Is spray sunscreen dangerous?
The FDA hasn’t decided yet, but in the meantime, Consumer Reports recommended that people avoid it until we know better, particularly on kids. After personally testing over 80 natural sunscreens, I’m treating it as NOT SAFE for three huge reasons, the third of which you’ll see right away in this video:
If you can’t view the video above, find it at “spray sunscreen is dangerous” on YouTube.
What do you think? Is spray-on sunscreen bad for you?
The FDA started the process of investigating spray sunscreens (and more) in 2011.
But they never finalized their recommendations! The proposed rules in the Federal Register say: “Considering the greatly increasing number of sunscreen products formulated as sprays, it is critical that the safety and effectiveness of this dosage form be adequately supported.”
And what has happened in that time, between 2011 and the present? The number of spray sunscreens on the market has only increased, even though we have no idea if they’re safe and effective or not!
I want to be the voice saying NO WAY, NO SPRAY SUNSCREENS, especially to daycare centers who are requiring that parents bring ONLY spray sunscreen!
Here are some notes from the video for those who would rather read:
1. Aerosol Spray Sunscreen has an Inhalation Danger
If you can smell it, particles are going into your lungs.
In the same way as secondhand smoke can cause cancer, whatever is in the spray sunscreen is being delivered to your kids’ lungs, and we’re really not sure the effect it may have. Allergy doctors in particular are concerned about its impact on kids, especially those with allergies or asthma already.
“The substances will go into the body and will have to be dealt with through the liver…the largest filtration organ of the body.”
We really don’t know when babies’ livers begin to work properly to filter the junk they’re exposed to through skin, air and food, which is why many personal care products simply aren’t rated for kids under 2.
Most say to hold your breath when spraying sunscreens, but very young children aren’t good at holding their breath anyway.
Personally, I’m much more cautious. I don’t want it around my kids at all.
2. Conventional Sunscreen Isn’t Safe for Your Skin Anyway
I’ve written about the dangers of chemical sunscreen many times, but in a nutshell, the two greatest risks of the active ingredients in conventional sunscreens are:
- hormone disruptors that act as estrogen in the body after being absorbed through the skin and are also potent allergens for some children
- free radicals (cancer-causing!) formed when the sunscreen reacts chemically with the sun
If it’s not safe for your skin, it’s certainly not safe for your lungs. Ditch the sprays!
Erik Kreider is the guy lighting things on fire in the video, and he graciously gave me permission to use clips. He’s also a Standford-trained biochemist who formulated one of our favorite sunscreens ever, Kabana – the only one to start and stay on the “top recommended list” in our massive sunscreen review since 2010.
3. Spray Sunscreen is Highly Flammable
As you saw in the video, aerosol spray sunscreen is flammable, and there are documented cases of people catching fire after applying spray sunscreen, when they walked up to the grill or even stood too close to a citronella candle, for example. Some of these incidents results in spray sunscreen recalls.
Although the FDA hasn’t officially ruled spray sunscreens out, their 2013 consumer update confirms:
“These incidents suggest that there is a possibility of catching fire if you are near an open flame or a spark after spraying on a flammable sunscreen—even if you believe you have waited a sufficient time for the sunscreen to dry and your skin feels dry.”
If that’s not all enough, spray sunscreen is also pegged for having lower SPF than advertised and being notoriously mis-applied, such that people think they’re spraying evenly but really are not getting consistent coverage at all. For many reasons, Consumer Reports repeated their 2011 recommendation in 2014:
“Because of those safety concerns, Consumer Reports doesn’t recommend spray sunscreens for children.”
They’re not the only voice telling us to ditch the spray sunscreens!
“Incomplete protection frequently occurs, and the spray aspect can lead to inhalation of the sunscreen, which is dangerous for the lungs,” says Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. “Overall, lotion sunscreen is preferable to spray sunscreen for children.” (source)
Safe Alternatives to Conventional Spray Sunscreen
I get it.
Sprays are SUPER convenient. They’re so quick to reapply on your kids, they pretty much don’t have to towel off and you barely have to look away from the book you’re reading poolside.
Chronic disease is pretty time-consuming, I understand. Let’s invest these few minutes please moms?
There are 3 alternatives that I feel are “quicker” than a tube of cream:
1. Facial Sticks
Our 80 sunscreen tests have included about 6 sticks. The ones we liked are as follows, in order:
- Raw Elements (tinted and plain)
- Butterbean Sport Stick
- Bare Belly Organics (this is a “body” stick the size of a deodorant – they also sell a facial stick that is smaller, but the per-ounce price is so much higher, just use this one!)
- Babo Botanicals (but be warned that I don’t think it keeps its consistency well over time unfortunately – buy at the beginning of summer! See our experience with over-wintering the stick here)
There is one downside to the stick sunscreens, according to research, and that’s the light application problem. Sticks tend to go on pretty thinly, so it’s possible that you’re not applying enough to get the promised SPF protection. But if you KNOW that risk, you can work harder to get it on thick, and as long as you’re not seeing sunburns, chances are good the UVA (cancer-causing) rays are also not getting through.
2. Tubs of Sun Screen
It sounds silly, but if you’re a parent you know that any minor efficiency is GOLDEN. Having sunscreen cream in a tub that sits open for your finger to fly in and out of as you apply to wriggling toddlers is truly just *that* much quicker than picking up and squeezing a tube ten times. Every bit helps!
We’ve enjoyed quite a few tub of sunscreens (and didn’t like others). Here are the good ones:
- Raw Elements (tinted facial moisturizer and a larger tub of the regular cream)
- Bare Belly Organics
- Pronounce Skinshade
3. Sprays with Zinc Oxide
Until a year or two ago, all the “sprays” with purely zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the only safe active ingredients in my well-researched opinion, were really more of a “squirt.” The bottle would squirt some thin lotion on your hand and then you had to rub it in anyway. It was a step in the right direction but a far cry from the convenience of the conventional petrochemical sprays.
Now we’re seeing some actual sprays emerge, most of which aren’t aerosol (which is good! Inhalation danger!) so you still have to rub them in, but they behave a LOT like the conventional sprays. They’re worth looking into:
- Goddess Garden This is the only brand of actual “spray” we’ve tested, and it was gone so quickly I barely had time to assess. A lot of friends used it and my kids and husband loved it! It rubs in well but does show up with a whitish hue if you sweat. I wouldn’t love it on my face, but my kids didn’t care. Uses both Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide and no alcohol. A great choice! Here’s a video showing how to apply it, from Goddess Garden.
- Acure Organics (a good friend showed me this one – she has to bring spray sunscreen to daycare and was relieved to find one with zinc oxide as the only active ingredient. It’s 12%, which is low compared to what I’m used to seeing, and it does contain alcohol which is flammable, but it’s a really decent option!)
- UPDATE 6/7/17: Acure’s spray is suddenly impossible to find anywhere! So I gave them a call – they are out of stock because the company that was producing it for them (who was in Germany) for some reason was no longer able to. They have been searching for another company (preferably in the US) that can produce it using the pressurized air rather than aerosol but have been unable to find anybody capable the technology! Yikes!
- Babo Botanicals (zinc oxide is a low percentage and does include alcohol; I’m testing some to add to next year’s review and will let you know how it goes!)
- The Honest Company (I hear mixed reviews on effectiveness, but at least the Honest Co. only uses zinc oxide (12%) although they do contain alcohol.
- MyChelle Sun Shield Clear Spray (only zinc oxide, but I’d like to know if it’s nano or not)
- EltaMD (I don’t know enough about this one and their full ingredients aren’t online, but at least the active is safe.)
I thought I had found another new one that fit my criteria, but I was SO wrong! I made a video for you just to show how I almost got greenwashed. It’s tricky! Just remember to watch for ONLY zinc oxide (preferably) or possibly titanium dioxide in the “active” ingredients, nothing more.
You can do this, moms!
You can find evaluate suncreen too! Get a printable guide to choosing sunscreens based on safe ingredients while you shop: