The Dangers of Toxic Sunscreen: Is Sunblock Doing You More Harm than Good?

(originally published Dec. 12, 2008 –

author markemark; 2008

It seems everything we thought we knew about health is nowadays being turned on its ear. Take sunlight for example. People have been told their entire lives to avoid the sun, layer on sunscreen, and stop working toward the ultimate tan. Don’t go to the beach; go skiing instead. The sun gives you cancer, they say, and sunscreen is good for you.

Stop right there.

As is often the case, the truth is buried in the details. More evidence is showing the positive benefit of sunlight, particularly from the vitamin D production in your skin the rays make possible. Unfortunately, most brands of sunscreen block the production of vitamin D right along with the UV rays. That’s strike one.

Strike two comes when we learn that the most popular name brands of sunscreen are loaded with toxic ingredients…and strike three comes when we learn that some of those same ingredients become even more toxic when exposed to sunlight.  Game over.


The following list contains the worst offenders in brand-name sunscreens along with their respective health-related problems:

  • Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate or OMC) – most prevalent ingredient; shows estrogenic effects; causes disruption of thyroid hormone and brain signaling; reacts when exposed to sunlight.
  • Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3) – associated with photoallergic reactions; significantly absorbs through the skin & contaminates the bodies of 97% of Americans according to CDC research; other health concerns include hormone disruption and cancer.
  • Octisalate – a penetration enhancer that may increase the amount of other ingredients passing through the skin.
  • Avobenzone (Parsol 1789) – an unstable ingredient that breaks down into unknown chemicals in sunlight, especially in the presence of Octinoxate.
  • Octocrylene – produces free radicals in UV light.
  • Homosalate – a weak hormone disruptor; forms toxic metabolites
  • Ensulizole (Phenylbenzimidazole Sulfonic Acid) – known to produce free radicals in sunlight; causes DNA damage; may cause cancer.
  • Padimate O (Octyl Dimethyl PABA / PABA Ester) – a PABA derivative; releases free radicals; damages DNA; has estrogenic activity; causes allergic reactions in some people.
  • Menthyl Anthranilate – produces free radicals; not for use in Europe or Japan.

For more information on these and other like ingredients, see the Cosmetics Database maintained by the Environmental Working Group.


If you’re concerned about dangerous chemicals in product brands like Coppertone, Banana Boat, and Neutrogena, then sunscreen containing the naturally occurring minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are good alternatives. These compounds work as physical – rather than chemical – barriers and work as well or better than the chemical versions.

However, even here there are concerns since some products contain nanoparticles of titanium and zinc which could potentially be absorbed into the skin due to their very small molecular size. Though current data shows little evidence of this, researchers at Westmead Hospital in Westmead, Australia in 1997 did find some limited absorption into the skin of test subjects.

Considering the risks of sunscreen ingredients and the fact that limited sun exposure is both healthy and even potentially necessary, even natural sunscreen is best used only when you plan to be outdoors in bright sunshine for extended periods. Otherwise, skip the sunscreen altogether and soak up some healthy sunlight for shorter periods.

On second thought, maybe skipping the beach and going skiing isn’t such a bad idea after all.



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