6 Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid + Natural Sunscreen Alternatives

Published on March 01, 2024

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

Most health-conscious people are aware of mounting reports and exposes highlighting the potentially toxic ingredients in sunscreen.

This once created quite the dilemma for the sun-loving yet chemical-conscious consumer: do you risk applying these toxic ingredients to your skin? Or do you risk getting a sunburn if you don’t?

Fortunately, we no longer have to choose between exposure to harmful chemicals and effective sun protection.

In this article, we’ll share everything you need to know about the chemicals to avoid in sunscreens, the best natural sunscreen alternatives, and what form of sunscreen to avoid altogether—natural or not.

We’ll also share helpful tools for label reading and vetting different brands of natural sunscreens and which plants have been traditionally used for sun protection.

Chemicals to Avoid in Sunscreens

Most conventional sunscreens are synthetic concoctions of UVA-UVB-absorbing chemicals, mineral-based sun blockers, petroleum-based ingredients, preservatives, and fragrances.

They’re also an environmental nightmare, with several sunscreen chemicals banned throughout the world and in the United States due to their toxic effects on coral reefs and aquatic life.REF#3577 REF#3578 REF#3579

Fortunately, news about the implications of these toxic ingredients has gotten out. 

However, many people still have no idea what potentially harmful ingredients are lurking in the average tube of synthetic sunscreen.

Ingredients to Avoid in Sunscreen

Synthetic chemicals used in sunscreens work by absorbing specific UVA/UVB rays, which prevents them from being absorbed by the skin.

Unfortunately, most of these chemicals only work for certain types of UVA/UVB rays, which means multiple chemicals are required to provide full-spectrum protection.

So, what’s the problem?

According to the FDA, many of the ingredients we’re about to discuss, including: oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and avobenzone, are all systemically absorbed into the body after one use and can be detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after they had last been used.REF#3580

They have also been linked to several health and environmental issues. Let’s explore these now.

The following are some of the most concerning ingredients to avoid in sunscreen:REF#3581 REF#3582 REF#3583

  • Oxybenzone: This highly controversial endocrine/hormone-disrupting chemical is linked to shorter pregnancies, increased risk of endometriosis, lower testosterone levels, and cancer. Research suggests it may be especially harmful to children and babies. It is potentially toxic to aquatic life and is considered a causal factor in the bleaching of coral reefs. A European Commission opinion report found current human exposure levels to oxybenzone to be unsafe and proposed a concentration restriction of 2.2 percent.REF#3584 The limited amount allowed in U.S. sunscreens is 6%. Several countries have banned the sale of oxybenzone-containing sunscreens, as have Key West and Hawaii.REF#3585
  • Octinoxate: Animal studies suggest this ingredient is also an endocrine disruptor capable of negatively impacting thyroid and metabolic function. It’s also been banned in several countries and states, like Key West in Florida and Hawaii,REF#3586 because of its toxic effects on aquatic life.
  • Homosalate: This is another potential endocrine disruptor that produces toxic by-products. The FDA says they do not have enough evidence to consider it “safe,” yet a recent opinion by the European Commission found homosalate recommended a maximum concentration of 1.4 percent. At present, the FDA allows concentrations up to 15 percent in the U.S.REF#3587
  • Octisalate: This is another potential endocrine disruptor and skin allergen that damages aquatic ecosystems. It’s also challenging to remove from water supplies, making its cumulative effects a cause for concern.
  • Octocrylene: This chemical is a skin allergen and is toxic to aquatic life and coral reefs.REF#3588
  • Avobenzone: Evidence suggests this chemical is an endocrine disruptor that blocks testosterone REF#3589 and its by-products can create dermatitis and skin allergies.

In addition to sun-blocking ingredients, synthetic sunscreens typically contain other potentially harmful ingredients such as endocrine-disrupting phthalates, fragrance, synthetic preservatives like parabens and formaldehyde-releasing chemicals, and petroleum products.

Thankfully, non-toxic and natural sunscreens allow us to avoid these potentially harmful chemicals.

The Best Natural Sunscreen Alternative is Mineral-Based Sunscreen

If you’re looking for a natural sunscreen that does not contain harmful chemicals, non-toxic mineral-based sunscreens are your best option.

These sunscreens will contain one or both of the following:

  • Zinc Oxide: A form of zinc used commonly in topical products such as sunscreen, diaper rash creams, and for skin irritation 
    • Titanium Dioxide: A naturally occurring mineral classified as biologically inert in animals and humans. It is used in various applications, including sunscreen, paint, supplements, plastics, medications, personal care products, and food colorings.REF#3590

      How Do Mineral Sunscreens Work?

      Unlike chemical sunblockers, which absorb UVA/UVB rays, these minerals sit on top of the skin and reflect the sun by scattering the ultraviolet rays away.REF#3591

      For this reason, they are used as primary sun blockers in natural sunscreens and added to synthetic chemical-based sunscreens to enhance the effectiveness of the sunscreen chemicals.

      Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are also the only two natural/non-toxic sun-blocking ingredients deemed safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration.REF#3592

      Mineral sunscreens are widely available in most stores and online. However, not all are created equal in terms of ingredients and toxicity.

      Are All Mineral-Based Sunscreens Natural and Non-Toxic?

      Just because a sunscreen is labeled “mineral-based” doesn’t automatically make it natural or non-toxic.

      As previously discussed, many synthetic brands include Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide, and synthetic sunblockers like Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Avobenzone, and others.

      In addition, not all “natural,” “organic,” or “eco-friendly” sunscreens are created equal in terms of low-tox ingredients.

      Many brands may still include synthetic chemicals such as preservatives, fragrances, phthalates, and petroleum products.

      So, how can you tell if the sunscreen you’re interested in is genuinely natural or non-toxic?

      You either become a stealth label-reader (which has become more accessible thanks to online resources) or use consumer advocate sites and apps like The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Guide to Safe Sunscreens or their SkinDeep Database.

      Either platform allows you to plug in the name of the sunscreen, and EWG will rate it on a scale of 1-10, with “1” being the least toxic and “10” being the most harmful.

      Ideally, you’d opt for products in the “1-2” range, especially for the chemically sensitive or those with young babies or children.

      What About Spray Mineral Sunscreens?

      Despite warnings about the health and environmental dangers of spray sunscreens, people still use them on themselves and their children and babies.

      But do these same issues apply to mineral sunscreens when sprayed? 

      Unfortunately, there are concerns.

      Although Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are natural minerals considered biologically inert and non-toxic, research has shown they can cause respiratory issues when inhaled. 

      The reason is these minerals must be nano-particle-sized to blend in with the other sunscreen ingredients. The nano-sizes are what makes them harmful to the lungs if sprayed.

      This is true for other otherwise harmless minerals like silica or calcium, for example. If a natural substance is nanosized, it has the potential to cause issues for the respiratory system.

      The good news is several studies have shown no evidence of harm when nano-sized minerals are used topically versus sprayed.REF#3593 So you’re safe to use them as a cream or lotion.

      What About Using Plants, Herbs, or Plant Oils as Sunscreens?

      In researching natural sunscreens, you probably found information on certain plants or plant oils traditionally used as natural sunscreens.

      This makes sense as man-made chemical or mineral-based sunscreens are a relatively new invention, and people have needed sun protection for millennia.

      Some examples of plants and herbs traditionally used for sun protection include:

      Although some research suggests these, and other plants and herbs, may offer some sun protection, more studies are needed to confirm their efficacy and method(s) of action.REF#3594 REF#3595

      Therefore, using plants or plant oils to replace an SPF-rated sunscreen made with the minerals mentioned above or UVA-UVB blocking/absorbing chemicals is not recommended.

      That said, many natural sunscreens do contain natural sun-blocking herbs or plants in addition to Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide. 

      This allows you the best of both worlds without the risk of sunburn.

      Won’t Mineral Sunscreens Turn My Skin White?

      Mineral sunscreens have come a long way since their pasty-white debut a few years ago when they left people looking a little bleached out after application.

      Improved formulas may leave only a slightly noticeable white film.

      You can also look for tinted mineral sunblocks if that concerns you.

      Three Main Takeaways About Natural Sunscreens vs. Chemical Sunscreens

      We’ve covered a lot, so here are three main things to remember about natural sunscreens and chemicals in sunscreen:

      • Most chemical sunscreen ingredients, like Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, and Avobenzone are marketed as safe for humans and the environment, even though a growing body of evidence and government researchers suggest otherwise.
      • Mineral sunscreens containing Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are the only ingredients deemed safe and effective sun blockers by the FDA. They’re also used in SPF-rated, non-toxic, and natural sunscreens.
      • Never use spray sunscreens, period. Whether synthetic-chemical or mineral-based, these forms of sunscreen pose health and environmental risks for people, animals, and aquatic life.

      Interested in learning more about ingredients to avoid in skin and beauty care products? Check out the following articles:


      • 1. , "The trouble with ingredients in sunscreens", The Environmental Working Group,
      • 2. , "Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients", J Am Acad Dermatol.
      • 3. , "In vitro and in vivo estrogenicity of UV screens", Environmental Health Perspectives.
      • 4. , "The trouble with ingredients in sunscreens", The Environmental Working Group,
      • 5. , "The trouble with ingredients in sunscreens", The Environmental Working Group,
      • 6. , "Review of environmental effects of oxybenzone and other sunscreen active ingredients", J Am Acad Dermatol.
      • 7. , "In vitro and in vivo estrogenicity of UV screens", Environmental Health Perspectives.
      • 8. , "Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS OPINION on Benzophenone-3", European Commissions.
      • 9. , "The Banned Sunscreen Ingredients and Their Impact on Human Health: A Systematic Review", International Journal of Dermatology.
      • 10. , "The Banned Sunscreen Ingredients and Their Impact on Human Health: A Systematic Review", International Journal of Dermatology.
      • 11. , "Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS OPINION on Benzophenone-3", European Commissions.
      • 12. , "Metabolomics Reveal That Octocrylene Accumulates in Pocillopora damicornis Tissues as Fatty Acid Conjugates and Triggers Coral Cell Mitochondrial Dysfunction", Analytical Chemistry.
      • 13. , "Endocrine Activity of AVB, 2MR, BHA, and Their Mixtures", Toxicological Sciences, Volume 156, Issue 1, March 2017, Pages 240–251.
      • 14. , "Titanium dioxide in our everyday life; is it safe?", Radiology and Oncology.
      • 15. , "Update on Photoprotection", Indian Journal of Dermatology.
      • 16. , "DA advances new proposed regulation to make sure that sunscreens are safe and effective", United States Food and Drug Administration.
      • 17. , "Nanoparticles in Sunscreen", The Environmental Working Group.
      • 18. , "Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation", Pharmacognosy Reviews.
      • 19. , "Can Natural Herbs Protect Your Skin From the Sun?", Smithsonian Magazine.