Is Chemical Sunscreen Actually Bad for You? Derms Weigh In

Sunscreen drops

Liz DeSousa for Byrdie

Ah, nothing like the heat on your skin as you bask in the sunlight with your best friends. But as we enjoy nature’s bounty, it’s important to apply sunscreen daily to protect ourselves against the sun's harsh rays. 

However, with so many options on the market, selecting a sunscreen can feel overwhelming. Chemical sunscreens are the most popular choice, but some claim you should steer clear of them—that they are hormone disruptors killing the environment. Yikes. We tapped the experts and did some digging so that you have all the facts before making a decision.

Meet the Expert

  • Dr. Cynthia Bailey, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist, scientist, and wellness expert. She is the founder of Dr. Bailey Skin Care in California. 
  • Dr. Marina Peredo, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist and the founder of the New York City-based Skinfluence, where she specializes in aesthetic, laser, and surgical dermatology. 

What Is Chemical Sunscreen? 

Chemical sunscreens use chemicals to prevent UV rays from entering your skin by absorbing the rays with a chemical reaction. “Each time a UV ray causes this reaction, the molecule of chemical sunscreen is destroyed," explains Bailey. "It is one of the reasons you need to reapply sunscreen during prolonged sun exposure—basically, you run out of chemical sunscreen molecules on your skin as they block the sun’s UV rays." Mineral sunscreens do the same thing, but they use mineral particles to prevent UV rays from entering your skin with a combination of absorbing, scattering, and reflecting the rays.

“Chemical sunscreen also needs time to bind with your skin before it starts working. This is one reason why we recommend applying sunscreen 15-30 minutes before sun exposure. This time allows the product to absorb into the top layer of your skin where it will work,” says Bailey. 

Is Chemical Sunscreen Safe? 

Some of the ingredients in chemical sunscreens can be controversial, and as a result, many people avoid using them and stick to mineral sunscreens. Because chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin, they tend to have a lighter formulation than physical sunscreens. However, they also tend to have more chemical ingredients to provide broad-spectrum coverage from UV rays, including preservatives, dyes, and fragrances, which can cause skin irritations. 

The dermatologists we tapped have differing views on the subject. Peredo is relatively neutral with her position on chemical sunscreens. “Yes, chemical sunscreens are safe," she says. "Most sunscreens that have unsafe chemicals are now banned from being used. Sometimes I prefer to recommend physical sunscreens if you have sensitive skin, allergies to chemical sunscreens, are pregnant, or have melasma, and for babies and children.”

Bailey, on the other hand, has a more skeptical take when it comes to chemical sunscreens. “Over the course of my career, I have seen chemical sunscreens fail to provide reliable UV protection for my patients under real use conditions," she says. "I see surprise sunburns, tanning, and darkening of freckles during their skin exams—all of which indicate DNA skin damage."

"Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, have proven much more reliable," Bailey continues. "The FDA has said that only two active sunscreen ingredients are recognized as safe and effective: These are the physical sunscreen UV filters zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. All others, meaning all chemical sunscreen UV filters, need further study. I don’t recommend chemical sunscreens. That said, they are popular and better than no sunscreen at all.” 

So, while chemical sunscreens are more readily available, and often don’t leave a white cast, it’s very important to read the ingredients label. “Safe ingredients to look for in sunscreen are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide," says Peredo. "Both are safe for the environment. Specifically, zinc oxide acts as a barrier on the skin’s surface and is oftentimes gentler for those that have sensitive skin. You should avoid PABA and trolamine salicylate, two chemicals that are now rarely used in sunblock."

Additionally, you should look out for avobenzone, octinoxate, mexoryl SX, tinosorb S, and tinosorb M, as they may be harmful. 

The Environmental Controversy Surrounding Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreens wash off the skin and enter waterways, which is a threat to marine life and corals. Unless explicitly stated on the label, chemical sunscreens are not coral reef-friendly. Certain places in the world, such as Australia, the Galapagos Islands, Hawaii, and now the Virgin Islands, have banned the use of chemical sunscreens because of this harmful impact.

“Some of the main sunscreen ingredients used today that are known to harm marine life include oxybenzone (benzophenone), nano-titanium dioxide and nano-zinc oxide, octinoxate, and octocrylene,” warns Bailey. 

Products We Love 

Alastin SPF 30+ Sunscreen
Alastin Broad Spectrum SPF 30+ Sunscreen $40
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Alastin’s sunscreen is light and moisturizing, but also provides broad-spectrum protection. “[This combination of] cucumber and aloe leaf extract calms the skin and is water-resistant, gluten-free, paraben-free, and cruelty-free," says Peredo. "I recommend applying every two hours unless you are swimming or playing sports. Then you need to increase the frequency of applications."

Citrix Vitamin C Antioxidant Sunscreen
Citrix Vitamin C Antioxidant Sunscreen $33
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According to Bailey, the combination of the chemical sunscreen ingredient octinoxate with zinc oxide works really well, usually rubs in pretty clear, and limits the chemical exposure to just one chemical UV filter.

Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36
Alastin HydraTint Pro Mineral Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 36 $55
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For the face, Peredo recommends Alastin’s HydraTint Pro because it has a chemical block and tint that gives you an extra layer of protection because it reflects the sun. Plus, it evens the skin tone. It’s lightweight, provides broad-spectrum protection, and is oil-free and fragrance-free, so it won’t break you out.

The Final Takeaway

There is still a lot of research to be done when it comes to whether or not chemical sunscreens are safe to use. At the end of the day, you do have to weigh whether it's best for you and whether you want to risk exposing yourself to a possible endocrine disruptor. 

Thankfully, most skincare brands today offer both chemical and mineral formulations. Although mineral sunscreens tend to feel heavier and leave a trace, they are mostly non-comedogenic and tend to be associated with less adverse skin irritations than chemical sunscreen formulations, and thus are a good choice for folks with acne-prone, oily, or sensitive skin types. 

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