Sunscreen Ingredients: Which Ones to Look For and Which Ones to Avoid

Protect your skin from damaging UV rays—as well as exposure to the toxic chemicals found in most sunscreens—by increasing your sunscreen ingredients smarts.

Sunscreen Ingredients

Know what ingredients to avoid in your sunscreen to get the most protection.

Photo by iStock

Content Tools

Millions of Americans depend on sunscreen. Protecting our skin from harmful ultraviolet rays is important—UV light can cause skin cancer and prematurely age the skin. Yet, beyond the knowledge that sunscreens can prevent sunburns, for many years little has been known about their safety and efficacy. As researchers have looked at sunscreens more closely, some concerning information has come to light—leaving many of us utterly confused about how to best protect our health. Fortunately, we’re beginning to understand more about which sunscreen ingredients are safe, and with a little education we can feel good about what we’re putting on our family’s skin.

Homemade Sunscreen Recipe

The Sunscreen Facts

Ultimately, a little sun is good for us—a complete lack of sun exposure can lead to a deficiency in vitamin D. We should all aim to absorb about 20 minutes of sun each day. Yet at the same time, we need sunscreen to protect ourselves from the potentially harmful effects of overexposure.

Unfortunately, some of the most popular sunscreens on the market may not be as effective as we’d like and may even be harmful. Scientific evidence shows that some sunscreens only protect against UVB radiation rather than the more harmful UVA. What’s worse, many conventional sunscreens have been found to contain potential carcinogens including oxybenzone, benzophenone and retinyl palmitate. Research shows some of these sunscreen ingredients may actually promote skin cancer growth and free radical cell production in the body—some experts caution that exposure to these toxic ingredients may completely erode the benefits of sunscreen.

Armed with this knowledge, it’s wise to seek out sunscreens that are safest for our skin instead of just buying whatever is cheapest at the local drugstore. To learn how to choose the best sunscreens, read “Sunscreen Shopping Tips” later in this article, or visit the Environmental Working Group's Guide to Sunscreen. Or if you wish to take matters into your own hands, you can make your own sunscreen at home using the Homemade Sunscreen Recipe from Katie, the Wellness Mama. The basic ingredients should be available at your local health-food store; all you need to do is mix it up!

Sunscreen Shopping Tips

• Avoid sunscreens with vitamin A—generally listed as “retinyl palmitate” or “retinol” on labels. It may speed up the development of cancer on skin exposed to sunlight.

• Avoid sunscreens that contain oxybenzone. Found in 80 percent of chemical sunscreens, oxybenzone can penetrate the skin, causing allergic skin reactions and disrupting hormones.

• Skip sunscreens with insect repellent. While sunscreens should be applied liberally, repellents should not.

• Opt for creams instead of sprays and powders, which can emit tiny particles that may not be safe to breathe in.

• Beware of sunscreens with SPFs higher than 50. Many researchers suspect SPFs higher than 50 do not provide additional protection, creating a false sense of security.

• Look for mineral-based natural sunscreen with zinc and titanium dioxide listed as active ingredients, usually in the form of nanoparticles. The Environmental Working Group favors these two ingredients for their superior UVA protection—while no ingredient is completely effective or without hazard, these ingredients have shown less than .01 percent or no skin penetration and are stable in the presence of sunlight.

Sunscreen Savvy

Try these editor-recommended products, which are also recommended in the Environmental Working Group's 2013 Sunscreen Guide.

Sunny Faces

A little goes a long way with this Sunny Face Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30, from Goddess Garden Organics, made with nourishing aloe and sunflower oil. $18,

Lavender Badger

Lightly scented with organic lavender, this Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30, from Badger is super moisturizing and safe. $16,

Coconut Cream

Indulge in the subtle scent and healing benefits of coconut with the Broad Spectrum Sunscreen, SPF 30, from True Natural. $20,

Kiss Your Kids

Protect the little ones in your family with the gentle, water-resistant Obsessively Natural Kids Natural Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30, from Kiss My Face. $15,

Dolphin Swim

Use this Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 32, from Dolphin Organics for everyday use. It's easy to apply and fragrance-free. $20,

Gina DeBacker is the associate editor at Mother Earth Living, where she manages the health section of the magazine.