When most people think of sun protection, they think of sunscreen as the number one product they can use to prevent some of the ailments caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. And while sunscreen is helpful, and often necessary in the prevention of sunburn and cancer, it’s not without risks. Like most things in life, there are risks and benefits that need to be weighed when making decisions about the things we consume, especially on a daily basis.
Because sunscreen is a product we rub onto our bodies, directly into our skin, it’s important to be aware of what exactly is in it. Why? Because our skin is porous, meaning it absorbs what we put onto it and it’s the largest organ of our body. And this is the largest risk of sunscreens, the potentially toxic ingredients, and the harm they can do to our bodies.
Luckily, websites like EWG help shine a light on product ingredients, helping us understand what is harmful and what isn’t. EWG lists the following ingredients in sunscreens as harmful: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone. They go further to compare multiple studies on some of these toxic elements, showing that oxybenzone has been linked to lower levels of testosterone in males and increased risk of endometriosis in females.
In addition to the harmful ingredients inside of sunscreen, there are also potential risks of toxic contaminants happening during the manufacturing process of sunscreen, as was the case with the 2021 recall of several popular sunscreen brands. The recall identified the presence of benzene in aerosol sunscreens, which is listed as a human carcinogenic.
Speaking of aerosols, this is another potential risk of sunscreen because of the possibility of lung irritation and allergic reactions from the tiny particles being sprayed.
Another risk of using sunscreen is not one that directly affects us or our bodies, but the damage it can cause to our environment. The National Ocean Service has a great visual showing the process and effects that harmful sunscreen ingredients can have on our oceans, including the death of coral reefs, deforming sea life, and even impairing photosynthesis.
Finally, it’s important to point out the possibility that sunscreen can affect vitamin D absorption as it’s meant to help block out the sun’s UV rays. While research on this is limited and the amount of sunscreen applied, length of time in the sun, and other factors may affect this, one must be mindful of this possible issue.