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The Great Debate

My comment that the “jury is still out” on the use of sunscreen over at Design Sponge has caused some concern amongst readers. As such, I’ve decided to itemize the reasons this debate rages as listed by the Environmental Working Group, examining each of their points:

1. There is no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent cancer. The fact is, after reviewing the scientific research, the National Cancer Institute concluded that there is no evidence that sunscreen reduces melanoma. “It is not known if protecting skin from sunlight and other UV radiation decreases the risk of skin cancer. It is not known if non-melanoma skin cancer risk is decreased by staying out of the sun, using sunscreens, or wearing long sleeve shirts, long pants, sun hats and sunglasses when outdoors” (NCI 2009) Skin cancer rates have actually gone up with increased use of sunscreen.

2. There’s some evidence that sunscreens might increase the risk of the deadliest form of skin cancer for some people. The fact is, studies have shown that people who regularly use sunscreen have reduced risk of squamous cell carcinoma, a slow growing tumor that is easily treatable, but studies have also shown that people who regularly use sunscreen have a significantly increased risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. It is theorized that the reason that regular sunscreen use actually increases your risk of melanoma is because it blocks your body’s ability to produce vitamin D, which protects it.

3. There are more high SPF products than ever before, but no proof that they’re better. Studies have found that people using higher SPF sunscreens had even higher exposure to harmful UV rays, not less, so “The user is left with a burn and a significantly higher “body burden” of sunscreen chemicals.”

4. Too little sun might be harmful, reducing the body’s vitamin D levels. Vitamin D deficiency is of epidemic proportions, and it has risen directly with increased usage of sunscreens, which inhibit the body’s natural ability to produce it. According to the research, 7 in 10 children in the US are now vitamin D deficient. Among other things, D protects against a number of cancers.

5. The common sunscreen ingredient vitamin A may speed the development of cancer. According to an FDA study, vitamin A greatly speeds the development of skin cancer, and 41% of all commercially available sunscreens use it.

6. Free radicals and other skin-damaging byproducts of sunscreen. “Sunscreens can help reduce UV-related free radical damage by diverting the radiation from the skin, but the ingredients themselves can release their own free radicals in the process. When the sunscreen molecules absorb UV energy, diverting it from the skin, the molecules dispel this excess energy by releasing free radicals.”

7. Pick your sunscreen: nanomaterials or potential hormone disruptors. The hormone disruptors in many commercially available sunscreens are a serious problem. Nanoparticles in mineral (titanium and zinc) can pose dangers as well, but according to the EWG, they are a much safer choice.

8. Europe’s better sunscreens. American commercial sunscreens are on the whole much worse at UVA protection.

9. The 33rd summer in a row without final U.S. sunscreen safety regulations. The FDA has been floundering on guidelines for decades. Laboratory studies indicate that some common sunscreen ingredients are seriously toxic, and even cause pre-cancerous cell damage. A study (Schlumpf 2008) found the presence of several toxic sunscreen ingredients (octylmethoxycinnamate, octrocrylene, oxybenzone, 4-MBC, and Padimate O) in women’s breast milk, which raises serious concerns about toxicity to the gestating fetus and breast feeding baby.

Ultimately, you have to make the most informed decision that you feel is right for you and your family. I’m never one to tell folks what to do. I simply have examined the information available and come to my own conclusions about the safe use of sunscreen.


19 Responses to The Great Debate

  • nicole says:

    Fascinating reading! I didn't know ANY of this. Thanks for adding more information to my knowledge base, so I can make a more informed decision.

  • jen says:

    I quit using sunscreen about 18 months ago after reading a similar study. And once you quit – you see it in everything! In face lotion (now I use facial oil that is sunscreen free), in makeup (also had to switch products), etc.
    I think sunscreen also gives some people a false sense of security. They tend to stay out in the sun during the worst hours without a second thought, because hey! they're wearing sunscreen!
    I don't buy it and I'm glad to meet another person that doesn't use it. My family and friends think we are crazy.

  • Leigh says:

    Thank you for condensing and presenting this information. There is so much misleading information about sunscreen. Vitamin D, particularly D3, should be supplemented if people aren't getting enough sun exposure on their skin (or blocking it with suncreen). Viruses cannot survive in the body with sufficient amounts of Vit.D3 in the system as well. Natural suncreen is awesome and feels so much better on your skin.

  • Kathleen says:

    Thanks for a very informative post. I think it is also important to take into account the diversity of climates where people live. I live in Arizona where it is sunny over 300 days a year. I am not worried at all about Vitamin D deficiency in myself or my kids. I put sunscreen on my kids when I know we'll be outside for an extended period of time but I often don't when I know we'll just be outside for a little while. Both my parents have had skin cancers removed (my father extensively and repeatedly) and he did NOT use sunscreen for most of his life. Anyway, it's yet another complicated and difficult decision we all have to grapple with and I appreciate the information to add to my knowledge bank.

  • Stacey says:

    I'm so glad you posted this. I mostly stopped using sunscreen last summer, and although I would probably put some on if I was going to be in direct sunlight for a really long time (I have super-sensitive skin), I don't wear it most of the time. My reasoning, though, is based purely on the fact that I think it feels gross, smells gross, and makes me break out! So it's nice to know that there are legitimate reasons to not use sunscreen :)

  • I'm so glad you wrote this, Ashley. Too often people believe what they've heard their entire lives rather than finding out the truth for themselves. Really great post!

    Plus, I'm so glad I finally clicked over from Design*Sponge to check out your blog. It's so good to find another blog dedicated to better, healthier, eco-friendly living.

  • Stephanie G. says:

    I myself am a sunscreen user but just posted about all the nasties in MANY of the most popular brands. I think the EWG is a FANTASTIC resource and used thier guidelines to choose the sunscreen that my family uses. Good post!!

    Stephanie :)

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm planning on making sunscreen this week – would love your advice regarding ingredients, method, etc.

  • I've actually never made my own sunscreen, but now you've got me completely intrigued by the idea! A quick internet search produced this DIY tutorial from Instructables: It includes a link to a mineral makeup supplier, where you can purchase zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are the ingredients included in all “natural” sunscreens I purchase. I might just whip up a batch myself! Good luck!

  • keeko says:

    Yeesh. I'm right there with Stacey, I never liked the feel of sunscreen. Ever since I was a kid (growing up in FL mind you!), I couldn't stand the stuff! (All this new research is great at dispelling the guilt when I don't wear it – ha!).

    But I'm curious – are those photos of your sunscreen (the Burt's Bees, Dr. Hauschka, etc.)? Do you personally use any sunscreen at all, and if not, what? That first study indicated that not even protection such as long sleeves will make a difference.

    Personally speaking, I have freckles popping up left and right the last few years (as I age into my late 20's). I'll find a new freckle on my hand and SWEAR it wasn't there before. But as I recall from last summer, this happened whether or not I used sunscreen…

  • ashley says:

    kristina-those are indeed our sunscreens. i wear them rarely, though, unless i'm going to be in very minimal clothing (like a bikini). during the warmer months, i just try to stay out of the sun. i'm a big fan of hat-wearing, and wear lots of light-weight pans and longer skirts. if i know i'll be working in my yard during the periods when sunlight is strongest, i may put a bit on my face and forearms, but that's it. but, like i said, i rarely wear it. that “la roche” bottle is actually outdated; it's from my honeymoon, back in '07! the bottle is still half full! i do like the idea of making my own, though. did you see the “instructables” link i posted in one of the previous comments? very intriguing….

  • keeko says:

    Hmm, no I must've missed it! Is it in this comment thread?

  • Thanks for this!

  • Rhonda says:

    As a baby boomer who baked on the beach when I was young and have prematurely aged skin – and one basal cell removal so far — and most of all as a skin care professional, I worry that the information here is a bit dangerous. It reads like a call to ban sunscreen, even though I’m thinking that’s not what you intend – or do you?

    My education tells me that UVB rays burn the skin and while it’s never good to abuse your skin in that way, burning your skin doesn’t cause cancer. On the other hand, UVA rays effect the skin in a most dangerous and undetected way UNTIL the wrinkles and sagging and, CANCER appear.

    On the subject of precious Vitamin D, we do have a deficiency of epidemic proportions in all age groups and sunlight is our best source if obtained by natural, unfiltered sunlight for 15 – 20 minutes per day. Early morning or late afternoon is the safest time to sunbathe. Beyond that it’s important to supplement with cod liver (fish) oil which you can get pleasantly flavored by natural lemon or orange.

  • Kimmarie says:

    We (fam of 6) almost never use sunscreen either or insect repellent. There's some nasty stuff in those bottles! We just stay covered and/or stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. And we don't have air-conditioning (in Va.) our friends think we are nuts ; ) heehehe!

  • oukay says:

    I remember having blisters on my back and crying due to the pain of my sunburns after normal family outings to the beach in Alabama when I was a child. Then this marvelous product called sunblock came along and I was able to enjoy a weeklong trip to the Virgin Islands when I was 11. I could hardly believe that I was able to enjoy the water and sand without the pain afterwards.
    That said, now that I live in Florida, I can hardly stand to wear sunscreen. The gloppy feel combined with sweating in the humidity is just almost too much!

  • rhonda-by no means am i advocating a full out ban of sunscreen. i'm advocating making informed choices. in a previous comment i answered about my own use of sunscreen products. when i use them, i seek out mineral-based options, containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. my beef is with many of the commercially prepared sunscreens on the market. as with many conventionally prepared body care products, a number of potential harmful additives are contained within. ultimately, however, whatever one does, or does not, put on their bodies is a matter of inherently personal choice. i say, know all the info. available on the topic and then make the decision you feel is best for you. at the beach, i'm the one under the umbrella, with the hat and sunglasses, during the least sunny point of the day.

  • I hate oily hands and ticks so i just wear comically large hats and deal with my wife's comments about the farmers tan with my man-filter.

  • Seraph says:

    I recall reading at least one article some time ago (perhaps in an issue of Discover? Maybe Scientific American?) that suggested that the correlation between sunscreen use and skin cancer comes from the type of people most likely to use sunscreen being the type of people most likely to burn and then later develop cancer. That is, those of us with fair skin.

    Melanoma may not be caused by slow sun exposure, but severe burns–the kind I tend to get when I don't wear sunscreen–are correlated with melanoma.

    I also can burn to a crisp in 20 minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen. I bought a vitamin d supplement the other day, so hopefully all these damned if you do, damned if you don't choices will balance out somehow.