Safer Sunscreen for Summer

two kids swimming
Juan Salamanca

Chemical-laden conventional sunscreens can include toxic ingredients that can be absorbed through the skin. Sunscreens from green companies are free from the most potent toxins, avoid problematic nanoparticles, and can still protect you from the sun.

The summer months are upon us, and for many people, that means more time outside in the sun. It also often means slathering on sunscreen to protect yourself from sunburn and other dangerous effects of too much sun exposure. Did you know that common sunscreen brands can contain toxins? So the more you slather, the more problematic ingredients your body absorbs.

Fortunately, following a few simple rules can help you easily pick a safe sunscreen for your skin.

Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), more than 2 million Americans develop skin cancer every year. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas, which are rarely fatal, make up most of those cases, but cases of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, are on the rise. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that melanoma incidents have increased by nearly two percent each year since 2000. 

Risk factors for melanoma include exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, family history, the number of moles on a person’s skin, fair skin, and frequent sunburns, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

While a handful of studies have demonstrated increased rates of cancer possibly linked

5 safe sunscreens

These sunscreens all earned a 1 (least-toxic rating) on EWG’s cosmetic database ( and do not contain nanoparticles other than zinc oxide:

5 Sunscreens to avoid

The following brands received 7s, the most-toxic ranking on EWG’s cosmetic database.

  • Yon-Ka Solar Care Sunscreen Cream
  • Western Family Sunscreen Lotion
  • Walgreens Sport Sunscreen
  • Vichy Laboratories Capital Soleil Soft Sheer Sunscreen Lotion
  • Up & Up (Target) Sport Sunscreen Spray

With sunscreen use, more studies show lower melanoma rates with daily sunscreen use. Consequently, the general scientific consensus is to use sunscreen to avoid sunburns.

“We recommend following a complete sun protection regimen that includes seeking shade and covering up with clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses, in addition to daily sunscreen use,” says Emily Prager of the Skin Cancer Foundation.

So how do you choose a sunscreen?

Don’t Use Conventional Sunscreens

Wearing sunscreen is important, yet some chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that may pose a health danger and even contribute to the development of skin cancer. Like many body care products in the US, ingredients in sunscreens are poorly regulated by the FDA. Most sunscreen ingredients were already in use in 1978 when the FDA started regulating sunscreens, so many have never been tested for safety.

For example, vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) is an additive typically included as an anti-aging ingredient. While vitamin A is an essential nutrient for your body, decades of studies have shown that absorbing it through the skin can be hazardous. The most potent evidence came in a 2010 study from the National Toxicology Project, which found that mice coated with retinyl palmitate cream more rapidly developed skin damage, including skin cancer, than mice without it.

Oxybenzone, added as a UV filter, is found in about 80 percent of chemical sunscreens. Research compiled by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) indicates that oxybenzone can penetrate the skin, causing allergic skin reactions and possibly disrupting hormones; oxybenzone is also connected to low birth weight in newborn girls.

Do Shop Around

Before you shop, search the Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s Skin Deep cosmetic database, which rates body care products, including sunscreens, for toxicity. 

In addition, EWG releases a “Guide to Safer Sunscreens” annually, comparing sunscreens and citing the safest brands.

“We literally have people going from store to store each year to see what sunscreens are on the shelves to keep our guide relevant and useful,” says the EWG’s Paul Pestano.

Don’t Rely on SPF Alone
When we talk about protecting the skin from sun damage, we are generally talking about ultraviolet radiation, a spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that is invisible to the naked eye. Ultraviolet B, or UVB radiation, has a short wavelength and affects the surface of your skin, resulting in sunburns. Ultraviolet A, or UVA radiation, has a longer wavelength and penetrates more deeply into your skin; UVA radiation has long been linked to skin aging, and more recent research shows that UVA radiation damages skin cells in the layer of epidermis where most melanoma skin cancers occur. 

The sun protection factor, or SPF, number on sunscreens lets users know the level of protection they have from sunburns caused by UVB radiation. SPF numbers have nothing to do with protection offered from UVA radiation. 

Therefore, says Pestano, “a sunscreen with higher SPF gives the user misconception that they can stay outside for longer, and that can be dangerous.”

Do Use Broad-Spectrum Protection
Sunscreen that offers “broad-spectrum protection” can help keep you safe from both UVA and UVB radiation. However, don’t just trust any label that says “broad-” or “full-spectrum” without checking the ingredients. Although FDA regulates the “broad-spectrum” label, the FDA’s standards are much weaker than those in the European Union. In fact, half of the sunscreens labeled as offering broad-spectrum protection in the US could not be sold in Europe with that label due to insufficient UVA protection. 

To ensure true broad-spectrum protection, look for effective, less-toxic UVA filters like zinc oxide, avobenzone, and Mexoryl SX listed as “active ingredients” on the label. Some might also be labeled as “mineral sunscreens” because they are using minerals, like zinc oxide, as UV filters.

Don’t Go for Sprays

Though they can be fast and convenient, spray sunscreens can be inhaled into the lungs, potentially exposing users to even more toxins. Stick to sunscreen that you rub on the skin.

Don’t Ignore Nanoparticles
Nanoparticles are ultrafine particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. They are used in sunscreen to help the cream rub onto the skin clearly and smoothly. Some mineral sunscreens do contain nanoparticles of otherwise safe minerals like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, to provide better UVB protection. The FDA doesn’t require labeling of nanoparticles. 

Sunscreen Resources
Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database: Rates body care products, including sunscreen, for toxicity. Lists problematic ingredients and their potential health effects. EWG publishes an annual guide to sunscreens on the site as well.

Friends of the Earth (FoE) “Nanotechnology and Sunscreens” report: This report ranks sunscreen companies on their use of nanoparticles.

The Skin Cancer Foundation: Research and resources about skin cancer.


Some experts urge precaution with nanoparticles in any body care product, because there has not been a sufficient amount of study on their safety. 

The European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety recommended in 2013 that certain types of nano-titanium dioxide not be used in sunscreen because they react with sunlight to produce free radicals, which can cause skin-cell damage. It also recommended that nano-titanium dioxide and nano-zinc oxide not be used in powder or spray sunscreens because they could be toxic if inhaled.

Zinc-oxide in any sunscreen usually comes in the form of nanoparticles. So far, studies have shown no major health issues, and it still provides the best protection of any less-toxic ingredient. 

“While nanoparticles are a concern, [EWG doesn’t] believe that zinc oxide poses a large threat when applied to the skin,” says EWG’s Paul Pestano.
Green America recommends avoiding nanoparticles with the possible exception of zinc oxide. If you want to avoid all nano-materials, Friends of the Earth has published a guide to “Nanotechnology and Sunscreens” to help you find nano-free sunscreen. 

Do (Carefully) Have Fun in the Sun

Don’t be afraid to spend time in the sun. Just be vigilant about seeking out shade, avoid the most intense mid-day sun, and use a less-toxic, broad-spectrum sunscreen.

From Green American Magazine Issue