Everything you need to know about toxic sunscreens—and how to avoid them
This is a popular month for taking a much-needed break from the long, hot summer. But whether you head to the beach, take a hike through the woods, or simply relax by the pool, you just can’t escape the relentless messages to slather on some sunscreen.
In fact, we’re now to the point where people are afraid to even leave their houses in the summer without first “protecting” themselves from the “dangerous” sun.
This irrational fear dates back to the 1970s, when we began seeing ads for commercial sunscreen lotions and sprays similar to what’s on the market today.
That’s nearly half a century of massive use (and abuse) of these chemicals on your skin—yet in all that time, there’s been a shocking lack of safety data provided by manufacturers.
But finally, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has demanded this data—and conducted a study on sunscreen ingredients themselves. Not surprisingly, the results show that applying these toxic chemicals to your skin isn’t great for your health.
Fortunately, there are natural, safe, and effective ways to protect yourself from the (rare) type of sunburn that can lead to skin cancer.
I’ll tell you all about them in a moment, along with more information about the new FDA study.
First, let’s take a look at how we were lead into this ridiculous reliance on dangerous, chemical sunscreens in the first place.
More use, less data
The FDA’s meager, nonscientific regulations for chemical sunscreen ingredients have traditionally been based on the somewhat sensible practice of consumers only using these potent products for “special occasions”. In other words, when they’re exposed to high amounts of strong ultraviolet rays—like spending a day at the beach before you’ve acquired a protective tan.
But since there’s no data, many people use these potions on a daily basis as some kind of “magical” protection against skin cancer and “aging,” including blemishes, skin discoloration, and wrinkles—with no real knowledge about how they can affect your body.
Plus, it’s even more common for other cosmetic products, like skin lotions, to contain sunscreen—despite a complete lack of scientific data that this added ingredient accomplishes anything.
The only thing that we now do know for sure is that the more you use sunscreens, the more the chemical ingredients are absorbed through the skin and into your bloodstream—with potential toxic effects throughout your body.
Can sunscreens really protect against skin cancer?
Most people use sunscreens to prevent sunburns that can potentially lead to skin cancer. (And yes, the FDA allows manufacturers to claim that sunscreens prevent skin cancer.) But there has never been any scientific data, or studies, showing that this is actually true…
In fact, as I wrote in a March 2017 Daily Dispatch, French investigators found that the increase in malignant skin cancer (melanoma) in the late 20th century was primarily due to the practice of zapping World War I- and II-era children with ultraviolet B (UVB) rays—in a misguided attempt to prevent disease. As those children became middle-aged and older, researchers discovered they had higher incidences of melanoma.
Surprisingly, these people from the earlier generation tended to have more melanoma diagnoses than the following generation—the “sun worshippers” who began baring more and more skin on beaches, and elsewhere, beginning in the late 1960s—with no apparent end in sight (although, paradoxically, many other ends remain apparent, and in plain sight).
Today, a real concern is the growing number of adolescents and young adults who are exposed to artificial UVB light in tanning beds and salons. (Not to mention the lotions and oils they’re slathering on their skin in preparation.) And as I’ve often reported, the FDA (and plenty of doctors and researchers) warn that this practice can increase the risk of malignant skin cancer later in life.
So the real message is this: If you want to protect yourself against deadly melanoma, research shows it’s more effective to avoid exposure to artificial UVB rays than it is to coat your skin in toxic sunscreens.
The number one reason to avoid sunscreens
On the flip side, the campaign against the sun (partially designed to sell more chemical sunscreens) has contributed to today’s worldwide epidemics of vitamin D deficiency.
As I often report, studies show that regular, natural sun exposure is healthy—and necessary. In fact, it’s required for the body to naturally and safely make adequate levels of vitamin D through photosynthesis in the skin.
Not only is D widely recognized as essential for bone health (another epidemic in older Americans), it’s also associated with lower risks of virtually every chronic disease in the book. In fact, low vitamin D levels are linked to an increased risk of cancer—including, ironically, skin cancer.
But here’s the Catch-22: Sunscreens block the ultraviolet rays that your body needs to make vitamin D. That’s why I suggest spending 15 minutes in the sun every day in the summer without sunscreen, with as much skin exposed as possible. As you build up a natural base tan, you can gradually add more time outside each day—without sunscreen.
And while this natural sun exposure helps combat vitamin D deficiency, most people should still supplement with 10,000 IU of vitamin D daily—even in the summertime, as your body stores it away for a rainy day (literally and metaphorically). You can even find vitamin D in a convenient liquid form, together with the potent marine carotenoid astaxanthin. (To learn more about my personal recommendations, head over to my website www.DrMicozzi.com.)
FDA finally shines new light on old sunscreens
As I mentioned earlier, real science has accumulated on sunlight’s beneficial effects for health. But cosmetic companies and the FDA have been exceedingly slow to meet their obligations to show whether sunscreens actually provide any real protection against skin cancer—and without harming us in the process (that is, beyond vitamin D deficiency).
But now, the FDA is finally acting. I guess their philosophy is better half a century late than never?
Early this year, the FDA issued proposed guidelines and regulatory requirements to better reflect what’s actually known, and not known, about sunscreen ingredients, how (and if) they work, and how they really affect your health.
And just a couple of months ago, the FDA finally released the results of its own study on how specific sunscreen ingredients are absorbed into the human body.
These two actions reached similar conclusions, so let’s look at them in order of occurrence.
Only two sunscreen ingredients are safe
In February, the FDA released the results of years of investigations into the 16 “active” ingredients in sunscreens.1
Only two of these ingredients—titanium dioxide and zinc oxide—were deemed “GRASE” (generally recognized as safe and effective). And this should come as no surprise, as both of these ingredients are minerals, and are therefore “natural.”
Meanwhile, the chemical sunscreen ingredients didn’t fare as well. In fact, PABA and trolamine salicylate were downright declared unsafe. And a dozen other ingredients had “insufficient safety data to allow a GRASE determination” to be made—after up to 50 years of massive use! These ingredients include:
- Padimate O
Of course, anyone who knows the basic biology behind sunscreens could have predicted these findings. Sunscreen ingredients work in two ways—they provide either a chemical or a physical barrier.
Physical barriers, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, sit on the outside surface of the skin and work by deflecting sunlight and ultraviolet radiation. Both of these ingredients are bright white—think of the cream on lifeguards’ noses—which helps them to reflect light.
Chemical barriers are absorbed into your skin, where they then absorb harmful ultraviolet rays. But, of course, anything absorbed into your skin is likely to enter your bloodstream and be carried throughout your body. In fact, prior studies have found chemical sunscreen ingredients in blood, urine, and even breast milk.
So, the question is this: What happens once these chemicals are absorbed into your body? Which leads us to the FDA’s tardy study…
Four sunscreen ingredients you should always avoid
The study, which was published in May in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that the amount of toxic sunscreen ingredients absorbed into your blood and body are higher than what the FDA says is safe.2
Again, the FDA had to conduct this study itself after failing to get sunscreen manufacturers to supply their own data. And let me point out how exceedingly rare it is for the FDA to do its own research. So this nearly unprecedented step illustrates the seriousness of the sunscreen problem.
The study involved 24 healthy men and women who used two sunscreen sprays, one sunscreen lotion, and one cream. For four days, participants applied each formulation to 75 percent of their body, for a total of four applications a day.
Researchers took 30 blood samples over seven days from each participant. The study was conducted under controlled, indoor conditions, without exposure to outdoor heat, humidity, sunlight, or water.
After only four applications, on the first day, all but one of the participants already had blood concentrations greater than the 0.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) safety limit set by the FDA for four active sunscreen ingredients: Avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule, and octocrylene.
These concentrations are based on an index called threshold of toxicological concern (TCC). The TCC measures the level at which the cancer risk for a chemical is greater than 1 in 100,000 after a single dose.
And while 1 in 100,000 doesn’t sound like much, consider this: After only four days of using the sunscreens, the study participants’ cancer risk was one in 6,250. Plus, the sunscreen industry wants you to apply many, many more applications than that over your lifetime, so imagine how quickly your TCC threshold actually rises…
Equally disturbing is that concentrations higher than 0.5 ng/mL were reached within six hours after the first application of avobenzone and octocrylene, and just two hours after the first application of oxybenzone.
Concentrations also increased over time, with oxybenzone reaching as high as 210 ng/mL (42 times higher than the safety threshold) in 57 hours. This finding is particularly concerning when you consider that prior studies have also found oxybenzone to influence hormonal activity in animals.
FDA fails to rescue us once again
The editorial that was published with this shocking study explains that the FDA review and approval process for sunscreens follows standards from “before the modern era of drug evaluation.”
The authors wrote: “Sunscreen users reasonably presume that companies that manufacture and sell sunscreens have conducted basic studies to support the safety and effectiveness of their products, and that the medical profession would demand high-quality evidence. However, sunscreens haven’t been subjected to standard drug safety testing, and clinicians and consumers lack data on systemic drug levels despite decades of widespread use.”
But is anyone really surprised about another government snafu regarding consumer health? Rather than rely on FDA fumblings and manufacturers’ malfeasance, keep reading to see what I recommend to stay safe and healthy in the summer sun—without toxic sunscreens.
5 healthy ways to enjoy the summer sun
- Build up a base tan. To help your body make optimal levels of vitamin D, I recommend exposing as much bare skin as possible to the sun. Start at 15 minutes a day—without sunscreen—and slowly increase that time until you’re able to tan without burning.
- Wear protective clothing. Until you’ve built up your base tan, wear lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and pants whenever you’re out in the sun after your initial 15 minutes. Additionally, you should wear sunglasses in bright sun, and on the water, to protect your retinas, and a hat to shield your eyes and the sensitive skin on your face from direct sun.
- Always avoid these sunscreen ingredients. PABA, trolamine salicylate, avobenzone, oxybenzone, ecamsule, and octocrylene. FDA research has identified these ingredients as unsafe or high on the cancer-risk scale. So read all labels to make sure your sunscreen doesn’t contain these toxic chemicals. In fact, you only want to see zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on the label…
- Opt for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sunscreens. FDA data shows these mineral-based sunscreens are safe. If you’re going to spend a lot of time in the sun—like a day at the beach, or on the water—consider applying these sunscreens to avoid sunburns. And no, you don’t have to worry that these pasty white creams will make you look like Casper the Friendly Ghost—manufacturers have figured out how to formulate the minerals into nanoparticles that are virtually colorless on the skin.
- Make your own sunscreen. If you’re only going to be in the sun for part of the day, there are many natural plant oils that provide different amounts protection (see below for my top recommendations).
And they still allow sufficient sunlight to reach your skin so you can produce vitamin D naturally. Plus, they contain vitamins and antioxidants that help your skin feel smooth. Safe, natural SPF straight from the produce department
Here are my favorite plant oils and their sun protection factors (SPF):
20 SPF: Carrot seed, red raspberry, and wheat germ oils. Carrot seed oil gives your skin a natural light orange-tan color, and has an earthy and nutty aroma that can be a little strong. Red raspberry oil is high in skin-healing vitamin E. Wheat germ oil is less oily than the others and has no scent.
10-15 SPF: Avocado and non-genetically modified soybean oils.
2-8 SPF: Almond, coconut, hemp seed, jojoba, macadamia, olive, and sesame seed oils, plus shea butter.
For extra protection, try combining some of the lower and higher SPF oils. Experiment until you find a texture and scent that’s right for you. You can find these oils at your local grocery or natural food store, or farmer’s market.
2“Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredient.” JAMA. 2019;321(21):2082-2091.