Are Chemical Sunscreens Safe?

Summer, summer, summer.  Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen.  While sunscreen is recommended year-round to prevent burns, aging and the increased risk of skin cancer, in the warmer months we dress less and slather up even more.  Have you ever wondered whether those chemical sunscreens are safe to use in such large-and-frequent proportions?  In this repost from July of 2015, I describe some of the myths and facts surrounding the totally-tubular and ubiquitous poolside essentials.


Everyone notices when someone sports that gorgeous sun-bronzed skin from a sunny vacation.  But my family?  The people who get sunburned through car windows?  We return from a week away and people look at a quizzically and say, “Where did you go, again?  Submarine cruise?”

I honestly could kick myself for not buying stock in a sunscreen manufacturer before we had kids…given their genetic legacy I knew they would be more sun-sensitive than a field of solar panels.

Most of us use more sunscreen in the summer than any other time of year.  And most of us don’t think twice about slathering it on our kids or ourselves because the jury has been out on the topic for a long, long time:  sunscreen, when used properly, not only prevents sunburn but reduces the risk of skin aging and skin cancers (notably melanoma).  Despite the difficult-to-pronounce ingredient list few of us give the exposure to such a second thought, especially given the alternatives: painful, blistering, aging skin and possibly the big “C.”  Not to mention no one wants the papier-mâché appearance of titanium or zinc-based (“physical”) sunscreens unless limited to the noses of their children (which is darn cute).

But what about all those chemicals?  Their safety has been a question mark in the back of my brain, and perhaps yours as well.  But given few viable other alternatives, I just keep a-slatherin’.

Until my husband emailed me this link:

And I thought Holy Crap.  Is a main tenet of sun safety being blown out of the water?

Here are some details from this article, which certainly took me by surprise:

~Research has found that women who avoid sun exposure are twice as likely to die than those who worship the sun.

~Vitamin D deficiency as a result of limited sun exposure can lead to decline in brain function and can actually put people at increased risk for skin cancer.

~There’s no proof that sunscreen use decreases our risk of melanoma and that sunburns increase our risk of the same.

~Sunscreens harm marine life and humans as well; most people have sunscreen chemicals present in their bloodstreams.

This information seemed to come out of left field.  Was it legit?  And upon further research, I was discouraged to find another source (www.vancitybuzz.ocm/2015/06/neutrogena-sunscreen-toxic-avoid/) citing evidence of the harmful effects of chemically-based sunscreens.  An organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its findings that sunscreens containing oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate are harmful.  Specifically, the group admonished the Neutrogena line of sunscreens because many contain at least one of these two chemicals.  The EWG went on:

~Citing a study done on marine life, the EWG stated that oxybenzone can potentially cause cancer and infertility in humans.

~Retinyl Palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may speed the development of skin cancers when applied generously and then exposed, ironically, to sunlight.

Holy cow.

But for every Yin there is a Yang.   My husband also sent me a second link:

The gist of this article?  It refutes solidly most everything from the post on  In short:

~The alarming twice-as-likely-to-die research?  Not as scary as it seems.  An important omission by  the researchers conducting this study never claimed lack of sun exposure caused the deaths they were following in their study (melanoma and “all-cause mortality”).

~There is a study that found that people who used sunscreen had an increased risk of melanoma.  However,  the average SPF of the sunscreens applied by the study participants was 6, and an SPF of at least 15 is recommended for adequate protection.  And prolonged sun exposure, with the use of insufficient SPF strength, can increase risk of skin cancers.

~Vitamin D deficiency is a problem that can lead to many illnesses (like rickets in children and osteoporosis in adults).  That said, we do need some unprotected sun exposure for our bodies to manufacture the D we need.  That daily time limit varies depending on where we live, taking into consideration elevation and ozone status.  And getting a few minutes of sun a day is much different from spending the day hiking or swimming without SPF.

~There is evidence, through urine sampling, that most people who use oxybenzone-containing sunscreens harbor the chemical.  However, there is no evidence that oxybenzone causes adverse health effects.  And there is no evidence, that even though sunscreen chemicals have been found in marine life, that these agents cause undo harm to the environment.

Starting to feel better?  I am.  Plus I found this:

~In this article, Dr. Warwick L. Morison, a dermatology professor who oversees a Skin Cancer Foundation committee that evaluates sunscreen safety, said this about the EWG’s findings:  he criticizes this group’s arbitrary, nonscientific standards, calling them “junk science.”

~While oxybenzone is present in most persons exposed to it, this article echoes that no adverse effects have been found with this common sunscreen chemical…which was FDA approved in the 1980’s.  In addition, I found further reading that states oxybenzone does not accumulate in the bodies of users…it is excreted in urine and only trace amounts remain circulating.

But could oxybenzone actually cause skin cancer?  According to the Skin Cancer Foundation website, exhaustive reviews of scientific literature spanning five decades (1966-2003) found no, no, evidence that sunscreen chemicals (any of them, not just oxybenzone) cause melanoma.  And as for retinyl palmitate, the chemical that is suspected of hastening the development of skin cancer?  Retinyl palmitate, a trace ingredient in some sunscreens, was studied in mice and then also on models of human skin, hardly the real deal.  The former study was also never published.  Therefore the theory regarding the cancer-causing nature of this vitamin A derivative is shaky at best and requires further study.

So for now, as for many years past, we can breathe easy about applying chemically-based SPF to our kids and ourselves.  My family lives at an elevation of 7,000 feet so to trash the sunscreen without some solid, scientific evidence would be throwing caution to the wind.

Here’s a sun safety primer for kids and adults alike:

~Make SPF only a part of your sun-safety routine.  Wear wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses (ones which state on the tag “100% UVA and UVB protection).  Seek the shade, especially during the time of day when the sun is most direct (generally considered to be between 10 am and 4 pm).  And consider investing in sun protective clothing:  rash guards while swimming, long-sleeve shirts for “dry” activities.

~Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or perspiring heavily.  I know our family could be better about this commonly forgotten step.  For the days you are relying on sunscreen as your primary solar defense, it is key to preventing skin damage.

~My rule of “15’s.”  Chose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 15 or 30 (ones with higher SPF ratings aren’t necessarily more effective).  Also, apply sunscreen 15 minutes (30 is recommended for kids) before heading outside, for maximum protection.

~Read the fine print.  Make sure to choose a sunscreen labelled “water resistant” and states it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

~For the kids.  It is ok to start applying sunscreen to infants 6 months of age and older.  Younger children should be kept out of the sun.  Period.

~Physical Sunscreens.  These are sunscreens containing titanium- or zinc oxide, which are compounds considered to be safe for skin application.  Instead of being absorbed like chemical sunscreens, they act to deflect the suns rays away from skin.  There are many options out there if you feel unsure about using the hard-to-pronounce sunscreen ingredients, and while these are notorious for causing a white, chalky effect, some do not.  In fact, just today I tried a tester of one particular brand and not only was it not sticky, I didn’t look like a mime.  At all.  I may buy a bottle and give it a try.

Want to learn more?  Follow these links for further info about sun safety:

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