Sunscreens: no-brainer or cause for concern?

Here on the East coast, I can honestly say that we all breathed a sigh of relief when the sun finally came out.  After the longest streak of rainy days ever recorded, I was ready for the sun.  As I write this, it’s 77F outside and the sun is shining at full strength.   One telltale sign of the arrival of summer is seen all over – in grocery stores, convenience markets, pharmacies and many other retail places – I am referring to the ubiquitous displays of sunscreens that call out to us to protect ourselves from the harmful rays of the sun.  Yes, prolonged sun exposure has been indisputably linked to various kinds of skin cancer, but slathering yourself with many of the commercially available sunscreens can also cause severe bodily harm.  Why am I saying this?

The answer is twofold – it has to do with the fact that our skin is permeable and that most sunscreens contain ingredients which should be avoided at any cost.

I have written before about personal care products and their effect on our health.  The skin is our largest organ and is extremely porous – whatever we put on it ends up inside our bodies.  So we need to be as careful about the sunscreen we use as we are about the food we eat.

Let me start by saying that completely blocking the sun from our skin year-around may not be such a great idea.  I hope that by now all of you know about Vitamin D and the important role it plays in disease prevention and health promotion.  This magic vitamin boosts our immune system, helps build bones, lightens our mood, improves cardio vascular health and cuts cancer risk.  Unfortunately, Vitamin D is not found in abundance in many foods we consume on a regular basis.  The best way to get it is by direct sun exposure – and you don’t have to burn to get enough.  Unfortunately, most of us spend our days indoors or wear sunscreen year-around.  Some of us also live in climates where sunlight is not plentiful.

So to begin our sunscreen discussion, I would say that all of us should have limited direct exposure to the sun as often as we can (for some of us it maybe 10 minutes, while others can go longer without burning).  If you are already under a care of a doctor for a skin condition, or have been diagnosed with skin cancer, please disregard this advice and follow your doctor’s recommendations.  In winter months, or if you can’t get outside, please have your Vitamin D tested and supplement with appropriate amounts of Vitamin D to make sure your serum levels are adequate.  Some researchers postulate that a decrease of Vitamin D due to sunscreen use is contributing to tripling the rate of new melanoma diagnoses since the 1970’s – the same time period that saw an explosion of sunscreen use.  In addition, some of us have genetic traits which do not allow us to synthesize Vitamin D as efficiently as others can – for these individuals, long term, daily Vitamin D supplementation is a must.

If you are planning on being in the sun for a prolonged period of time, please use sunblock.  Find a healthy brand and buy a lot of it – enough to last the season.  What do I mean by a healthy brand? Fortunately for all of us, the Environmental Working Group is on top of the sunscreen issue.  They publish a variety of reports dealing with sunscreen ingredients, quality and healthy sun exposure.  You can find their sunscreen research on   According to EWG staff:  “Almost three-fourths of the products examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients”.  So use their guides to check specific sunscreen ratings and to find healthy brands meeting your individual needs – e.g. appropriate for a child, made for a specific body part, sport-friendly, etc… Their reports highlight the following facts:

  • avoid spray products – they pose inhalation risks and don’t cover as well
  • don’t bother with SPF values above 50 – a product with SPF rating of 30-50 is just as potent as one with a value of 75
  • avoid ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, retinyl palmitate and paraben – these are potent endocrine (hormone) disruptors, have been linked to cancer and can increase obesity.
  • choose products with Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide in them – these minerals do a great job of protecting our skin without exposing us to toxins

As for me, I almost never use sunscreen – I have never enjoyed being in the sun.  After minimal direct exposure, you will always find me in the shade, with a wide brimmed hat or wearing protective clothing.  So it should not be a surprise to you that I have my Vitamin D levels tested every 6 months and adjust my supplementation accordingly.

To summarize, follow these recommendations:

  • Have safe, time-limited direct sun exposure when you can but otherwise, stay out of the sun
  • Choose a “healthy” version of a sunscreen to use – use EWG’s guide to sunscreens for safe, effective products
  • If using a spray, try not to breathe it in – turn your face away when applying
  • Wear sunglasses – UV rays are harmful to eyes
  • Have your doctor check your vitamin D at least annually; if on supplementation especially the prescription kind (50,000IU), re-check levels in 3 months.
  • Schedule a skin check annually – early detection saves lives!

Better be safe than sorry.

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