The Good and Bad Ingredients In Your Sunscreen

Summer and beach time may be winding down, but don’t let your sunscreen use leave with it. It's easy to associate fall and winter with gray, chilly days, but most people aren’t aware that UV rays can be every bit as damaging at all times of the year.

I live in Bend, Oregon…an outdoors enthusiast’s paradise! There’s hiking, biking, trail running (or walking, for the rest of us), a litany of snow activities, and the list goes on and on. If these are activities you enjoy, you are at an increased risk for overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The combination of higher altitude and UV rays puts you at an increased risk of sun damage, and ultimately skin cancer. More than 90% of all skin cancers are associated with sun exposure.

Did You Know?

Ultraviolet radiation exposure increases 4 to 5% with every 1,000 feet above sea level. At an altitude of 9,000 to 10,000 feet, UV radiation may be 35 to 45% more intense than at sea level. In addition, snow reflects up to 80% of the UV light from the sun, meaning that you are often hit by the same rays twice.  

Both snow and strong wind can wear away sunscreen and reduce its effectiveness, so you have to take extra precautions.

The Bad Ingredients!

When choosing a sunscreen to protect your skin, avoid these four hormone disrupting chemicals (bad!):

1)   Avoid Oxybenzone  

Oxybenzone is found in nearly every chemical sunscreen. It’s recommended to avoid this ingredient because it penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body. It can also trigger allergic skin reactions. Although research is preliminary, studies have found a link between higher concentrations of oxybenzone and health issues. One study has linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women; another found that women with higher levels of oxybenzone during pregnancy had lower birth weight daughters.

2)   Avoid Octinoxate

Octinoxate gets into the bloodstream and demonstrates hormone-like activity. In animals, octinoxate altered the reproductive system and thyroid. It can also trigger allergic skin reactions. Breastfeeding moms, take caution, this chemical can be found in mother’s milk so please avoid so it isn’t passed to your beautiful baby.

3)   Avoid Retinyl Palmitate

When used in a night cream, this form of vitamin A is supposed to have anti-aging effects. But on sun-exposed skin, retinyl palmitate may speed development of skin tumors and lesions, according to government studies. Why is this “inactive ingredient” allowed in sunscreens intended for use in the sun? Good question.

4)   Avoid Homosalate

Homosalate enters the bloodstream and disrupts estrogen, androgen and progesterone. This is another chemical for breastfeeding moms to especially avoid because it can be found in mother’s milk.

The Good Ingredients!

I recommend buying sunscreen with any of these ingredients because all these ingredients not only provide excellent UVA protection, but also offer very limited to no skin penetration and no evidence of hormone disruption.

1)   Titanium Dioxide

2)   Zinc Oxide

3)   Avobenzone

4)   Mexoryl SX

The Environmental Working Group is an excellent reference for identifying a safe sunscreen and to learn more about the sunscreen you currently use. Check their guide out here 2014 Sunscreen Guide

In Health and Happiness,

Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods


Environmental Working Group. The trouble With Sunscreen Chemicals. 

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