5 sunscreen ingredients to avoid

sunscreen ingredients
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These worrisome sunscreen chemicals provide potential risk to humans and are wreaking havoc on coral reefs.

It used to be so easy. In the old days we’d go out and play in the sun and “work” on our tans without a care in the world. And then we found out sun was bad for our skin so it got a little less easy and we started buying coconut-scented sun lotions to offer a bit of protection. Fast forward to now and as it turns out, some of the ingredients in these potions we slather all over our skin could be harming our health and are definitely hurting coral reefs. What’s an outdoorsperson supposed to do?

Thankfully, Environmental Working Group is on the task. Each year they publish the EWG Sunscreen Guide, which presents a comprehensive report on the state of sun protecting products. The database of products is invaluable and is a great tool for consumers. It lists the data for some 650 sunscreens for beach and sports use, 250 SPF-rated moisturizers and 115 lip products – each one evaluated for its safety and efficacy, with high ratings going to those that “provide broad spectrum, long-lasting protection with ingredients that pose fewer health concerns when absorbed by the body.”

Which is all enormously helpful. But it may not always be practical to be researching a ginormous database while, say, you’re at the beach store having forgot your favorite sunscreen, or some such related situation. Which is why I really like this chart on ingredients. You can familiarize yourself with the worst offenders as an easy way to evaluate selections when you don’t have the luxury of the complete rundown.

To determine these ratings, the researchers looked at the main ingredients used in sunscreens and asked:

• Will the chemical penetrate skin and reach living tissues?
• Will it disrupt the hormone system?
• Can it affect the reproductive and thyroid systems and, in the case of fetal or childhood exposure, permanently alter reproductive development or behavior?
• Can it cause a skin allergy?
• What if it is inhaled?
• Other toxicity concerns?

Here is what they determined. With ratings of 7 to 10 being high hazard and 3 to 6 being moderate.

sunscreen ingredeints© EWG
sunscreen ingredeints© EWG

In summary, AVOID:
• Oxybenzone
• Octinoxate (Octylmethoxycinnamate)
• Homosalate
• Octisalate
• Octocrylene

Meanwhile, the ingredients that fall in the SAFER zone are:
• Titanium Dioxide
• Zinc Oxide
• Avobenzone
• Mexoryl SX

I really recommend reading EWG’s information about these ingredients, especially oxybenzone, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention routinely finds in more than 96 percent of the American population.

And then there’s the coral
Because progress loves to present even more complications, not only do our choices have an impact on our own health, but the planet’s as well. In the case of sunscreen, this is namely about the coral reefs, which don’t take kindly to having strong chemicals washed into their delicate ecosystems.

Humans deliver 4,000 to 6,000 toms of sunscreen to reef areas each year; and thus, we are dangerously damaging these “rainforests of the sea.” The trickle-up effect of damage could prove catastrophic for many species that rely on the reefs, and for the species that rely on those species, and so on.

The National Park Service notes:

While no sunscreen has been proven to be completely ‘reef-friendly,’ those with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which are natural mineral ingredients, have not been found harmful to corals. Sunscreens sold for children or for those with sensitive skin may contain these gentler compounds as the active ingredients.

EWG says that they concur with the recommendations of the Professional Association of Underwater Instructors and the National Park Service, noting that you should use sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Avoid sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, octocrylene, 4MBC, butylparaben and octinoxate.

Lastly, one of the best ways to protect yourself from the sun is to do so with clothes, hats, sunglasses, parasols, and good old shade.

See all of EWG's sunscreen research and reportage at the EWG Sunscreen Guide.

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