Why We Don’t Recommend Chemical Sunscreens: Their Effect On Our Bodies & Oceans

6 min reading time

Sunscreen is a crucial part of staying safe in the summer. A single sunburn can increase the risk of skin cancer, and just 10 minutes in the sun can be enough to cause a sunburn in the summer months.

If you go to your local store, most of the sunscreens available will be chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing into the skin, where they sit and absorb UV rays, effectively protecting you from the sun.

Physical (mineral) sunscreens use titanium dioxide & zinc oxide. These minerals sit on the skin and physically reflect the suns rays—and are much safe and more eco-friendly than chemical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens are cheap to make, and it’s no wonder why they’re so popular. They’re typically much cheaper than mineral sunscreens, and you’ll find far fewer of them at stores.

But chemical sunscreens are awful for our environment and awful for us.

Let’s take a closer look at chemical sunscreens and find out why we at Better Goods never recommend products with chemical sunscreens.

Chemical Sunscreen Chemicals: Which Ones Are They?

Chemical sunscreens use one of the following 6 active ingredients, all of which are toxic to our coral reefs and other aquatic life:

Oxybenzone – This chemical has been linked to endocrine disruption and Hirschsprung’s disease. Also results in high rates of skin allergic reactions.

Octinoxate – This chemical is linked with endocrine disruption, organ system toxicity, and reproductive organ disruption in both males and females.

Homosalate – Linked to hormone disruption. In one study, this chemical was found in 85.2% of breast milk samples. It’s also been shown to increase the amount of pesticides we absorb through our skin.

Octocrylene – Found to be a strong allergen in children, leading to dermatitis.

Avobenzone – This UVA absorber is unstable on its own, needing to be paired with chemicals like homosalate. Also absorbed into the skin with currently unknown effects.

Octisalate – While official information on the dangers of this chemical are hard to find, it is absorbed into the skin and is best to be avoided.

The Disturbing 2020 FDA Study on Chemical Sunscreens

In early 2020, a study was published in the medical journal JAMA. The study was performed by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, part of the US’s Food and Drug Administration.

In the study, researchers had 48 participants apply sunscreen four times per day. The participants either used sprays, creams or lotions, and the sunscreens all contained a combination of six active sunscreen ingredients:

In the study, researchers had 48 participants (half men, half women) apply sunscreen four times per day. The participants either used aerosol sprays, pump bottles or squeeze tubes and the sunscreens all contained a combination of six active sunscreen ingredients: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate.

The study aimed to mimic the way in which someone would realistically use sunscreen. They applied sunscreen to 75% of their body—essentially anywhere that a swimsuit wouldn’t cover.

On the first day, participants applied sunscreen once. On the second, third and fourth days, participants took a shower in the morning, then applied sunscreen every two hours for a total of four times.

Researchers took a total of 34 blood samples from the participants over the course of the study. The results showed that all six of the chemical sunscreen ingredients were found in the participants’ bloodstreams in levels far exceeding recommended concentrations even after one application.

For example, oxybenzone was found in concentrations of 258.1 nl/mL, 500 times greater than the FDA’s level of concern after only four days of use.

It seems as though the absorption is accumulative, and these chemicals will stay in the bloodstream for weeks.

What’s concerning is that none of these ingredients have been fully tested for safety. We have no idea what effect these chemicals could have when absorbed into the body at high concentrations.

However, the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research isn’t condoning completely dropping chemical sunscreens:

The fact that an ingredient is absorbed through the skin and into the body doesn’t mean that particular ingredient is unsafe. Rather, this finding calls for further industry testing to determine the safety and effect of systemic exposure of sunscreen ingredients, especially with chronic use.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

The reason why the FDA isn’t telling people to stop using chemical sunscreens is only because the ingredients haven’t been fully studied.

However, since there are much safer alternatives in physical (mineral) sunscreens, there’s simply no reason to use chemical sunscreens.

Environmental Impact of Chemical Sunscreens

Chemical sunscreen has a huge impact on our coral reefs. 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in our oceans every year, and about 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean have died in the last 50 years. (source)

Some areas like Hawaii and Palau have introduced bans on chemical sunscreen in an attempt to curb the destruction of the coral reefs. In particular, Palau bans sunscreens with oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene and some parabens. As of Janurary 2021, Hawaii bans sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Chemical sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone contain nanoparticles that are absorbed by corals, in turn disrupting their growth and reproduction cycles, ultimately leading to their death.

There are other ways that chemical sunscreens are damaging our oceans:

  • Green Algae: Can impair growth and photosynthesis.
  • Mussels: Can induce defects in young.
  • Sea Urchins: Can damage immune and reproductive systems, and deform young.
  • Fish: Can decrease fertility and reproduction, and cause female characteristics in male fish.
  • Dolphins: Can accumulate in tissue and be transferred to young.

For these reasons, it’s crucial that we stop using chemical sunscreens in order to protect our oceans.

Why Mineral Sunscreens Are Safer & Better

Next up we have mineral sunscreens which use titanium dioxide & zinc oxide. These ingredients simply sit on top of the skin and deflect the sun’s rays.

According to the FDA, there’s enough evidence that these sunscreens don’t warrant the same health concerns as chemical sunscreens.

Let’s take a closer look at the ingredients:

  • Zinc oxide: The main active ingredient in mineral suncreens. It provides full-spectrum protection from both UVA & UVB rays.
  • Titanium dioxide: You’ll find this as an additive in some sunscreens. Titanium dioxide doesn’t provide full-spectrum UV protection.

Mineral sunscreens are effective immediately after application. Do you remember the old advice that you should apply your sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure? Well, that only applies to chemical sunscreens which need that time to be absorbed into the skin.

Do note that mineral sunscreens often don’t apply as transparently as chemical sunscreens do. Expect the possibility of white streaks and more difficulty in application.

In Conclusion

The risks of chemical sunscreen on our bodies and our oceans are high, and because there are safer alternatives in mineral sunscreens, there’s simply no reason to use them.

Please do your part and use a safe, mineral sunscreen this summer. See our full guide on mineral sunscreens here.

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