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The Sunscreens You Should Avoid, According to Dermatologists (and What to Look for Instead)

By Aly Walansky
June 3, 2022

As the weather warms up, we all start to become a lot more aware of (and on top of) our sun protection regimen. But while it’s great to lather on sunscreen, it’s crucial to know what exactly is in your sunscreen so you can choose the best options. Ultimately, we want to look for non-nano mineral sunscreens — we’ll explain here why that’s the best choice. Here’s how to tell which sunscreens are healthy, safe, and effective:

The issue with non-mineral sunscreens

Here’s the deal: sunscreen can block the harmful UV rays from damaging our skin, but the ingredients in your sunscreen can also end up in our bodies.

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“These ingredients found in non-mineral sunscreens have been shown to have systemic absorption — meaning they can enter the bloodstream,” says Sarah Allen, MD, of the Skin Clique. Though this does not necessarily mean they are causing harm, we always like to pause when systemic absorption is involved. 

“The FDA has called for ongoing investigation into the safety of non-mineral sunscreens,” Allen says. “So if this is a concern for you, then the best thing to do is use mineral-only sunscreen.” 

Check the ingredients

We’re in the habit of checking the ingredients on the label before buying snacks that we’ll put into our bodies, and we should be in the same habit when buying products like sunscreen that are applied topically — and might be absorbed into our skin. “Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only two ingredients that the FDA classifies as safe and effective,” says Adrienne O’Connell, DO, of Laguna Beach Aesthetics. They provide strong sun protection, don’t readily break down in the sun, and pose few health concerns. 

“Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, however, can sometimes be mixed with other SPF ingredients that are not mineral-derived, so just make sure you’re reading the active ingredients,” says Dr. Allen. So just because a sunscreen contains a good mineral blocker doesn’t mean that it doesn’t also have a chemical blocker in it. Check the ingredients list to ensure that the only active ingredients are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or that the label notes that it is “mineral only.”

But that’s not the only benefit of sticking to minerals. Mineral-derived sunscreens are also less likely to cause irritation for some patients, according to Allen. If you have conditions like rosacea, eczema, or sensitive skin, you may especially want to avoid chemical sunscreens and opt for mineral-only options. 

The warning label

Knowing the ingredients to look for also includes knowing those to consider avoiding. There are some organic UV filters, such as oxybenzone, that can disrupt hormone production and may cause certain cancers.

“While systemic absorption has not been shown to have consequences in humans, at this time the FDA is requiring further studies to substantiate those ingredients’ safety,” says Beth Goldstein, MD, co-founder of Modern Ritual and president at Central Dermatology, located in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Benzene — which definitely sounds like oxybenzone, but is a totally different chemical — has also been found as a contaminant in some sunscreens. Last summer, Johnson & Johnson issued a voluntary recall for some of the company’s sunscreen sprays, specifically from brands Aveeno and Neutrogena. This was an issue of manufacturing contamination; benzene was not an intentional ingredient in sunscreen.

Stack the deck

We all know we need protection from the sun, and sunscreen is an important component of that. But it’s not the only protection we need. In general, people need to not just rely on sunscreens, but incorporate sunscreen into an overall sun protection program. “Hat, shirts, sunglasses, seeking shade, and avoiding midday sun all go a long way towards safety and achieving your best skin health,” says Goldstein.

It’s clear that UV damage contributes heavily to skin cancer, so it’s important to avoid this where possible. “Look for sunscreens that are broad-spectrum, meaning they cover the damaging wavelengths of light that not only prevent sunburns, but also help you reduce your risk of skin cancer and photodamage,” says Goldstein. “90% of aging is due to photodamage.”

Antioxidants are helpful in capturing free radicals generated by UV as well as environmental damage and pollution. To help combat free radicals, look for skincare products that specifically pack a big antioxidant punch. “Vitamin C, E, polyphenols, and plant stem cell extracts such as saponaria can reduce damage,” says Dr. Goldstein.

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