Is Sunscreen Dangerous? The Truth about Toxic Ingredients in Popular Sunscreens


In the past year I’ve become baffled by sunscreen. I don’t imagine you’ll blame me. I used to believe daily sunscreen use was fabulous practice and I was gaining beauty and skincare points as I liberally applied it, but now I’m not so sure.

If you think I’m crazy and this sunscreen questioning hasn’t reached your home yet, I urge you to Google “is sunscreen toxic?” or “is sunscreen dangerous?” and I guarantee you’ll be in my club once you’re met with the two million helpful (or unhelpful) answers, leaving like-minded doomsdayers like me (and now you!) anxiety ridden enough to initiate an online search, none the wiser. 

So, rather late into my sun-drenched trip to the Southern Hemisphere, I decided to try my very best to set the record straight, with the help of some experts and the world class research expert, commonly known as ‘Google’. Better late than never, right? 

So let’s work it out together… are sun creams actually poisonous, should we be slathering layers on liberally on each and every day and is there ever a ‘safe’ tan? 

The message from Cancer Research UK, is succinct and crystal clear. 

They say that back home in the UK, almost all of the approximately 14,000 cases of the most serious type of skin cancer, melanoma recorded this year, could have been preventable through the avoidance of sunburn and safe sun habits. Their first line of defence against the killer disease is wearing protective garments like hats, staying in the shade, and last in terms of importance, wearing appropriate sunscreen.

Sounds pretty reasonable to me. Except for the fact I can’t disregard the trouble fact that I keep reading headlines proclaiming that sunscreen itself is causing cancer rather than just the suns rays. 

A Cancer Research UK study has demonstrated that unfortunately there does seem to be a connection between increased use of sunscreen and a higher than average risk of contracting skin cancer. 

It’s worth noting that this study didn’t report a direct link between sunscreen use and malignant melanoma. Instead it warned of falling into a false sense of security trap. 

There seems to be an issue with people partaking in less than diligent sun screen application, and thinking that they can stay out in the sun for more extended periods of time than they should, creating more skin damage and an elevated risk of skin cancer. 

Studies have shown that there is something negative occurring as a result of sunscreen use. There are many skin cancer cases in patients who wore copious amounts of sunscreen, and studies are being conducted continuously, trying to find the exact link, and what exactly these chemicals in the sun creams are doing to us.

A couple of the most controversial chemical contained in sunscreen and widely believed to produce free radicals in the skin are oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate. 

Oxybenzone converts UV light to heat and is thought to create hormonal disruption and damage cells, which can ultimately lead to skin cancer, while retinyl palmitate has been shown to speed up growth of malignant cells and increase the spread of skin cancer. 

Unlike physical filters, which sit on the surface of the skin and work by deflecting the sun’s strong rays, these two aforementioned chemical filters absorb UV rays and partially penetrate the skin. Once they’ve penetrated our skin, serious damage could, and often does, happen. 

There are less serious issues, but still grousing issues regarding allergies and sunscreen. Frequent use of sun cream over the last twenty years has caused a dramatic spike in recorded cases of contact allergic dermatitis, caused by super strong active chemicals that many of the most common and popular brands use, not to mention the fragrances, preservatives and lanolin their bottles are packed with. 

It is now recommended that you  patch-test sun creams if you possess areas of sensitive skin. It is beloved by experts that sun blocking agents like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are more suitable than their more widely used chemical counterparts. 

One downside of these physical blocks is that they are generally thicker and less aesthetically pleasing, but better products are being developed as you read this and should be available soon. The new finer micronised zinc oxide-based creams will be a positive step in the right direction, if a touch pricier than the current favourites.

I shouldn’t overlook the limitations of mineral-based sunblocks. 

It’s a catch-22 as these are undoubtedly safer on our skin, but zinc has a devastating effect on coral, and titanium dioxide washes out into the ocean which creates hydrogen peroxide, which tragically kills the nutrients that feed organisms and fish and then journeys higher up the food chain to cause untold devastation to our oceans and our planet. 

Interesting studies published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, discovered that the chemical oxybenzone causes endocrine disruption, particularly on young coral, as well as devastating DNA damage and even the death of coral, to list just a small selection of findings. 

Oxybenzone also exacerbates coral bleaching, a process where coral reject symbiotic organisms and then lose their trademark colour.

The USA National Park Service released some shocking figures recently. They say that somewhere in the realm of 6,000 tons of sun cream enters coral reef areas worldwide, annually. That’s a phenomenal amount of sunscreen, especially when you consider that it takes only a little sunscreen in the ocean to produce staggeringly toxic effects.

According to marine experts, currents concentrations of oxybenzone in coral reef areas poses a significant threat to our ecology. 

Nobody advocates that ocean swimmers go cold turkey on sunscreen, which we already know does protects against skin cancer, even if more research does need to undertaken and published to clarify what exactly it does to damage the skin.  Instead, if you’re swimming, just avoid sunscreen with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, on account of how harmful they are to the ocean and coral reef. 

If you’re really keen to do your bit to save our ecology, you could commit to swimming at dawn and sunset, thus avoiding the need to protect your skin from the sun with sun cream

So whichever side of the sun cream fence you’re situated upon, there’s clearly one primary message that we can’t afford to ignore: ultraviolet radiation from UVA and UVB is the ultimately believed to be the principal cause of skin cancer, as opposed to sunscreen. Even if the details of the damage chemicals within may be creating are mildly alarming. 

The most important thing to accept and try to change is the fact that skin cancer numbers are rising, with cases are disproportionately higher in young people in the UK, where I’m from and New Zealand where I’ve adopted for the time being, which has the worlds largest melanoma rate, so this issue has created an important shift in my previously lax attitude to sun worshipping. 

Perhaps the most pertinent risk to our health in this area is fundamentally our own false sense of sun security, as opposed to the sunscreen and nasties within. 

So what’s the moral of the post?

Shop the sunscreen aisle with caution, change it depending on whether you’re in the sea or on your sun lounger, wear it often and reapply wisely, stay in the shade and become acquainted with hats, but most importantly, always respect the power of the sun’s rays.

Tips for Purchasing Sunscreen

THE SPF: The “sun protection factor” against UVB rays. These rays penetrate the outer layer of the skin, causing burning and damage to your skin’s DNA. The expert advice is to opt for an SPF 15 or higher. NB: It doesn’t follow that double the SPF numbers mean double the protection: the difference between an SPF 15, which blocks out 93 per cent of radiation, and an SPF 30, is only four per cent. SPF 50 will only block out 98 per cent of rays. 

THE WARNING: Reapply cream every two hours, and after swimming. Seek shade between 11am and 3pm, or any time that your shadow is shorter than you are.

If you would like to learn more about foods that protect your skin from the sun, read my previous post Eat Your Sunscreen? Foods to Protect Your Skin from the Sun