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Health and environmental side effects of chemical sunscreens (UV filters)

Is sunscreen really as harmful to your skin as they say?

Health and environmental side effects of chemical sunscreens (UV filters)

We're told by dermatologists, spa therapists, doctors and the media that wearing a good quality sunscreen is essential in preserving our youthful appearance and preventing skin damage. While not many hesitate to dish out the coins for sunscreen products, there has been much controversy surrounding the safety of sunscreen.

Like with most debates, there are opposing viewpoints, each group swearing to death that their opinion is truth! In the first group of people, you'll find those who incorporate sunscreen into their daily skin care regime, or at least apply sunscreen every time they spend time outdoors. These people use sunscreen in hopes of avoiding skin damage or sunburn from the sun's UV rays. In contrast, the other group of people refuse to apply even an ounce of sunscreen to their skin, claiming that "I never wear sunscreen - that stuff gives you skin cancer!".  So which side of the fence is the 'correct' one to be on?

After extensive research (while attempting to maintain the most unbiased approach), it soon became highly probable that there actually was a 'skin cancer-causing culprit' to worry about, however, studies suggest that it may be something other than the supposed toxic ingredients found in sunscreen! It was also worrying to discover that there are far greater, more global issues that sunscreen may be the direct root cause of! Researching the topic of sunscreen toxicity was becoming more eye-opening than expected. 

We'll help you draw your own conclusion by covering the following topics:

  1. Types of sunscreens and how they work
  2. How sunscreens may be harmful
  3. Other harmful effects of sunscreen
  4. Safe sunscreen alternatives

Types of sunscreen

To put it simply, there are 2 types of sunscreens: chemical (sunscreen) and physical (sunblock). Each type has different formulations and therefore different purposes. Essentially, chemical sunscreen absorbs UV rays while physical sunblock reflects UV rays.

Physical sunblock

Physical sunblock certainly doesn't have as much of a controversial reputation as chemical sunscreen! The reason why physical sunblock has managed to maintain its esteem is because the ingredients of physical sunblock sit on the surface of the skin (rather than being absorbed) and physically block UV light from penetrating your skin's surface. Because the ingredients are not being absorbed into the skin, they do not enter into your bloodstream or bodily system, and may have no side effects. The 2 most commonly-used active ingredients in physical sunblock are inorganic mineral compounds, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. 


Unlike physical sunblocks, chemical sunscreens don’t sit on the surface of the skin – they soak into it and quickly find their way into the bloodstream! There are 15 FDA-approved chemical sunscreen ingredients on the market, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate, just to name a few. Most of these UV filters are considered endocrine disruptors, which means that they interfere with the normal function of hormones! After topical application, they're then scattered all over the body without being detoxified by the liver and can be detected in blood, urine, and breast milk for up to 2 days after a single application. In fact, these chemicals accumulate in the body with frequent use.

Despite shocking studies of how UV filters affect the body, the FDA still maintains its approval of these ingredients. Noted side effects of the ingredients in chemical sunscreen includes:

  • Disrupted levels of oestrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid hormones
  • Abnormal development of foetuses and growing children
  • Early puberty
  • Undescended testicles in boys
  • Infertility
  • Prostate cancer in men
  • Ovarian or breast cancer in women
  • Skin allergies

After going through the possible side effects of chemical UV filters, you may notice that 'skin cancer' doesn't make anywhere near the top of the list! While the list of side effects of UV filters is pretty scary, why is there such a huge debate about whether sunscreen causes skin cancer or not, when skin cancer is barely mentioned as a side effect of UV filters in research studies?

Apart from the reported side effects of UV filters, the reason why people started bashing chemical sunscreens was because researchers came up with statistic reports which suggested that the majority of people who have skin cancer were people who were sunscreen-users. People who did not wear sunscreen had a much lower statistic of skin cancer. Many people immediately blamed the UV filters found in chemical sunscreens.  

However, further studies have been done - because we all want clear answers! It turns out that one of the more likely reasons why sunscreen is finely associated with skin cancer is that people who regularly wear sunscreen spend more time in the sun. There is a strong possibility that the ingredients in the sunscreen might not actually be the cause of skin cancer, but rather frequently being exposed to UV rays! To put it into few words, skin cancer would be a result of sustained UV damage, not sunscreen!

While various studies have been done, researchers cannot say with 100% conviction whether sunscreen may or may not cause skin cancer. Please bear in mind that sunscreen has only been around for about 100 years and insufficient studies are the main cause of debate. This is because the UV filters discussed above do not cause immediate toxicity, it usually happens over many years. So, the topic of skin cancer caused by sunscreen is inconclusive, but the damaging effects of overexposure to UV rays proven, well-documented and rarely challenged! Additionally, certain types of skin (or certain genetics) may be more sensitive to UV rays than other.

Other shocking effects of chemical sunscreens

Just as chemical filters accumulate in human beings over time, they accumulate in other living organisms, such as coral reefs, soil, sea creatures and swimming pools. Significant doses of chemical sunscreen ingredients have been found in tropical 'holiday' destinations where tens of thousands of people wear sunscreens while swimming in the ocean. In the same way that sunscreen ingredients disrupt our endocrine system, they also disrupt other organisms' (e.g. coral) reproduction and growth cycles.

Some might say that they don't contribute to this environmental issue because they "never go to the beach" or "never go on vacation". Sorry honey, when someone who's wearing sunscreen simply showers or baths, those ingredients get washed down drains and eventually finds their way into the ocean. Some destinations, such as Hawaii and Palau, have introduced bans on chemical sunscreens after it was discovered that about 80% of corals in the Caribbean have been lost in the last 50 years!

Safe sunscreen alternatives

Health-conscious and earth-conscious people tend to steer clear of products that contain harmful chemicals, a great example of no no's being chemical UV filters. For those who refuse to wear sunscreen because of the chemical ingredients found in these products, you'll be glad to hear that there are safer and more eco-friendly alternatives! The coral reefs have taken a hard knock, but we've still got time to replenish and save the ocean's eco-systems!

Simply Bee

Simply Bee is a wonderful, proudly South African company that is passionate about sustainability and providing you with natural, plant base products that works - without harming animals, the environment OR your health! Simply Bee's Beeswax Sunscreen (SPF) 30 is the perfect choice for people who want a natural sunscreen to protect them from the sun, as well as for those who care about the environment and prefer not to use products that are cruelly tested on animals. Reef-friendly!

Simply Bee's Beeswax Sunscreen is made from organic plant-based ingredients and goes on smoothly, without leaving a white residue. It's free from harmful chemicals, synthetic fragrances and parabens!

Why we love Simply Bee's Beeswax Sunscreen:

  • This natural sunscreen is filled with the goodness of Honey and Fynbos Propolis
  • Protects your skin against the sun's UV rays  
  • Protects your skin from bacteria, germs, infections
  • Broad spectrum with Natural Zinc Oxide Powder (Non-Nano)
  • Natural plant-based ingredients that are good for you and the planet too
  • Can be used by anyone with dietary, environmental or sensitive skin concerns (kids AND adults)
  • Alleviates skin inflammation and irritations
  • Suitable for kids and adults
  • Made in South Africa to reduce YOUR carbon footprint!

View our entire NATURAL sun protection range >>

If you have any health questions, please contact us or leave a comment below for FREE advice. We always love hearing from you!

Saskia Michele holistic health blog

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