Shocking Sunscreen Facts: What You Need to Know

Your skin is the largest organ in your body.

Your skin is also the most susceptible organ to oxidative stress from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. As the weather begins to warm, and we spend more time outdoors, many of us are likely to reach for a bottle of sunscreen in order to protect our skin from sun damage. But do you really know what is in your sunscreen?

Every summer, new high-SPF sunscreen products line the shelves, each offering superior sun protection under a friendly marketing guise.

However, the truth is that in the United States, sunscreens are still made with ingredients that not only offer inadequate sun protection from UVA rays, but many of these common ingredients also damage the skin and may promote free radical damage, skin cancer, allergic reactions, and hormonal imbalance.

Many of us look for a high SPF in order to receive the greatest sun protection.

In 2007, the FDA published a draft regulation that would prohibit companies from marketing sunscreens beyond SPF 50+ because they found a higher SPF to be misleading. The FDA also announced that there was little evidence that sunscreens offered as much protection as they marketed.

However, since then, several large companies, such as Johnson & Johnson (makers of Neutrogena and Aveeno sunscreens) and Playtex (Banana Boat sunscreen), have demonstrated a public interest in high SPF sunscreens, and the FDA has been slow to finalize any regulation on SPF limit, or for that matter, on ingredients in sunscreens that are known carcinogens. In 2011, nearly one in five products now list an SPF greater than 50.

5 Things You Need to Know About Sunscreen:

1. Sunscreen manufacturing and marketing are largely unregulated by the FDA.

Before you slather on your sunscreen this year, think twice! Sunscreen manufacturers are not well regulated by the FDA and often don’t have the proper testing to back up the safety of their products.

In 1978, the FDA began to develop regulations for sunscreen safety and effectiveness. Final regulations have yet to be issued. The result? Safety and effectiveness are compromised. Sunscreen manufacturers can also make unwarranted marketing claims without testing to back these claims up. This means that it is up to the consumer to research what goes into sunscreens and decipher fact from marketing tactics.

2. Vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, is found in most sunscreens and is hazardous to skin health.

Manufacturers add vitamin A to 30% of all sunscreens. They do this because it is an antioxidant that can slow down the aging of skin. Unfortunately, in the presence of sunlight, the FDA recently found that the vitamin A added to sunscreen is actually likely to speed up the development of skin tumors and lesions.

The study conducted was a yearlong trial in which subjects were treated with a 0.5% concentration of vitamin A enriched cream. They developed tumors and lesions 21% sooner than the control group, which received no topical vitamin A.

3. Even though sunscreen protects the skin from sunburn by diverting UVB rays from the skin, most sunscreens do not significantly reduce UVA radiation.

What’s more, many sunscreen ingredients breakdown and release their own free radicals in the process. The US-approved UV filters that release free radicals are:

  • Octylmethoxycinnamate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octocrylene
  • Titanium dioxide
  • Zinc oxide
  • Padimate O
  • PABA
  • Menthyl anthranilate
  • Mexoryl SX
Of these, oxybenzone is the most common and found in 65% of all non-mineral sunscreens on the market.

What else does oxybenzone do? It penetrates the skin in relatively large amounts, may cause allergic reactions, and is a potential hormone disrupter. Because oxybenzone potentially disrupts hormone balance, many experts warn against its use on children.

4. Mineral sunscreens, those products with zinc or titanium that are sometimes called mineral filters, block UV radiation without penetrating the skin.

Mineral sunscreens:

  • Are non-allergenic.
  • Are stable in sunlight.
  • Do not disrupt the body’s natural hormones.
  • Offer greater protection against UVA radiation.

However, in spite of such benefits, mineral sunscreens are imperfect.

Nanomaterials, such as the zinc and titanium found in mineral sunscreens, have been found to be toxic to the environment and possibly damaging to internal organs, such as the lungs or gut. For this reason, when using a mineral sunscreen, it is important to avoid using sprays or powders.

5. And remember, the main source of vitamin D in the body is sunshine.

Vitamin D strengthens the immune system, the bones, and has been found to reduce the risk of several cancers. The American Medical Association recommends 10 minutes of direct sun without sunscreen several times a week.

Many studies are still are still under way to determine if sunscreen actually prevents skin cancer.

So far, conflicting evidence argues for both the preventative and causative roles that sunscreen plays in the development of skin cancer. The best form of sun protection? If you plan on spending extensive time outdoors, wear clothing that covers the body and seek the shade as much as possible.

Experts agree: Be moderate.

In other words, do not hide from the sun and also do not languish in it. While studies are still being conducted, and the US population awaits finalized FDA regulations on sunscreen, the consensus is that moderation is ideal.

What To Remember Most About This Article:

Have you ever given a second thought to your sunscreen? The majority of sunscreens in the US are manufactured with ingredients that offer inadequate sun protection and can also cause further damage to the skin, like skin cancer, allergic reactions, and hormonal imbalances.

Here are 5 important facts that you need to know about your sunscreen this summer:

1. Sunscreen manufacturing is largely unregulated by the FDA.

2. Vitamin A is found in most sunscreens and is hazardous to your skin.

3. The majority of sunscreens out there don’t significantly block UVA rays.

4. Mineral sunscreens block UV rays without penetrating the skin yet are toxic to the environment and could damage internal organs.

5. The best source of vitamin D is natural sunshine.


  1. Environmental Working Group, Skin Deep 2011. http://breakingnews.ewg.org/2011sunscreen/
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