Chemical, or organic, sunscreens, which have been particularly villainized in recent years, are often criticized for their harsh-sounding, impossible-to-pronounce ingredients: words like homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, octisalate. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand—better described as inorganic—only feature two main ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. “There are a lot of organizations that are quite pseudoscientific, and they tend to always fear-monger about sunscreen ingredients. And a lot of it is simply because the names sound scary,” she says.
It means that mineral sunscreens are often held up as the “cleaner” option, when there’s no good evidence that either is harmful. It doesn’t help that even trusted organizations perpetuate misinformation about the distinction between the two; Wong points to the American Academy of Dermatology’s sunscreen FAQs. It tells the reader that chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV, whereas physical or mineral sunscreens work by reflecting UV—a common misconception. Both types absorb UV.
It also didn’t help that in 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration, which regulates sunscreen as an over-the-counter drug in the US (it’s regulated as a cosmetic in Europe) set out to “bring sunscreens up to date with the latest science.” This involved publishing a study that garnered a lot of coverage (including in WIRED) suggesting that sunscreen ingredients soak into your bloodstream. Sounds scary, right? But the conclusion of the small paper was that people should not refrain from wearing sunscreen, because whether absorbing ingredients poses any health risks is still not clear.
Oxybenzone has been pegged as the baddest egg of them all. Not only has it been linked with causing cancer, but it’s also been villainized for messing with coral when sunscreen washes off in the sea. The EU recently lowered the legal limit of oxybenzone in body products from 6 percent to 2.2 percent, but that number comes with a massive margin of safety built in, and is based on applying it all over your body, every single day—something very few people do.
And whether sunscreen actually harms coral reefs is contentious. While reef-safe sunscreen has become a thing, and places like Hawaii have banned certain sunscreens, what the world’s coral is really threatened by is warming oceans. “Based on the current evidence, I don’t think oxybenzone is much of a concern for our health or for coral,” says Wong. “For most of us, it’s just not that much of a concern.” (One caveat is that Wong agrees it’s probably best not to put sunscreen on babies under six months, due to the permeability of their skin.)
The other common worry is whether sunscreen inhibits vitamin D absorption—a contention popularized by a polarizing article in Outside magazine in 2018 (the publication’s most popular piece to date). This is not something to worry about. Even if we put enough on, which most people don’t, sunscreen will never block all sun exposure, which means a little UV will always get through. Even in a gloomy country like the UK, people only need to sit in the sun for 10 minutes in the middle of the day between April and September to stave off vitamin D deficiency for the rest of the year, says Neale.
You’re So Vain
But something paradoxical is happening to our attitude to sunscreen. While anti-sunscreen influencing is rising, so are sales. As the skincare industry has boomed, it’s glommed onto promoting sunscreen use—not especially as an anti-cancer measure, but rather as an anti-aging measure. People on TikTok brag about being mistaken for being underage due to their religious sunscreen application.
Setting aside the problematic, ageism-embedding nature of this trend, the experts I spoke to for this article thought this could be an imperfect means to a less-cancerous end. “People are vain,” says Wong. Especially for the young, for whom cancer may seem like an abstract concept that only affects older people, hammering home the appearance-based benefits of sunscreen use may be more effective than focusing solely on the health benefits; research has shown that concerns about wrinkles can be a motivating factor to quit smoking—the same could work to motivate sunscreen use. “People are more concerned about their image,” agrees Neale. “Sunscreen being the best anti-aging agent that we’ve got is something that the public health messaging, I think, should push harder.”