According to the 2014 Guide to Sunscreens released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), more than 66 percent of all conventional sunscreens contain toxic chemicals that can disrupt your hormones, cause allergic reactions, and even lead to skin cancer or other types of cancer when used for long periods of time.
The report identifies oxybenzone as one of the most common and harmful ingredients in popular sunscreen brands. Oxybenzone is a chemical compound that absorbs UV rays from the sun, and it is readily absorbed through your skin. Once inside your body, oxybenzone can cause photoallergic reactions. According to the CDC, up to 97% of Americans are now contaminated by oxybenzone.
“…the chemical oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body,” says the EWG. “It can trigger allergic reactions. Data are preliminary, but studies have found a link between higher concentrations of oxybenzone and health harms.”
Many inexpensive and low quality sunscreens contain oxybenzone, in addition to other harmful chemicals like retinyl palmitate (a derivative of vitamin A that is known to speed the formation of skin lesions and tumors). Although the government currently classifies retinyl palmitate as an “inactive ingredient,” research shows that it actually reacts with sunlight to create free radicals that harm DNA.
“…government scientists ha[ve] produced evidence that the development of skin tumors dramatically accelerated, compared to control groups, when lab animals were coated with a cream laced with vitamin A and then exposed to the equivalent of nine minutes of maximum intensity sunlight every day for a year,” reported EWG.
Another problem with most sunscreens is that they block out helpful UVB rays, which the body needs in order to produce vitamin D from sunlight. At the same time, these same products fail to block out UVA rays, which are harmful and can cause skin damage.
In the US, federal guidelines only require a sunscreen’s “sun protection factor” (SPF) to be measured in terms of UVB protection. However, UVA protection, which is more important, is not regulated. That means there’s a good chance you’re using a sunscreen that’s “protecting” you from the wrong kind of UV rays and not actually shielding your skin from harmful sun damage.
For a complete list of the EWG’s best and worst rated sunscreen products, check out their official Sunscreen Guide.