Girl Planting seeds

Choosing The Right Sunscreen

sun_screen_shutterstock_370414133By Ben Kligler, MD
Summer is drawing to a close but some recent news about sunscreen is important and needs our attention. Although we have known for years that many of the chemicals commonly found in sunscreen can have potential negative health effects, a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that systemic absorption of some of these chemicals into the bloodstream is much greater than we have thought.[i] The study measured the levels of a chemical called avobenzone in the bloodstream of 24 healthy volunteers after routine application of sunscreen, as well as levels of oxybenzone and several other chemicals. The researchers found that levels of avobenzone were significantly higher than the levels which are required to trigger a formal FDA assessment of a chemical for potential toxicity. Oxybenzone--a chemical relative of avobenzone--in particular has been shown to affect hormone levels, and children are known to have higher levels of absorption than adults. Some of these chemicals have also unfortunately been found in breast milk.

The good news is that this and other new research has actually triggered the FDA to react by proposing new regulations which will require more complete evaluation of sunscreens for safety. These new rules will mean that all current and new chemicals contained in sunscreen will have to go through much more rigorous testing than in the past, including looking at their potential impact on hormone levels. According to the FDA, there are only two common sunscreen ingredients which have been adequately evaluated for safety and which are also effective: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Although some of us are not too fond of the white sticky texture that sunscreens with these as the primary ingredient might have, until we know more about the safety of some of the other chemicals found in sunscreens, we are better off with zinc!

A final concern we need to be aware of is the impact of chemicals in sunscreen on the planet, in particular on the very sensitive environmental systems of our coral reefs. Approximately 14000 tons of sunscreen are washed into the oceans every year. Many ingredients in sunscreen—oxybenzone in particular—are highly toxic in this sensitive ecosystem, even in very tiny amounts.  Over the past few decades, over 80 percent of coral reefs around the world have been lost; although obviously sunscreen is not to blame for all of this, it is one part of the equation we can control by making the right choices. In May of last year, Hawaii actually banned the sale of sunscreen with oxybenzone—hopefully more states will follow soon.[ii]

Many sunscreens have chemical filters as active ingredients, some of which as known to have hormonal and other adverse effects. Six of the most commons ones to avoid are:








Hawaii and Key West, FL have banned sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate by the end of 2020. Some companies are already eliminating these chemicals in favor of safer ones like zinc and titanium dioxide.

(source: Environmental Working Group)

Environmental Working Group is an excellent source of up-to-date information on how to make the best sunscreen choices both in terms of our own health and the health of the planet. Their sunscreen guide can be found here: So go ahead and enjoy those last days at the beach, but make sure you are reading the ingredients on your sunscreen and making an informed choice!

[i] Matta M, Pilli NR; et alEffect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical TrialJAMA. 2019;321(21):2082-2091. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5586



Dr. Kligler is the Medical Advisor for The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®. He is also the National Director of the Integrative Health Coordinating Center for the Veterans Health Administration and Research Director for the Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation. He was the founding  Director  of the Beth Israel Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine, and teaches in the Beth Israel Residency Program in Urban Family Practice. Dr. Kligler is the author of Curriculum in Complementary Therapies: A Guide for the Medical Educator, and co-editor of Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice, a textbook published by McGraw-Hill. He is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing.


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