Sunscreen bottle in the sand

Most of us have gotten the message that it’s important to protect ourselves with sunscreen before heading out in the sun. What isn’t yet as widely known are the potential dangers of many common sunscreens, both to ourselves and to aquatic life, which must contend with these chemicals when they wash off swimmers’ skin.

As is true of so many personal care products, sunscreens contain many synthetic chemical ingredients that haven’t been tested for safety. The American Food and Drug Administration doesn’t require the manufacturers of these products to prove their safety before bringing them to market. In Europe, chemicals must undergo safety testing before getting to store shelves. The system used in the United States ultimately means Americans are unwittingly subjects of a vast and uncontrolled science experiment.

One of the biggest difficulties we have in understanding the health effects of the 80,000 industrial chemicals currently in use is that most of us get miniscule doses of numerous different ones each day. While I may be getting low doses of imidacloprid in my tea and glyphosate in my bread, you may be taking in a little BPS with your canned soup, chloramine in your drinking water, and sodium lauryl sulfate in your shampoo. We know very little about the effects of these compounds at low doses or about possible interactions among them.

While it’s difficult to avoid this chemical soup, a little knowledge can go a long way to reducing what’s known as your toxic load. One smart place to start this summer is your sunscreen. The natural sunscreen market has grown exponentially in the last few years, and safer options are easier to find than ever.

Ranking Sunscreens: A Report from the Environmental Working Group

The latest report on sunscreens from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit consumer watchdog, reviews extant research on skin cancer and sun safety. One of the most startling takeaways? Insufficient evidence exists to prove that sunscreen actually helps prevent skin cancer.

Although sunscreen sales have soared in recent years, skin cancer rates have also risen. Researchers speculate that people using sunscreen believe themselves protected and spend too much time in the sun, which does damage we can’t see that nonetheless raises cancer risk. SPF, they explain, only measures protection from sunburn, not other types of sun damage. Many sunscreens they tested don’t sufficiently block UVA rays, which penetrate more deeply into the skin and cause a different type of DNA damage.

People tanning on the beach

Worse still, many ingredients commonly found in sunscreen may have serious health effects. Conventional sunscreens usually rely on a combination of chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate and octinoxate to filter UV rays. Oxybenzone, a suspected endocrine disruptor, was found in nearly 65 percent of non-mineral sunscreens in the EWG’s 2017 sunscreen database. Your skin is highly effective at absorbing these ingredients, and they quickly make their way into the bloodstream. A 2008 CDC study detected oxybenzone in 97% of subjects tested.

Each year, the EWG evaluates the current crop of sunscreens for safety and effectiveness and assigns them a rating from 1-10, with 1 being the safest and 10 being the least safe based on what we currently know about ingredient toxicity. The good news is that in recent years, the number of mineral-based sunscreens has doubled, offering consumers the choice to skip chemical sunscreens and their questionable ingredients. You still need to do your homework, though. Even some of the highest-rated mineral sunscreens contain ingredients you may be better off avoiding, though choosing something with a 1 or 2 rating is still a huge improvement over the 7s, 8s, or even 10s on most drugstore shelves.

Sunscreen on body