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The Sunscreen Paradox


For people in the know, seldom is summertime fun enjoyed without the protection of  generously applied sunscreen; it’s the invisible and ubiquitous-hazmat suit worn by health-conscious outdoor enthusiasts. Sun protection factor (SPF) numbers have been part of the global lexicon longer than personal identification (PIN) numbers, and their ability to protect us from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun are universally understood. What is less understood, and infrequently considered, are the malignant properties of sunscreen and whether or not its risks outweigh its benefits.

There are a multitude of sunscreen brands and differing ways in which it can be applied; however, all sunscreens have one thing in common – chemicals. One specific chemical, oxybenzone, and its derivatives can be harmful. It effectively serves its purpose, but it adversely affects our health and simultaneously destroys the environment.

Before explaining the negative effects, it’s important to identify what sunburn is and how oxybenzone prevents them. Sunburns are caused by radiation which comes in different UV wavelengths. Among them the UVA and UVB rays pose the biggest threats. Without sunscreen, the radiation penetrates the skin and is absorbed by fats and proteins. These rays then have the ability to generate free radicals – highly reactive molecules with unpaired valence electrons – which in turn can alter your DNA. YIKES! Once damage is acquired, our blood vessels dilate and cytokines (protein regulators of cellular processes and part of an immune response which initiates repair) rush to the area which turns the skin red and hot. Fortunately skin cells are replaced about once a month and damaged skin from a sunburn will shed or peel. Plus, there is a system to repair damaged DNA; however, mutations are bound to occur with repeated sun exposure thus increasing the risk of skin cancer. The oxybenzone in sunscreen absorbs the radiation and releases it as heat instead of free radicals. How could something so beneficial be so detrimental?

A diagram showing why broad spectrum sunscreen is best to use instead of just UVB protection sunscreen. Photo from The Conversation.

First, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) oxybenzone is an allergen that can enter the bloodstream through the skin. It can disrupt hormones, create allergies, cause cell damage, and it can lead to low birth rates when mothers are exposed during pregnancy. Also it’s detrimental in that it destroys coral reefs. Oxybenzone directly enters the ocean when we swim as well as via wastewater rinsed off of our skin. Oxybenzone has been deemed a photo-toxicant, “where its adverse effects are exacerbated in the light” (Sorenson, 2015). It’s ironic that as a compound in a sunscreen it protects from sunlight, but that it’s sunlight itself that exacerbates its harmful effects. Oxybenzone has the capacity to ossifize baby coral by disrupting its DNA and “traps them in their own skeleton, making them unable to float with currents and disperse,” and ultimately stunting growth (Kotala, 2015). Oxybenzone is also a huge contributor to coral bleaching. Coral bleaching happens “when they lose or expel the algae that normally live inside them, thus losing a valuable source of nutrition” (Kotala, 2015). Some may think so what, what does it matter that coral dies?

Coral reefs provide shelter for other animals and protect coastlines from strong waves and currents. When baby coral is ossified it becomes immobile which negatively impacts future coral reefs themselves which then adversely impacts other plants, animals, and ecosystems. Coral reefs are dying – at the hands of humans – at alarming rates, and the ripple effects have exponential-detrimental potential.


Is this a big deal, and what can be done?


That oxybenzone is both beneficial and harmful is an inherent-existential paradox: they can both help and harm us individually, but they threaten us all collectively. Fortunately, there are alternatives; oxybenzone-free sunscreens exist and are equally effective. Mineral based sunscreens containing either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide have no known negative effects on either human health or the environment.

Sunscreen ingredient toxicity levels diagram. Photo from Soleo Organics.

It’s time to act. Last month Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, signed into law a bill which banned oxybenzone sunscreens. Make better choices and talk it up. It’s time to ditch this wretched chemical altogether. Look for oxybenzone-free sunscreen before heading out to the Jersey shore. If you’re unsure, check the list of ingredients.

Rebecca Leviton, Lehigh University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Works Cited
“CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical.” CDC, 25 Mar. 2008,
Dingle, Peter. “How Toxic is Your Sunscreen? Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients Exposed.” Soleo Organics, 03 Mar. 2017,
Downs, C.A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R. et al. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol (2016) 70: 265.
“Explainer: how does sunscreen work, what is SPF and can I still tan with it on?” The Conversation, 07 Jan. 2018,
“Hawaii Approves Bill Banning Sunscreen Believed To Kill Coral Reefs.” NPR, 02 May 2018,
Kotala, Zenaida. “Lathering Up with Sunscreen May Protect Against Cancer – Killing Coral Reefs Worldwide.” UCFTODAY, 20 Oct. 2015,
“Skincare Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs.” NOAA, 15 Nov. 2015,
Sorenson, Marc. “More Horrors of Chemical Sunscreen.” Sunlight Institute, 28 Oct. 2015,
Stockton, Nick. “Big Question: How Does Sunscreen Shield Your Skin With Science?” Wired, 06 July 2015,