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. The EWG actually considers oxybenzone to be the most troubling sunscreen 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, according to the EWG, 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.
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. Animal studies have shown that, when exposed to the sun, it is potentially cancerous and forms 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, because they claim there is little evidence that these go through the skin barrier and are absorbed by your body in the way that chemical sunscreens are. They recommend sunscreens made with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. Below, our mineral sunscreen picks.
A mineral sport sunscreen that won't sweat into your eyes.
A tinted sunscreen formulated with 20% zinc oxide, plus good-for-skin botanicals like grape juice extract.
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.
A blend of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are the active sunscreen ingredients in this lightweight product.
Technically for babies, but technically we also don't care because it's a solid mineral sunscreen option (and it's gentle!).
American Cancer Society. How do I protect myself from ultraviolet (UV) rays?. Updated July 23, 2019.
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Boudreau MD, Beland FA, Felton RP, et al. Photo-co-carcinogenesis of topically applied retinyl palmitate in SKH-1 hairless mice. Photochem Photobiol. 2017;93(4):1096-1114. doi:10.1111/php.12730
Balić A, Mokos M. Do we utilize our knowledge of the skin protective effects of carotenoids enough?. Antioxidants (Basel). 2019;8(8):259. doi:10.3390/antiox8080259