Sunscreen: Is it toxic? (And if so, what do we do?!)

non toxic sunscreen

Toxic and non toxic sunscreen, let’s discuss, shall we? Because nothing sounds more fun to me today than diving into a super polarizing wellness topic on the internet!

Why are we talking about sunscreen?

I’m glad you asked. There seems to be some confusion regarding whether or not sunscreen is actually safe. And if it’s not in fact, safe, then what the hell are we supposed to do because neither is skin cancer.

Before we get going on this though, I’d like to touch on the fact that some people get real fired up about this. I get that.

I want to make it clear that I’m in no way saying “Don’t use sunscreen and just walk around getting burnt as hell all summer!” No. That’s not what I’m saying.

The purpose of this article is to address a conversation I had with my college roommate the other day (where, honestly, a lot of my article ideas originate) that went something like this:

“What baby sunscreen did you get for E?”

“This one!”

“Oh, thanks. I’m brain dead with this move, but Foster has some pasty ass skin and I think it’s time to slather.”

“Yeah. Seems like sunscreen is probably not great but, neither is skin cancer so, what are you gonna do? Ya know?”

And also, before moving on, I want to note that I take skin cancer very seriously. My mom had melanoma in the 90s and more recently had basal cells removed. And I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting my wonderful mother-in-law because she succumbed to the disease before I met Joel. Skin cancer has been personally devastating to my family, so this is a topic close to my heart. I’m not taking it lightly.

That all being said, there are some issues when it comes to sunscreen.

So what’s wrong with sunscreen?

A few things. And just like with many other types of personal care products, it mostly comes down to individual chemicals and ingredients being harmful to our bodies.

Here are the top reasons that conventional sunscreen can be harmful:

  1. Hormonal DisruptionOxybenzone – a common sunscreen ingredient – is directly absorbed into the bloodstream and mimics estrogen in our bodies (not to mention, it’s  destroying the coral reefs). It’s been linked to endometriosis in older women and low birth rates in baby girls. It’s also correlated with lower testosterone levels in boys and is believed to contribute to lower sperm levels in men. Anything that messes with our hormones, aka an ‘endocrine disruptor’ is not great and should be avoided.
  2. Allergies – This same ingredient above, oxybenzone, can a cause allergic reactions. And another common ingredient (that I won’t pretend to pronounce) methylisothiazolinone, is an extremely common allergen according to American Contact Dermatitis Society.
  3. Cancer – Yes, you read that right, cancer is a concern for a common ingredient in many sunscreens. Retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin A. Studies have shown it could speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions. (Seriously, I can’t….)
  4. False Advertising – SPFs above 50 only refer to protection against UVB rays.
  5. Inadequate Protection – Spray sunscreens especially (aside from posing a risk through inhalation) are generally not applied broadly enough to provide the intended protection. Many sunscreens simply do not provide adequate sun protection to match their claims (Europe, shockingly, has much higher standards).
  6. Blocking Vitamin D – Vitamin D deficiency is a real problem. It’s extremely common and has been linked to certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, depression, osteoporosis and more. A bit of sun exposure, about 10-15 minutes per day, is actually good for us, so that our bodies can create adequate levels of Vitamin D.

What about mineral sunscreen?

Right, yes. So there are two types of sunscreen/protection: mineral and chemical.

Chemical sunscreens protect your skin with chemicals that are absorbed into it (see above). Mineral sunscreen protects your skin by creating a thicker film/barrier against the rays on top of your skin. (Which is why they are hella hard to rub in and leave you looking purple. I sneak attacked Joel with mineral ‘screen once and he was so pissed.) But some mineral sunscreens also contain chemicals, and some of them can contain ‘nanoparticles’ too, that can cross the barrier into the body and cause problems.

Bah! (I know. It’s exhausting.)

So what are we supposed to do?

Well, a few things:

    1. Choose Safer Sunscreen – As with any other type of personal care product, our go-to answer is to check out the EWG Skin Deep App. They’ve listed all of the safest brands they could find. I personally bought ThinkBaby and Aveeno for Foster. And ThinkSport for Joel and I. You can grab them all on Amazon and they have a 1/Green rating from EWG – our most trustest adviser when it comes to all things skincare.
    2. Think of Sunscreen as a Last Resort – Man, when I think of how many times idiot-teenager-Dana baked herself well-done on a beach listening to Avril Lavigne on a discman in the name of a good tan, I cringe. I’ll be lucky if I don’t look like a worn, leather tote by the time I’m 40. These days, I think of sunscreen as a last resort and try to keep myself covered up. I now read my self-help books under an umbrella, thank you very much. Here are a few, non-sunscreen ways to protect yourself
      1. Plop yourself under an umbrella at the beach.
      2. Wear sun protection clothes like hats, rash guards, and coverups.
      3. Wear sunglasses (UV radiation hurts your eyes too).
      4. Avoid the most intense sun hours (later morning to early afternoon).
      5. Be a straight dork and check the UV Index every day.
  1. Give ‘Internal Sunscreen’ a Try Too – Some peeps say that any food that supports skin health will also help to avoid burning. Things like taking Vit D3 and/or Vit C supplements, eating coconut oil, cod liver oil and foods rich in antioxidants are supposed to help. And avoid the common inflammatory foods like flour, processed vegetables oils and excessive sugar. (This makes sense to me and also can’t hurt!)
  2. Go to the Dermatologist – With our familial history of skin cancer, I make sure that Joel and I are both checked every six months. How often you want to go is up to you. As with any other cancers though, early detection is crucial. A fifteen minute check up twice a year is worth it, in my humble opinion.


We have to protect ourselves from the sun and do everything we can to prevent skin cancer but, conventional sunscreens just aren’t the way to go. With the booming, safer, natural skincare industry, there are many great alternatives to the your Banana Boat and Coppertones these days (which have terrible ratings with EWG btw), and for not much extra loot either. So really, it’s not a big deal.

We highly suggest checking out EWG’s list of the safest sunscreen brands (Anything listed as a 1/Green is a go!) and popping one of them into your Amazon cart before Memorial Day!

What about you? Any safer sunscreens or adorable sun hats to suggest? Leave a link in the comments below!

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Author Dana

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