Sunscreen: A False Sense of Security?

It’s that time of the year again when we dig through our drawers to find the sunscreen and begin lathering it on our bodies.   And, it’s not just adults.  Almost every parent I know coats their kids with a layer of sunscreen whether they are at the pool, beach, ballgame, park, or playground.  And, why wouldn’t they?   We’re told that sunscreen not only helps prevent burns, it protects us from developing skin cancer.  And, many of us believe that.  But, is sunscreen all that it’s cracked up to be?  Does it really protect us from cancer?  Are the chemicals in sunscreen worse than the UV exposure?  In other words…


Should we use sunscreen?


The answer might seem obvious, but sunscreen may not be as beneficial as we have been led to believe.  The government allows companies to claim that sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer.  But, that may not be true.


There is little scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen alone reduces cancer risk, particularly for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer.  Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and a multi-billion dollar sunscreen industry, melanoma rates have tripled over the past three decades,” reports the Environmental Working Group (EWG).


Sunscreen isn’t working as advertised.


For example, according to the EWG, roughly half of the sunscreens sold in the U.S. are not allowed to be sold in Europe.  Why?  On average, U.S. sunscreens allow roughly 3 times more UVA rays to transfer through your skin compared to European sunscreens.  That’s bad news for Americans because UVA rays can contribute to the development of skin cancer and may, in fact, initiate skin cancer.  In addition, UVA rays can suppress your immune system, possibly making you more susceptible to developing an Autoimmune Disease or other inflammatory condition. Consequently:


Sunscreen may provide us with a false sense of security, leading us to take risks we may not otherwise consent to.  


In addition, sunscreen may indirectly increase your risk of developing cancer.  Vitamin D deficiency is directly linked to multiple types of cancer, as well as Autoimmune Diseases, heart disease, diabetes, and osteoarthritis.  Humans make vitamin D in their skin, but the process requires sunlight.  We’re learning that sunscreens containing an SPF greater than 8 can inhibit vitamin D production in your skin. Furthermore, what you put on your skin has a profound effect on your body – including the ability to change your hormone levels and gene expression.  For example, the EWG analyzed over 880 beach and sport sunscreens, 480 moisturizers, and 120 lip products containing SPF.  According to the EWG, “Almost three-fourths of the products we examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin.”


The bottom line is: You take a risk any time you apply chemicals to your body.  


That’s partly why the EWG recommends: “Sunscreen should be your last resort.”


Here’s the conundrum: UVA and UVB exposure can be photo toxic, particularly if you don’t have enough antioxidants to combat the oxidative stress elicited by the suns rays.  But, avoiding the sun is a risk factor for death.   Did you know that sun exposure can increase your life expectancy?


According to an article published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in 2016, “Compared to the highest sun exposure group, life expectancy of avoiders of sun exposure was reduced by 0.6-2.1 years.”  Specifically, “Women with active sun exposure habits were mainly at a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.”  The study concluded that, “avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for death of a similar magnitude as smoking.”  That means sunlight deficiency is as deadly as smoking!


It also means: Sunlight is an essential nutrient.  


Clearly we need sun exposure, but we also don’t want to suffer from the possible photo toxic effects of the sun’s rays.  So, what do you do?


What You Can Do:

1. Before applying a coat of sunscreen on yourself or your child, know what’s in that bottle.  Give your informed consent by reading the ingredient label and deciding if the chemicals in that bottle are right for your family.

2. To learn more about the chemicals in sunscreens and to find a product that might be aligned with your principles, grab your free EWG guide HERE.

3. If you decide to use sunscreen on your child, consider choosing from the EWG’s top scoring sunscreen products for kids: Get the List!

4. Alternatively, make your own sunscreen.  Here’s one of many recipes you can find online for free: Homemade Sunscreen.

5. Due to the association between low Vitamin D levels and numerous diseases, Dr. Peter Osborne (author of No Grain, No Pain) recommends having your 25-hydroxyvitamin D level checked twice a year: At the end of winter and again at the beginning of fall.  Your levels should be 50 ng/ml or higher.

6. Dr. Osborne also recommends spending half an hour each day outside in order to produce adequate Vitamin D.  The exact duration depends on individual factors, such as your skin color and antioxidant status.  Stay away from solar noon.  Cover your skin with clothing after you have been adequately exposed to the sun.  Stay in the shade when possible.  Wear sunglasses and a hat.

7. To combat oxidative stress that might occur during sun exposure, consume foods rich in antioxidants (or foods that can help repair DNA damage) such as: blueberries, cherries, carrots, garlic, ginger, grapes, and spinach.

8. Ensure adequate exposure to the sun at sunrise and sunset to reduce the likelihood of photo toxic damage. Exposure during those time periods can activate antioxidant pathways in the body, which can help combat free radical production that can result from mid-day sun exposure.






4. Lindqvist PG, Epstein E, Nielsen K, Landin-Olsson M, Ingvar C, Olsson H (Karolinska University Hospital, Lund University, Lund, Sweden). Avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for major causes of death: a competing risk analysis of the Melanoma in Southern Sweden cohort. J Intern Med 2016; 280: 375–387.

5. The Vitamin D Council,

6. Garland CF, Gorham ED, Mohr SB, Grant WB, Giovannucci EL, Lipkin M, Newmark H, Holick MF, Garland FC. Vitamin D and prevention of breast cancer: pooled analysis. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol, 2007. Mar;103(3-5):708-11.

7. Lappe JM, Travers-Gustafson D, Davies KM, Recker RR, Heaney RP. Vitamin D and calcium supplementation reduces cancer risk: results of a randomized trial. Amer J Clin Nutrition, 2007. Vol. 85, No. 6, 1586-1591, June.

8. Cannell JJ, Vieth R, Umhau JC, Holick MF, Grant WB, Madronich S, Garland CF, Giovannucci E. Epidemic influenza and vitamin D. Epidemiol Infect, 2006. Dec;134(6):1129-40. Epub 2006 Sep 7.

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