Summer Sun: What to Avoid When Purchasing Sunscreen

Spring is in full swing, and summer’s on its way, which means we’ll all be spending more time in the sun even if we’re still keeping a social distance. That means you’ll be stocking up on fresh sunscreen (remember it expires). While you’re debating between lotions and sprays and bottles and brands, keep in mind that you need a broad-spectrum product with an SPF of at least 30 (higher numbers aren’t necessarily more effective).

That’s what you want to see on the label. But what about what you don’t want to see? 

Our experienced dermatologists, Dr. Ritchie Rosso and Dr. Robert Chappell, have studied this topic thoroughly, because what you slather on your skin has the potential to either help or hurt you. Although it’s important to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, it’s equally important to protect yourself from potentially dangerous chemicals in your sunscreen. Here’s what to avoid.

A word about sunscreen ingredients

Sunscreen contains chemicals, and when you spray or rub it over large areas of your skin, you’re introducing these foreign substances to your body. At the very least, they could cause a skin allergy; at worst, they can be absorbed into your tissues and bloodstream. From there, they can affect your hormones, organs, unborn baby, and breast milk.

Sunscreens are categorized as either chemical or mineral. They both protect you from the sun, but use a different approach. Most sunscreen in this country are chemical.

One of the standards of safety in American products, the Food and Drug administration (FDA) tests and studies individual components of sunscreen to determine those generally recognized as safe and effective (GRASE). But our standards may be a bit higher than that, and we think yours should be, too. That’s why we’ve put together this list of things you should avoid when you're buying your sunscreen this season.


Oxybenzone is a powerful, broad-spectrum ingredient that blocks both UVA and UVB sun rays. It is FDA-approved and will be hard to avoid because it’s the main ingredient in most of the popular sunscreens today

But your skin absorbs oxybenzone and can directly impact your endocrine system, which means it can throw your hormones off balance. Studies show that 96% of Americans have oxybenzone in their systems, and there’s evidence it can decrease testosterone in men and adolescent boys and affect the birth weight of newborns. 


Another common active ingredient in sunscreen, avobenzone is used for its ability to absorb UVA rays. Unfortunately, it can’t sustain its sun-filtering properties for more than 30 minutes, so it needs to be paired with a stabilizer. And this is where the problems start.

Octocrylene is often the stabilizer of choice (two others are homosalate and octisalate), but it comes with harmful side effects, such as rashes and skin allergies, penetration into the deepest layers of your skin, interaction with other chemicals, and the release of free radicals and cell damage.

Avobenzone alone is safe, but its accompanying stabilizers generally aren’t.

PABA — para-aminobenzoic acid

Although PABA absorbs UVB rays effectively, it’s dangerous in large amounts. The FDA does not consider PABA as GRASE, and many countries have banned it altogether. 

An overdose of PABA can cause severe allergic dermatitis, increases photosensitivity, and has been linked to certain types of skin cancers


Excellent at filtering out UVB rays, octinoxate is another chemical you might find listed on your sunscreen label. But beware. It can disrupt your hormones and affect fetal development, especially the reproductive organs. It may also affect your thyroid hormones, which regulate your metabolism.

So what’s safe?

Let’s put things into perspective. This list of no-nos may seem scary at first. You may be concerned about all the years you’ve been wearing sunscreen and dousing your kids with it, wondering how much damage you’ve already done. Relax. Although in large doses over long periods of time, these ingredients can do some damage, chances are you aren’t even close to that point.

The most important thing to remember is that wearing sunscreen is still one of your best defenses against cancers caused by overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. That said, the sunscreen you like and rub on regularly is the best one on the shelf because you actually use it. 

But if you really want to avoid some of these potentially harmful ingredients, look for friendlier terms like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide with no side effects. These are both mineral-based sunscreens and are FDA-approved as GRASE.

If you still have questions about the right sunscreen or are concerned about skin cancer, call us at 432-217-0344 or request an appointment online. We are currently open for face-to-face visits as well as telemedicine sessions.

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