is UV.


Here are a few important facts you should know about UV rays (4)...

  • UV rays are at their strongest between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM
  • UV rays are stronger during the spring and summer months
  • UV rays can get through to the ground, even on a cloudy day
  • UV rays can bounce off surfaces like water, sand, snow, pavement, and even grass (this means an increase in UV exposure)
  • Man-made sources of UV rays include tanning beds, UV therapy, black-light lamps, mercury-vapor lamps, plasma torches, and welding arcs

The Side Effects of UV Rays

The sun is what brings life to this earth. It generates photosynthesis, weather patterns, and solar energy.


Despite all the good it does for us, there are safety measures to take. Because as the old adage goes, “Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.”


And you already know what happens when you get too much sun: A red, painful, blistering sunburn.


Repeated sun exposure throughout one’s life is what leads to skin cancers like basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, and melanoma (5).

11 Harmful Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid

Believe it or not, there are both good sunscreens and bad sunscreens out there.


When it comes to SPFs, there are 11 harmful ingredients you should be on the lookout for (6, 7):

  1. Aluminum
  2. Benzophenones
  3. Enzacamene (4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor or 4-MBC)
  4. Homosalate
  5. Isopentyl-4-Methoxycinnamate
  6. Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate or OMC)
  7. Octisalate
  8. Octocrylene
  9. Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3 or BP-3)
  10. Sulisobenzone (Benzophenone-4 or BP-4)
  11. 3-Benzylidene Camphor


Why are there so many unsafe ingredients in sunscreen, you ask?


Because the FDA automatically grandfathered in these ingredients back in the 1970s without reviewing their potential hazards.


Fast forward to 2022...The only two active sunscreen ingredients that the FDA has marked as “generally recognized as safe” (GRASE) are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (8).


Even though this is a positive step in the right direction, there are still dozens of sunscreen products with those 11 chemicals listed above. The absolute worst of those is oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3, not to be confused with benzophenone), which is linked to endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, contact allergies, and photoallergies (7, 9).


Many people don’t realize that with just one application of sunscreen, those chemicals seep into your bloodstream and stay there for weeks. So much so that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely find oxybenzone in 96% of Americans.


So now that you know which sunscreen ingredients to avoid, what type of sunscreen should you turn to?

The Healthier, More Natural Sunscreen to Use Instead

As you’re scrolling through sunscreens online or roaming the aisles of your local grocery store, be on the lookout for a mineral sunscreen that says “broad-spectrum” or “UVA/UVB protection”.


Applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.


This is important since UVB rays are the root cause of sunburns and UVA rays are associated with aging (because they penetrate deeper into the skin) (10).

Infographic skin illustration. The difference between UVA and UVB exposure.

A more natural sunscreen alternative is a non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen. The unique benefit of this sunscreen is that its particles are large enough so that they aren’t absorbed by the skin (7).


This may leave a white film on the skin, but you can rest assured that you’re safely protected from UV rays AND toxic chemicals.

The Difference between SPFs

SPFs over 30 don’t make much of a difference in terms of protection. Here are the general guidelines:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays


Although there isn’t a sunscreen that can block all UV rays, an SPF 30 will do the job. But if you have fairer skin, you would benefit from an SPF 50 and the extra 1% protection it provides.


If things like gardening, golf, or a long hike have you out in the sun all day, be sure to reapply your mineral sunscreen every 2 hours. Studies also show that a double application of sunscreen before sun exposure optimizes protection compared to a single application (11).

So, How Much Sun Should I Be Getting?

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends getting 5 to 15 minutes of sun exposure 2 to 3 times a week—without the application of sunscreen (12).


Once you exceed 5 to 15 minutes, it’s wise to slather on an SPF 30 sunscreen that’s free of the following five chemicals: Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate, Octisalate, and Octocrylene.

What If I Don’t Get Outside Much?

If you’re one who doesn’t make it outside often, then I recommend adding a Vitamin D supplement to your wellness regimen.


It’s estimated that 35% of Americans are deficient in this essential nutrient.


Vitamin D is unique because it’s the ONLY vitamin that can be produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight. Hence why it’s called the “sunshine vitamin”. So if you’re not getting adequate sun exposure, you’re not getting much vitamin D.


The reason why vitamin D is so important is because it plays a vital part in the health of your bones, intestines, immune and cardiovascular systems, pancreas, muscles, brain, calcium homeostasis, and the control of cell cycles (13, 14).


The best vitamin D supplement to take is one that has both vitamin D3 and K2. This combination will have powerful effects on your bone mineral density, while also helping to decrease blood glucose levels (15, 16).

The Bottom Line

Sunlight is necessary for your health, well-being, and overall vitality.


Without it, we wouldn’t be alive. It’s what keeps us warm, what triggers the production of vitamin D and serotonin (the happy hormone), and what improves skin conditions like psoriasis, eczema, and acne (17, 18).


Once you’ve exceeded your weekly dose of sunshine, be sure to apply a chemical-free broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen with an SPF 30 to keep your skin looking youthful and free of cancer, sun spots, and wrinkles.

Certified Health Coach and Head of Content at NativePath (aka I’m the gal responsible for ensuring that every blog we publish helps you live life a little more #OnThePath).

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Medical Disclaimer
This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice or to take the place of such advice or treatment from a personal physician. All readers/viewers of this content are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals regarding specific health questions. Neither Dr. Chad Walding nor the publisher of this content takes responsibility for possible health consequences of any person or persons reading or following the information in this educational content. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, should consult their physicians before beginning any nutrition, supplement, or lifestyle program.

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