We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put it on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum and potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on) themselves with the help of an expert. This edition: Banana Boat Family Size UltraMist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 50, which is made from 17 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down as they appear on the bottle.
1) Avobenzone: Avobenzone is an oil-soluble compound added to sunscreens to filter and absorb UV light. It protects against UVB rays (which cause sunburns) and deeper-penetrating UVA rays (which cause wrinkling and other age damage). “Because avobenzone is one of the most widely used sunscreen ingredients, it’s been rigorously tested and researched by numerous regulatory bodies and interest groups and is generally considered to be safe and effective when it comes to protecting against UV rays,” says Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight.
That said, avobenzone degrades quickly in the sun, only offering about 30 minutes of protection on its own, according to Sharad Paul, skin-care expert, skin-cancer surgeon and author of The Genetics of Health. So be sure to reapply often.
2) Octocrylene: Similar to avobenzone, octocrylene filters and absorbs UV light, primarily in the UVB region. “Octocrylene is also an effective emollient, helping to facilitate soft, smooth skin,” Xavier says. While it can cause minor allergic reactions in individuals with sensitive skin, Paul notes that the FDA only allows sunscreen manufacturers to produce products with 10 percent octocrylene to limit these issues.
Unfortunately, octocrylene can be absorbed into the skin, and a few studies have shown that it may promote the generation of potentially harmful free radicals, which have been linked to chronic health problems like cardiovascular and inflammatory diseases, cataracts and cancer. Still, as with many controversial ingredients, researchers say further studies are warranted to determine its true health impact.
3) Oxybenzone: Compared to avobenzone and octocrylene, oxybenzone is a relatively weak UV absorber. Because of that, Paul says it’s generally added to sunscreens to prevent the degradation of the other ingredients, like avobenzone. It’s rumored that oxybenzone may lead to hormone disruption in both men and women, but Paul notes that these rumors remain unproven — however, studies continue to find more and more evidence.
But while it’s not necessarily bad for us, it’s certainly bad for the environment. Results of extensive environmental research published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology revealed that oxybenzone in the ocean is a major contributor to widespread coral bleaching (i.e., when coral expel the algae living in their tissues, causing it to turn completely white and shortening its lifespan). As little as a teaspoon of oxybenzone-containing sunscreen — only a fraction of what it takes to cover the human body — can cause this unwanted ecological side effect.
4) Alcohol Denat.: Alcohol denat. is the generic term used by the cosmetics industry to describe denatured alcohol. That is, ethanol that’s been mixed with a second chemical — usually methanol or isopropyl alcohol — to make it unpalatable (something the government insists is done to all not-for-consumption alcohol to prevent people from making booze out of it). “At high concentrations, denatured alcohol has been shown to irritate or dry out skin,” Xavier explains. “However, in most cosmetic products, alcohol is used at low concentrations (less than 5 percent) and can be an effective solvent or antimicrobial agent without having adverse effects on the skin.”
5) Acrylates/Octylacrylamide Copolymer: This ingredient is an absorbent and adhesive often used to create water-resistant formulas, and to give the product a spray-like finish. While some studies found higher doses to be cancerous, a report by the International Journal of Toxicology claims the small amount found in cosmetic formulas don’t present a safety risk.
6) Water: You drink this one.
7) Caprylyl Glycol: Caprylyl glycol is “an alcohol derived from caprylic acid, which can be synthetic or sourced from coconut or palm oil,” according to Xavier. It can be used both as an antimicrobial ingredient to prevent the growth of mold and as a humectant, which as we learned in our exploration of the 10 ingredients in strawberry-flavored lube, acts similar to a moisturizer.
8) PEG-8 Dimethicone: This ingredient is a water-soluble silicone compound used as a skin- or hair-conditioning agent. It’s probably added to sunscreen to give the product an extra bit of spreadability. Paul notes that it’s been reported to cause organ damage in larger doses, but it’s nothing to worry about in normal doses, like the small dose found in this sunscreen.
9) Mineral Oil: Mineral oil is typically made from petroleum and used to help retain moisture. “It’s chemically inert, and therefore unlikely to cause adverse skin reactions,” Xavier explains. “It is, however, widely accepted as a ‘comedogenic’ ingredient, meaning it has the potential to clog pores.” This, of course, can be avoided by simply washing off the sunscreen once you’re out of the sun.
10) Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Extract: This is just a fancy name for aloe vera, which is commonly used for its soothing, healing and cooling abilities.
11) Octyldodecanol: “Octyldodecanol is a fatty alcohol used as a solvent, fragrance and skin-conditioning agent,” Xavier says. It also, notes Paul, reduces foaming when the sunscreen bottle is shaken.
12) Retinyl Palmitate: Also known as vitamin A palmitate, retinyl palmitate is a source of vitamin A, which is known to improve the appearance of the skin. “There is some concern over the use of vitamin A and its derivatives in skin-care products, because various studies show a potential link between UV-exposed vitamin A and skin cancer,” Xavier explains. In other words, the stuff that’s good for your skin can become mildly toxic when applied in the presence of sunlight.
13) Silica: “Silica is a mineral that naturally occurs in granite, rocks and plants,” Paul explains. “It’s used in makeup and sunscreen to absorb sweat and oil, and to make the product less shiny.”
14) Tocopheryl Acetate: This ingredient is a vitamin E supplement derived from vegetable oils, according to Xavier. Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant that helps reduce sun damage. Bonus fact: Recent studies on mice found that tocopheryl acetate may also reduce the effects of cigarette smoke on fetuses in the womb.
15) Ascorbic Acid: Ascorbic Acid is just a fancy name for vitamin C, which functions as an antioxidant and is commonly known to improve skin health.
16) Sodium Propoxyhydroxypropul Thiosulfate Silica: This ingredient is a form of silica (see #13, above), aka silicon dioxide, typically added as a bulking agent.
17) Fragrance: This is added to make the product smell nice (obviously). Generally speaking, fragrances can cause skin irritation in those with sensitive skin.
Sunscreen is a unique skincare product, in that consumers are meant to apply thick coats of it over large areas of the body — and then do it again two hours later. On top of that, many of the ingredients in sunscreen are engineered to penetrate deeper into the skin, where they’re then absorbed by the body.
But do these ingredients stay there? Recent research suggests yes: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected oxybenzone — which, as we mentioned in #3 above, may cause hormonal problems in both men and women — in more than 96 percent of the American population, based on a representative sampling.
While none of these ingredients scream “instant danger,” there’s certainly reason for concern — if not for yourself, then for the environment (thanks once again, oxybenzone). For information on safer sunscreen options and other ways to avoid the sun’s harmful rays, visit the Environmental Working Group’s complete guide to sunscreen and sun protection.