Jun 3, 2024 - Health

How to pick a "safe" sunscreen

Illustration of a hand squeezing sunscreen out in the shape of an exclamation point into another hand

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Using sunscreen is recommended — but answering the "What ingredients are safe?" question could send you down an internet black hole.

The big picture: "People on social media are saying, 'I don't need sunscreen,' which is not correct because there's very strong science that the sun is causing problems from skin cancer to sunburn to wrinkles," says Henry Lim, dermatologist at Henry Ford Health in Detroit and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology.

Here's what you should ask before buying sunscreen:

What are the active ingredients?

  • You might consider avoiding oxybenzone. It's the chemical sunscreen ingredient that Lim says is most-discussed as potentially harmful, although there isn't conclusive data.
  • The Environmental Working Group and others have raised concerns about it being an endocrine disruptor.
  • Oxybenzone is also a possible allergen and can get absorbed into the body, per JAMA. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warns that it can harm marine life.

Is mineral sunscreen an option?

  • If you're pregnant, applying sunscreen to a baby, or especially concerned about sunscreen absorption for any other reason, "then the safest option would be to use mineral sunscreen," Lim says. (For babies younger than 6 months old, avoid sunscreen.)
  • The active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in mineral sunscreens don't penetrate the skin.
  • Mineral sunscreens can leave behind a white cast, particularly on darker skin tones. There are some tinted options, but those come in limited colors and can stain clothing.

What about a spray?

  • If inhaled, ingredients could be toxic, potentially carcinogenic and/or irritate the lungs.
  • If you use a spray sunscreen, aim it in a direction that it can't be inhaled. Or, Lim recommends spraying the sunscreen on your hands instead and then applying it elsewhere. It's also a safer way to apply it to your child's skin.

If you're purchasing sunscreen from outside of the U.S., getting it in person is the safest way. Otherwise, "it's best to buy from authorized retailers to reduce the chances of getting counterfeit products," says cosmetic chemist Michelle Wong.

  • Pro tip for international sunscreen shopping online: Buy when the weather is moderate to avoid extreme temperatures during shipping, Wong tells Axios.

What they're saying: Sunscreen has been used in the U.S. since the early '70s, and so far there's been no strong evidence that its use is associated with a negative health impact, Lim says.

Read more: The difference between the U.S. and other sunscreens.

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