Before you throw on a swimsuit and grab your sunglasses for a day of sunbathing, there's an important step you should not skip: applying sunscreen. I see an eye roll coming and maybe even the common excuse I hear from my patients, “there’s no hormone safe sunscreen,” so let me explain.
While sunscreen can be an annoying part of the sunbathing process with all the reapplying and the pesky white sheen that so many brands cause, it is necessary to protect your health and to keep your skin looking young. Skin cancer deaths are real and you can proactively prevent damage to your skin.
I can hear you asking, “But what about Vitamin D?”. Vitamin D is so important for various reasons (like menstrual health, immune health, and more), so I do think that some daily sun exposure (without sunscreen) is important, but if the sun is out where you live, this will inevitably happen for most people. But at a certain point, we definitely still need sunscreen to protect our skin from harmful UV rays.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation can negatively affect the skin. It could cause premature aging, sunburn, and precancerous and cancerous lesions. UVA may cause accelerated skin aging and pigmentation, while UVB can cause sunburn and can cause your DNA strands to break.
How Safe Is Sunscreen?
There are two main types of sunscreen: physical blockers and chemical blockers. Physical sunscreens are those that contain mineral ingredients (e.g. zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). These ingredients sit on the skin and deflect harmful UV rays. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays.
While sunscreen should be a vital part of your daily skincare routine, it is worth noting that many chemical sunscreens on the market today can contain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which can contribute to hormonal imbalance.
Why You Shouldn’t Choose Chemical Sunscreens
One of the main problems with chemical sunscreen is that many of the ingredients in them are EDCs. We should try to avoid EDCs as much as possible, as they are chemicals that mimic our natural hormones, and not in a good way.
EDCs are commonplace in our world, and by mimicking the hormones our body naturally produces, they can wreak havoc on the balance of our hormones. EDCs can affect the adrenals, thyroid, and hormones produced by the ovaries. These chemicals have also been linked to thyroid disease, birth defects, cancer, and infertility.
Sunscreen Ingredients To Avoid
Not all sunscreen components are created equal, and there are a lot of sunscreens out there to choose from. Luckily, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a comprehensive sunscreen guide and updates it regularly. The EWG rates the most common ingredients based on whether or not they are harmful or allergenic to our bodies. This is what I tell my patients to use when sunscreen shopping to take the stress out of the process.
Below is a list of ingredients with the most potential to be harmful, according to EWG:
- Octinoxate (Octyl methoxycinnamate)
Hormone Disruption In Sunscreen
I have written at length about how the modern world makes avoiding hormone disruption extremely difficult. Our personal care products, makeup, household cleaners, laundry detergents, perfumes, and more can all play a role in hormone disruption, especially if they contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
While some would say, it’s a small exposure or there is not enough data to avoid, I’d caution you about this advice. There are not extensive studies looking at the combination of products that most of us use and the long term effect of these multiple exposures to tell us they are safe. I personally don’t feel comfortable advising people to take the risk under the assumption they may be safe.
You’ve likely heard conflicting information about sunscreen from different health professionals. The American Academy of Dermatology says that sunscreen is safe and most dermatologists will tell you the same. But The American Academy for Pediatrics (AAP) tells us that we should avoid potentially harmful chemicals like oxybenzone in children.
And then we see new studies coming out about certain chemicals found in sunscreen disrupting sperm function, specifically oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3 or BP-3), avobenzone, octisalate (also known as octyl salicylate), homosalate, meradimate, octinoxate (or octyl methoxycinnamate), octocrylene, and padimate O.
Oxybenzone Hormone Disruptor
In sunscreen, one of the most notorious EDCs is oxybenzone. In one study, researchers showed that oxybenzone changed the mammary glands of mice. Additionally, exposure to oxybenzone caused permanent changes to the ductal density of the mammary glands.
Why the changes to mammary tissue? Because oxybenzone is estrogenic, meaning that it mimics estrogen. This means it can affect your breasts, reproductive organs and can have a negative impact on growth and development.
The FDA has called for more research into the effects of oxybenzone. So far, they’ve found that it may be absorbed into the skin at higher levels than previous data suggested. There may also be a risk in using oxybenzone during pregnancy, as it may cause harm to a developing fetus.
So, what's the alternative? It’s not a step to skip – we definitely still need sunscreen to protect our skin from harmful UV rays.
Hormone Safe Natural Sunscreen Options
While many popular sunscreen brands contain chemicals we should avoid if we can, many hormone-safe sunscreen options will provide adequate UV protection without the possible damage to your hormonal health. Mineral sunscreen and plant-based sunscreen are two great options for hormone-safe sun protection. Bonus: Both these options are usually also reef-safe, which means that they will not bleach or damage our ocean's living coral reefs and their ecosystems.
Mineral sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) sit on the surface of the skin and prevent a portion of UV rays from penetrating. This type of sunscreen is typically safer for those who are trying to limit their exposure to potentially harmful chemicals. Mineral sunscreens can also be more gentle than chemical sunscreens for children and those with skin conditions, like eczema.
Plant-Based Mineral Sunscreen
Plant-based sunscreens typically do not contain any animal products. (If a product is labeled “vegan,” it contains no animal-derived ingredients.)
Just because a sunscreen is plant-based doesn’t mean it is a mineral sunscreen, or a hormone-safe sunscreen. Some plant-based or vegan sunscreens can contain ingredients in the “to avoid” list above, without a trace of animal products.
Don’t Forget to Cover Up
Even when wearing sunscreen, using a hat and other UV protective clothing can help avoid excess or unwanted sun exposure. Seeking out shade or bringing your own umbrella to the beach can also help you get the sun you want when you want it and avoid it when you don’t. Most experts agree it is best to avoid the sun between 10 am to 2 pm, with others saying it should be avoided all the way until 4 pm due to the intensity of its rays.
And remember, just because you can’t see the sun doesn’t mean it isn’t making it’s way through the clouds and to your skin.
What To Look For In Safe Sunscreen
It can be difficult to figure out what makes sunscreen safe, but there are a few basic factors to evaluate before purchasing.
Active ingredients are those in a product that are directly involved in preventing or treating a condition. In a hormone-friendly sunscreen, examples of active ingredients would be zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as these are actively protecting the skin from the sun.
Inactive ingredients in sunscreens are not involved in preventing sun-related skin damage. However, inactive ingredients are necessary for most products, as they act as emulsifiers, binders, stabilizers, etc. Examples of inactive ingredients include aloe vera – which helps to soothe sunburn – and oils and butters – to help moisturize the skin and distribute the active ingredients.
Many of us need sunscreen while we’re swimming. It’s important that whatever sunscreen we choose has some measure of water resistance, so it doesn’t immediately wash off when we get wet. That being said, even if a sunscreen is water-resistant, you should still reapply frequently.
Broad-spectrum simply means that the sunscreen will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered broad-spectrum.
How To Choose Pregnancy Safe Sunscreen
Mineral sunscreens are the best option for pregnant women. Certain chemicals in chemical sunscreen (Looking at you, oxybenzone) might cause birth defects in children. It is also advisable to continue with pregnancy-friendly mineral sunscreens while breastfeeding, too, because traces of oxybenzone have even been found in breastmilk!
Best Non-Toxic Sunscreens
Luckily, there are loads of options for us to choose from if we’re looking to ditch chemical sunscreen and opt for the mineral alternative. I personally only use sunscreens containing zinc oxide as the active ingredient, and I try to stick to baby formulations when possible. No, it’s not a great look to have a white layer on your skin, but neither is skin cancer.
Finding safe sunscreen is also made easy thanks to EWG’s Skin Deep Database. You can also download the EWG Skin Deep app to compare products right in the store. Easily search for sunscreens, and filter the results to see the cleanest ones first.
Some of the top non-toxic sunscreens include:
- C'est Moi Gentle Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
- Biossance Squalane + Zinc Sheer Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion, Fragrance Free, SPF 30
- 3rd Rock Sunblock, Unscented, SPF 35
- Adorable Baby Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30+
When it comes to sun protection should you just skip the sunscreen if you know it contains these potentially harmful chemicals? Definitely not. Listen, you’re not going to get it right or be perfect all the time. The purpose of this article is to educate you so you can make the best decisions whenever possible. But sometimes, that convenience store where you’re making last minute grabs of forgotten vacation items just doesn’t have the best options. It’s better to protect your skin and use these products in the short term than risk irreversible skin damage.
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- Environmental Working Group. EWG's 2020 Guide to Safer Sunscreens. EWG: Know your environment. Protect your health.
- LaPlante CD, Bansal R, Dunphy KA, Jerry DJ, Vandenberg LN. Oxybenzone Alters Mammary Gland Morphology in Mice Exposed During Pregnancy and Lactation. J Endocr Soc. 2018. 2. 903-921.
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- Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. Inactive Ingredients Search FAQ. FDA.
- DiNardo JC, Downs CA. Can oxybenzone cause Hirschsprung’s disease?. Reproductive Toxicology. 2019. 86. 98-100.