12 Best Sunscreens Without Oxybenzone, According to Dermatologists
Experts say you can feel good about these mineral-based formulas.
There’s always some confusion in the sunscreen aisle. What’s the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen? What does “water resistant” really mean? What level of SPF should you use? Why is everyone talking about oxybenzone? All these factors can impact your skin, but the question of oxybenzone goes much deeper than that.
Oxybenzone is a chemical that absorbs the sun’s UV rays when applied to the skin, so they can’t penetrate the skin underneath to do damage. However, research shows that oxybenzone can end up in the bloodstream once it’s absorbed by the skin, and scientists are still trying to figure out if that has any consequences for overall health.
Is oxybenzone harmful?
“One of the things we worry about is that it could disrupt the endocrine system—it might be a kind of hormone disruptor,” says Susan Chon, M.D., professor of dermatology at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. That’s because some studies suggest oxybenzone may alter hormone levels in both animals and humans.
“It also very commonly causes a photoallergic or irritant reaction,” adds Dr. Chon. This means that when oxybenzone is exposed to sunlight (which is the main purpose of using it!), it can cause an itchy rash or other skin reaction in certain people.
“Those are probably the two main things, but also, it’s actually very damaging to other life, such as coral,” says Dr. Chon, “so much so that in 2018 in Hawaii they banned the use of oxybenzone and octinoxate.” The legislation took effect in January 2021.
The human health concerns over oxybenzone are less concrete than the environmental ones, so the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a statement in 2019, which concludes that more research needs to be done on popular chemical sunscreen ingredients—not just oxybenzone.
Should you avoid oxybenzone?
Last year, the FDA followed up with results of a study that found six specific chemical sunscreens can show up in our blood after just one application. “The question is, we don’t know that these are for sure causing damage at this point,” says Dr. Chon. “We don’t know what they do or how long they last in your body, but we do know that they are being absorbed into the bloodstream.” The ingredients highlighted by the FDA are avobenzone, octocylene, homosalate, octisalate, octinoxate, and of course, oxybenzone.
That brings us back the beginning: Choosing a sunscreen is confusing. “The FDA is in the process of trying to make specific changes with the way sunscreen is labeled and how it’s advertised,” says Dr. Chon.
Among the proposed changes to labels are having active ingredients listed on the front of the package, a clear warning if the ingredients don’t protect against skin cancer, and new formats for stating SPF, broad spectrum, and water resistance. “It’s a work-in-progress right now,” says Dr. Chon, “but they’re trying to be more careful with the wording and be consistent across the board.”
Until all products meet the proposed guidelines, if you want to avoid oxybenzone and other chemical sunscreen ingredients, search labels for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. “Those are the only two active ingredients that meet the FDA ‘GRASE’ status, which stands for ‘generally recognized as safe and effective,’” says Dr. Chon.
Those mineral-based ingredients aren’t likely to leech into your body the same way that a chemical sunscreen ingredient might. They sit on the skin and reflect UV light, so they never get absorbed into the body.
To help you find a sunscreen you can feel good about, we talked to board-certified dermatologists for their top picks. Every sunscreen on the list below contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, provides broad spectrum UV
protection, and contains a minimum of SPF 30. Stock up so you have one less thing to worry about for the rest of the summer.
UV Pure Face and Body Physical Sunscreen SPF 47
“This sunscreen is ideal for individuals of all ages and various skin types,” says Lucy Chen, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at Riverchase Dermatology in Florida. “It contains both titanium dioxide and transparent zinc oxide, which protects the skin and results in a colorless finish.” It’s also water-resistant for 80 minutes after application.
Sunforgettable Total Protection Body Shield SPF 50
“I’ve found this to be the best choice for a 100% zinc oxide sunscreen,” says Dr. Chen. Not only is it easily spreadable, it also contains chamomile extract and shea butter. “The skin soaks up all of the amazing nutrients and is left looking smooth, unlike with many other thick zinc oxide products,” she explains. It’s also designed to protect you from blue light and infrared rays.