Sunny Side Up – Are Suncreams Dangerous?

I expect all of you have been told to wear a daily SPF. Whether it’s in your BB cream, your foundation or just on its own. Skin damage caused by the sun, has us all running for the nearest tube of protection, but what exactly do we know about these covenient tubes of daily defence?

SPFs – what exactly are we dealing with?

 In this post I’ll be looking at each and every ingredient that is named on the packaging.  The creams we are told to wear everyday to protect our skin from harmful rays.  The creams whose ingredients I have blissfully ignored, their efficacy a mystery to me, and whether they are, in fact more harmful than sunburn itself.  

ZINC OXIDE: Elle MacPherson by Gilles Bensimon for Elle Magazine

Should we all be wearing sunscreen? 

I take sunscreen pretty seriously, aside from its anti-ageing benefits, after having been diagnosed with melanoma back in 2010.  These days, aside from hermiting, SPFs are an essential part of my life (along with my Metagenics’ magic pills: Collagenics and stolen sleep) – sun exposure and sunburn is not an option.  Added to that, I’m a pale Brit (I know some of you feel my pain – I break into a cold sweat whenever “pool party” is mentioned) currently living in Cape Town, South Africa, where the sun is not just strong – it is violent.  Tourists take note: the sun here ain’t like it is in Europe.

So, what are the alternatives?

Aside from staying out of the sun in peak hours (10am-3pm), covering yourself up in clothes and sunscreen is the only option.  Sunscreen is a must, but after hearing murmurs of SPFs containing a few nasties, I now want to see for myself.  What have I been covering myself in for the last 30-odd years?

A closer look

I’ve decided to use a well-known brand of Sun Protection SPF50 UVB + UVA for my research.  This brand has a very good reputation for excellence and a loyal following.  I’m assuming that, as a well-known name, it will share many ingredients with all the  other available suncreams.  Then to try and decipher all of the very complicated ingredient names into something more palatable for you/me to make an informed decision when it comes to solar barriers.

Firstly, let’s look at what that lingo actually means.

SPF – sun protection factor. Measured how much solar energy is required to cause sunburn.  The higher the number, the longer in the sun.  Although this is tenuous – how long exactly?  Actual guidelines say if if your  unprotected skin shows signs of burning after 10 minutes, Factor 50 will extend this non-burning time by 50 – so 500 minutes. However, I know for a fact that if I stayed outside with factor 50 for 8 hours, no matter how well I’d applied, I’d have 3rd degree burns. One must reapply every 40-60 minutes, even more often when sweating and swimming.  So, back to definitions…

SPF 50 – this will protect you from 98% of UVB rays.  There is no such thing as total sunblock and one must reapply regularly, specially after sweating and swimming.

UVB – the burning rays

UVA – the ageing rays

PA+++ – Japanese Protection Grade of UVA rays.  The more plus signs, the more protection from UVAs.

Are you still with me?

Right, moving on to what’s in these babies.  Many unpronounceable words, but I’m not going to assume anything. I looked at each ingredient and derived the layman’s term for each. 

I’ve listed the ingredients below and put them into categories, so you can see just how many offenders there are:


Theobroma cacao – the seeds contain polyphenols and flavonoids that possess myriad health benefits. Its use as cocoa butter is widespread.

Ricinus communis oil – from the castor oil plant. Its leave and beans are toxic.  However, traditional Ayurvedic medicine considers castor oil the king of medicinals for curing arthritic diseases and it was used in China for centuries for topical dressings and bandages.  

Carnosine – a substance produced naturally by the body. Its a mixture of amino acids resulting in a potent anti-oxidant (which protect your skin from producing free-radicals, which damage the growth and survival of skin cells).  This one’s a keeper.


Methacrylate copolymer – used as emulsion stabilisers or binders.  They’re synthetic and basically hold everything together.  They are unsafe in high concentrations but are considered safe for cosmetic use when formulated to avoid irritation.

Isopropyl myrsistate – a synthetic oil that is considered safe.

Isopropyl palmitate – thickening agent made from Palm Oil. Certified as safe to use.

Parabens – this is a tricky one. Parabens are used to preserve lotions – they are anti-microbial and prevent mould from growing. In essence they prolong the shelf-life. The reason for their bad press is they penetrate the skin and remain in the tissue. There has been no conclusive evidence that parabens cause any form of cancer, particularly breast cancer.

Seriously dodgy!

Isohexadecane – emollient (a skin softener) and solvent (dissolves other substances). Determined safe for use in cosmetics, subject to concentration but environmentally hazardous.  Derived from petroleum. Used in foundations, lipsticks, creams etc. Can’t say I love the thought of having coated myself in this for the last 3 decades.

Titanium Dioxide nano – whilst declared safe to use, data is limited on longterm use. Nano particles (tiny particles with more surface area) are used for spreading light or speeding up reactions.

Octocrylene, also known as octinoxate and oxeyenzone – blocks UVB rays. Hmmmm, starting to get interesting here.  The FDA only allow this ingredient to be used at a strength of 7,5% for cosmetic use.  The continued use of this chemical is allowed because there is not evidence to say it shouldn’t be used, but it can have harmful effects in animals and the environment. OMC, as its known, is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and tests have found it in human urine and breastmilk.  Its use in SPFs has led to it being banned in Hawaii (only effective 2021) because of the damage it causes to coral reefs.  This ingredient is high risk.  However, most brands use it and it is hard to find products free from OMC, even those claiming to be “natural”. According to “Mainstream sunscreen brands include oxybenzone in most of their products, including those marketed to children.”  There is also a petition to demand companies go oxybenzone free, which you can sign here. I’ll be sharing OMC-free sunscreens in part 2 of SPFs.

Ozokerite – hydrocarbon wax derived from mineral sources or from petroleum.  Though hygienically safe to use, ozokerite is still a heavily processed material that highly impacts the Earth when it is extracted.

Butyl Methaoxydibenzoylmethane – that’s a mouthful! Absorbs UVA rays. Flagged as a carcinogen, must be used in limited concentrations. Errrrrrr…

Drometrizole Trisiloxane – absorbs UV rays.  Not approved by the FDA in drug sunscreen products.  Its use is allowed in topical skincare products because it has little to no absorption into the skin. Cancer risks unknown. May be best to walk away from this rogue!

In hindsight, this may have been a bad name…

Perfumes – here’s something worrying: perfume manufacturers don’t have to declare ANY of their ingredients. And there’s some nasty additions. This is a bigger subject to research, but if you are interested to start reading more, here is a book about fragrances The Case Against Fragrance by Kate Grenville. Read the synopsis: “The chemicals in fragrance can be linked not only to short-term problems like headaches and asthma, but to long-term ones like hormone disruption and cancer. Yet products can be released onto the market without testing. They’re regulated only by the same people who make and sell them. And the ingredients don’t even have to be named on the label.” Whooooaaaa!

That’s not me btw

What’s the verdict?

It’s pretty clear. You can see there are a lot more baddies than goodies involved in sunscreen.  My mind has been a bit blown.  I mean, I knew there were some rogue offenders amongst my everyday sun lotion, but the mix of synthetic and  dangerous chemicals is overwhelming.  Who knew so many petroleum-based formulas would be included in the gels and creams that we liberally spread over ourselves daily?! 

It’s something that I can’t ignore.  Time to make a change on my sunscreens… Baby steps.  As I explained in my earlier post, this is a journey and I will be approaching all aspects of how I live and consume over the next few weeks and months. I’d love to hear your thoughts and views too – were there any raging clangers I missed? Did you learn anything new?

By far the most sobering news was learning about perfumes – synthetic and natural. I’ll be delving into that in the weeks to come. Perfumes are everywhere, even in my beloved cashmere shampoos… This has struck a chord.

Back to basics

Now to scour the world of organic and natural sun protection products (not just the ones that say they’re natural), to replace these big brand names.

Tote from
Kid-proof: Essential tote (use as beach bag) from Everlane

In my next post, I’ll have an entire (ethical) beach bag of eco and human-friendly, non-toxic SPFs for you to peruse.   Sign up now, if you’re interested, and get this post delivered straight to your inbox.

Hope you enjoyed reading.

A x


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