The Safest Sunscreens To Buy – And Which Ingredients To Avoid?


sunscreen is a must in summer. It protects against ultraviolet light exposure associated with skin cancer, as well as changes often associated with aging. Because of these proven benefits, sunscreen has remained largely uncontroversial for much of its nearly century-long history.

In recent years, however, chemicals found in the vast majority of sunscreens have come under scrutiny from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and others. While the subject needs further study, there are concerns about ingredients entering the bloodstream, possible hormonal effects on humans — especially in young people — and the potential degradation of coral reefs when certain sunscreens end up in the ocean. A committee from the National Academies of Sciences is investigating some of these health and safety questions and is expected to issue a report in the coming months.

This is what experts say is the healthiest approach to sun protection.

How does sunscreen work?

There are two basic types of sunscreen: physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreens, also called mineral sunscreens, sit on top of the skin and block UV rays. “They are effective immediately,” says Dr. Julie Karen, a dermatologist and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation; users do not have to wait the approximately 15 minutes that chemical sunscreens require for the ingredients to provide full protection. There are also only two active ingredients in physical sunscreens — zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — and these are generally good for sensitive skin, she says.

The main drawback of physical sunscreen, Karen explains, is that it can leave a chalky or pasty appearance on the skin. Chemical sunscreen solves that problem because it is absorbed through the skin, where it then absorbs ultraviolet light and converts it into non-harmful heat. There are currently about 16 chemical blockers approved for use in the United States, and many more than that in other countries.

“The chemical sunscreens are much more elegant,” Karen says, although both can be effective at blocking short- and long-wave ultraviolet light.

Which sunscreen is the safest?

Many dermatologists say that the best sunscreen is the one that people tolerate and actually use. But there are open questions about the health effects of chemical sunscreens on people and the environment.

The chemical that has perhaps received the most attention is oxybenzone. “That’s the one that has been shown to have the most penetration,” says Dr. Henry Lim, a dermatologist at Henry Ford Medical Center and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology. “And it’s the one that’s been shown to have the most environmental impact.”

In a 2020 study published in the Journal of the American Medical AssociationFDA researchers studied six active ingredients in chemical sunscreens — oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate — and found that the skin absorbed all the chemicals in “concentrations that exceeded the FDA threshold for potentially forgoing some of the additional safety studies.” for sunscreens,” the study authors wrote. “While additional data is needed, the results showed that all six active ingredients were absorbed into the body’s bloodstream — even after a single use,” the FDA wrote of the findings, and “Once absorbed, these active ingredients can remain in the body for a longer period of time. time periods.” Other studies have shown that oxybenzone can affect hormone production, although many look at relatively high concentrations in rats. However, the FDA continues to consider products containing all of these chemicals to be safe.

“The FDA has reiterated that absorption does not equate to risk and is advising continued use of sunscreen as they work with industry to study the issue,” Karen says. But, she emphasizes, “if you’re concerned about oxybenzone for any reason, I recommend choosing a sunscreen without it.” Oxybenzone also has an impact on ocean health, says Katie Day, environmental science and policy manager at the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting beaches and water. When the chemical is exposed to ultraviolet light, it can lead to coral bleaching. A study published in the Archives of Environmental Pollution and Toxicology in 2016, found that it “poses a threat to coral reef conservation and threatens the resilience of coral reefs to climate change.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association lists oxybenzone as one of ten chemicals found in sunscreen that “may harm marine life.”

In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Other places, from Key West, Florida to the US Virgin Islands, have followed suit with similar or even stricter bans.

In 2019, the FDA asked for more research from sunscreen manufacturers, and the National Academies of Sciences also has a committee investigating the effects of chemical sunscreens. However, Day doesn’t wait for the results to tell people to avoid chemical sunscreens. “I would completely advise against using it,” she says.

What you need to know about benzene

In 2021, the internet was abuzz with headlines questioning the safety of sunscreen. The trigger was the discovery of the cancer-causing chemical benzene in certain sunscreens, usually sprays. The online pharmacy and lab Valisure tested nearly 300 batches of sunscreen from more than five dozen manufacturers and found that 27% of them contained the carcinogen, even though benzene was not on the list. Some manufacturers, such as Johnson & Johnson and Coppertone, have voluntarily recalled their products.

“The contamination could be related to inactive ingredients in drugs such as carbomers (thickeners), isobutane (a propellant in an aerosol), or other drug components made from hydrocarbons (chemicals made from hydrogen and carbon),” the FDA wrote on its website. Karen emphasizes that the problem was not inherent in sunscreen, but rather a manufacturing problem that companies have taken to remedy it. “This shouldn’t make people afraid of sunscreen,” she says.

Which sunscreen should I use if I’m concerned?

Lim tells his patients that all approved sunscreens are safe to use, but anyone concerned about the health or environmental effects of certain chemicals should read the label’s ingredients list carefully. Even the term “reef safe” can’t be taken at its word because it’s not regulated, he says.

“It’s easier and more practical to use mineral sunscreen,” he says, which doesn’t contain any of the chemical filters. Day agrees and also recommends looking for the “broad spectrum” label, as it protects against the widest range of ultraviolet light.

Experts add that sun management begins before anyone chooses sunscreen. People should seek shade and wear long, light clothing, as well as wide-brimmed hats, saving sunscreen on the areas that are still exposed. They then have to make sure to reapply every few hours when exposed to the sun – and Karen, Day and Lim all expressed a distaste for spraying sunscreens, which are difficult to apply correctly and at risk of accidental inhalation during a job interview.

“Sun protection is a total package,” says Lim. “Sunscreen is an important part, but not the only part.”

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