4 Sunscreen Ingredients You Should Avoid (And What to Use Instead)

Practice safe sun.



Wearing SPF is one of the most important things you can do every day—not only does it help to slow down the signs of aging by protecting against harmful UV rays, but it also helps prevent skin cancer. In fact, I think it's pretty much a canon at this point that wearing sunscreen—summer or winter, rain or shine—is the best skincare tip out there. You think Cate Blanchette maintains her flawless complexion just by drinking hot water with lemon every morning? No. Guarantee she's diligent about sunblock. 

That said, not all sunscreens are created equal, and there are some pretty scary ingredients lurking in your tube of SPF. We did some digging to find the ingredients you should watch out for in your sunscreen, and the safer alternatives you should try instead.


This ingredient was banned in Hawaii because it has been shown to cause harm to coral reefs. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for something to be smeared all over your body. Aside from that, it's a form of synthetic estrogen, according to the Environmental Working Group, and can cause a disruption in your hormones. In its review of sunscreen ingredients, the EWG actually found oxybenzone to be the most troubling ingredient. 


Like the aforementioned oxybenzone, octinoxate is also banned in Hawaii for coral reef reasons. It's been shown to cause skin allergies, and in animal studies, it had effects on the reproductive system and thyroid. 


While this ingredient hasn't been found to cause hormone disruption like the others, the EWG did find that it causes high rates of irritation. And it's not sun-stable, which means it has to be mixed with stabilizers, like Octisalate (which the EWG ranks as having moderate toxicity concerns) in order to be used in sunblock. 

Retinyl Palmitate

This is a form of vitamin A, which is a powerful antioxidant. We're normally fans of these things in our routine—eating vitamin A-rich foods has been shown to be beneficial for our skin. But when retinyl palmitate meets your skin meets the sun, that's when the problems begin. When exposed to the sun, it can actually form free radicals, which is quite literally the opposite reason you want antioxidants. 

So What Should You Use?

The EWG rates mineral sunscreens higher than chemical sunscreens, mainly because there is little evidence that these go through the skin barrier and are absorbed by your body. They recommend sunscreens made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Below, our mineral sunscreen picks.

Balm SPF 35 Sport Sunscreen Cream- 2.9 oz
Badger Sport Sunscreen Cream SPF 35 $18

A mineral sport sunscreen that won't sweat into your eyes. 

Umbra Tinte(TM) Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 2 oz/ 60 mL
Drunk Elephant Umbra Tinte Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30 $36

A tinted sunscreen formulated with 20% zinc oxide, plus good-for-skin botanicals like grape juice extract. 

Key Ingredients

Astaxanthin is a red-colored pigment that belongs to the class of chemicals called carotenoids. It is an antioxidant, and can be applied directly to the skin to prevent sunburns, reduce wrinkles, and prevent other types of skin damage.

Green Screen Daily Environmental Protector Broad Spectrum MineralSunscreen SPF 30 with Echinacea GreenEnvy(TM) 1.7 oz/ 50 mL
Farmacy Green Screen Daily Environmental Protector Broad Spectrum MineralSunscreen SPF 30 With Echinacea GreenEnvy $36

A blend of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the active sunscreen ingredients in this lightweight product. 

Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+, 6 Ounce
Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF50+ $18

Technically for babies, but technically we also don't care because it's a solid mineral sunscreen option (and it's gentle!).

Article Sources
Byrdie takes every opportunity to use high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial guidelines to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. American Cancer Society. How Do I Protect Myself from Ultraviolet (UV) Rays?.

  2. S.B. NO. 2571. The Senate Twenty-Ninth Legislature. (HI, 2018).

  3. Environmental Working Group (EWG). The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens.

  4. Environmental Working Group (EWG). The Problem With Vitamin A.

  5. Balić A, Mokos M. Do We Utilize Our Knowledge of the Skin Protective Effects of Carotenoids Enough?Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(8). doi:10.3390/antiox8080259

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