Sunscreens - Friend or Foe?
As summer approaches, it seems everyone is writing a blog or article about sunscreens. I’ve spent more hours caught in a loop researching the topic as I typically do, and at first, I thought, “here we go, nasty chemicals.”
What has changed since the 1920s to see an increase in skin cancer? Can we truly place blame on the use of sunscreens? Maybe, maybe not… truly, I threw my hands up and wasn’t even going to write on the topic. However, there are points I thought were valuable and perhaps, bringing these points to light will help you make the decision that is right for you and your family.
Most of us are exposed to many different types of propaganda in the form of daily advertising. A majority of the time these advertisements are trying to sell us products we don’t need. At this time of year, it is difficult to read a magazine, take a drive, or watch television without hearing or seeing an ad for sunscreen.
Mainstream media is obsessed with telling people to avoid the sun and apply copious amounts of sunscreen. Dermatologists and the American Medical Association (AMA) say the sun is bad and that one should avoid it at all costs. But what are those costs? Recent studies have shown that sunscreen, which has been widely promoted over the last 30+ years, could be doing much more harm than good.
Sunscreen blocks vitamin D production, which is an essential nutrient for health and cancer prevention. Many major brands of sunscreen also contain toxic chemicals, which are absorbed through the skin, enter the bloodstream, and then circulate throughout the body. Could blocking vitamin D synthesis and slathering toxic chemicals on our skin be among the main causes of skin cancer?
3 Main Types of Skin Cancer
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with nearly five million people treated annually. The 3 most common types of skin cancer are:
Basal cell carcinomas comprise 80 percent of all skin cancers. Basal cancers used to show up only in middle-aged groups but are increasingly present in younger people. These cancers grow slowly and rarely spread to other parts of the body.
Squamous cell carcinomas are more likely to grow into deeper layers of the skin and spread to other parts of the body, although this is still rare. Interestingly, squamous cell cancers exist more frequently in darker skinned individuals in areas hidden from the sun such as on the bottoms of their feet or palms of their hands.
Melanoma accounts for less than 2% of all cases of skin cancer but is more likely to grow and spread if left untreated, making it deadlier. According to skincancer.org, getting more than five sunburns increases your odds of getting melanoma by 80%.
One concerning fact about skin cancer is that according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), rates have doubled in the last 30 years. While the use of sunscreen has also doubled, the CDC, AMA, and cancer industry continue to recommend people avoid the sun and use sunscreen, while ignoring the importance of vitamin D and a healthy diet in skin cancer prevention.
Is Sunscreen a Cause of Skin Cancer?
Dermatologists and medical professionals blame the sun for the increase in skin cancer because it is the largest source of ultra violet radiation (UV). However, many leading-edge doctors and health experts contradict popular dogma about the sun being the main cause of skin cancer.
Lifestyle choices and diet play a far more important role than sun exposure when it comes to getting skin cancer. Bernard Ackerman, MD, the founding father of dermatopathology, which specializes in the study of cutaneous diseases at a microscopic and molecular level, has studied the issue of skin cancer extensively. He’s concluded that evidence that the sun causes skin cancer is inconsistent and inconclusive. “While some studies do show a small association, he says, others show none.”
A 2004 study in the medical journal The Lancet showed indoor workers were twice as likely to get skin cancer as those who spent more time in the sun:
“Paradoxically, outdoor workers have a decreased risk of melanoma compared with indoor workers, suggesting that chronic sunlight exposure can have a protective effect.”
Lack of sunlight means lack of vitamin D, which is a necessary nutrient for the body’s immune system to function properly. Low vitamin D levels are linked to health problems, including cancer. Appropriate sun exposure helps maintain adequate levels of vitamin D. Using sunscreen interferes with that exposure and could be contributing to the rise in skin cancer.
Are Sunscreens Really Safe to Use?
Sunscreen prevents sunburn by blocking UVB rays thus disabling the skin, allowing us to be in the sun longer than what is natural. Most major brands of sunscreen block UVB while allowing UVA, which causes more damage to the skin. In addition, UVB is required to produce vitamin D, so blocking it seems contradictory to good health and cancer prevention.
Sunscreen often contains cancer-causing chemicals that bake into the skin and get absorbed into the bloodstream, over-taxing the liver with toxins. Here are some of the offenders as well as better alternatives presented in the table below:
Other ingredients predominantly in sunscreens that are not discussed in many of the current articles available and should be avoided are:
Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A palmitate)
Sunscreen products may increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol, and retinyl palmitate. The problem occurs when this form of vitamin A is exposed to the sun (as opposed to when it is used in night cream, for example), which is why sunscreens that contain it should be avoided.
I caution against using personal care products that contain synthetic fragrance, as this term describes any number of harmful chemicals that do not have to be listed individually on the label. Some common "fragrance" chemicals include:
Parabens: Synthetic preservatives known to interfere with hormone production and release. (My research paper on Parabens should be posted on my upcoming reference tab shortly.)
Phthalates: Another synthetic preservative that's carcinogenic and linked to reproductive effects (decreased sperm counts, early breast development, and birth defects) and liver and kidney damage.
Synthetic musk: These are linked to hormone disruption and are thought to persist and accumulate in breast milk, body fat, umbilical cord blood, and the environment.
There are many more questionable chemicals in sunscreen never proven to be safe or effective for use on the skin.
Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms, mineral and chemical filters. Each uses a different mechanism for protecting skin and maintaining stability in sunlight. The most common sunscreens on the market contain chemical filters. These products typically include a combination of two to six of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. A handful of products combine zinc oxide with chemical filters. (Read your labels!)
The Food and Drug Administration has not reviewed evidence of potential hazards of sunscreen filters – instead it grandfathered in ingredients used in the late 1970s when it began to consider sunscreen safety. The Danish EPA recently reviewed the safety of active ingredients in sunscreen and concluded that most ingredients lacked information to ensure their safety (Danish EPA 2015). Sixteen of the 19 ingredients studied had no information about their potential to cause cancer. And while the published studies suggest that several chemical filters interact with human sex or thyroid hormones, none of the ingredients had sufficient information to determine the potential risks to humans from hormone disruption.
The Importance of Vitamin D3
The best way to absorb adequate vitamin D is to get natural sunlight and avoid sunscreen, which blocks UVB. Vitamin D is essential in growing and maintaining strong bones, promoting a healthy immune system, and protecting against various forms of cancer. It is a fundamental element to human health. On the other hand, chronic vitamin D deficiency (blood levels below 50 ng/ml) promotes cancer and disease and can wreak havoc on one’s health.
Getting Safe Sun Exposure
Safe UV exposure alone does not cause skin cancer. Two studies published in 2005, in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, provide evidence that “solar radiation may have a beneficial influence in both the incidence and outcome of cancer;” thus validating the sun and vitamin D as cancer prevention and treatment. https://academic.oup.com/jnci/article/97/3/161/2544132)
The general recommendation is to get 15 to 30 minutes a day of direct sunlight to maintain adequate levels of vitamin D. Darker-skinned individuals need more sun exposure because they have more melanin in their skin, which blocks UVB.
With sun exposure it is best to start with 10 minutes and work up to about 30 minutes, ensuring the skin does not get too pink. If required to be in the sun for extended periods, wearing a hat and extra clothing is better to protect skin from burning instead of using sunscreen.
Getting a tan protects skin naturally from burning. In addition, it is best not to use soap on sun-exposed skin for up to 48 hours so that the body can absorb all the vitamin D it makes.
A 2014 Swedish study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine followed almost 30,000 women for 20 years. Researchers concluded that women who avoid the sun are at increased risk for skin melanomas and are twice as likely to die from any type of cancer compared to those with high sun exposure. Perhaps popular mainstream advice regarding sun exposure and the use of sunscreen is not beneficial for women’s health after all! (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24697969)
5 Top Sunshine Tips
To sum up, do spend some time outdoors in the sun regularly (ideally daily), but do so with some commonsense precautions:
Give your body a chance to produce vitamin D; expose large amounts of skin (at least 40 percent of your body) to sunlight for short periods daily
When you'll be in the sun for longer periods, wear clothing, tightly woven but loose-fitting shirts, a hat to shield your face, (the skin is very thin on your face and highly sensitive to the photoaging effects of UVA), and pants, provide the best protection from UV rays! Wear sunglasses. Good shades protect your eyes from UV radiation that causes cataracts.
Don’t get burned! Find shade or bring shade. Red, sore, blistered skin means too much sun – and raises your skin cancer risk. Plan your time around the sun, early morning or late afternoon. UV radiation peaks during midday.
Consider the use of an "internal sunscreen" like Astaxanthin supplement to offer additional protection against sun damage. Astaxanthin is produced from marine algae in response to exposure to UV light. This is the way the algae protect itself, so it makes perfect sense that this deeply pigmented substance would have the capacity to "shield" you when it is taken in large enough quantities for a long enough time to saturate your body's tissues. Typically, this takes several weeks of daily supplementation. Astaxanthin—a potent antioxidant—can also be used topically. Astaxanthin prevents the UV-induced loss of glutathione, while restoring normal levels of superoxide dismutase (SOD). (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12354422)
Consuming a healthy diet full of natural antioxidants is another incredibly useful strategy to help avoid sun damage to your skin. Fresh, raw, unprocessed foods deliver the nutrients that your body needs to maintain a healthy balance of omega-6 and omega-3 oils in your skin, which is your first line of defense against sunburn. Fresh, raw vegetables also provide your body with an abundance of powerful antioxidants that will help you fight the free radicals caused by sun damage that can lead to burns and cancer.
Personally, we haven’t used sunscreens in over 23 years. I didn’t know in the early 90s what was causing severe allergy issues with my oldest son every time I slathered him in sunscreen lotion, now I know. We’ve used organic oils for 2 decades to protect our skin. Living in Florida the past six years has helped me gauge “sun” time and to know when it’s time to employ some of the tips above. My hope is that I present you with enough information for you to make an informed decision for yourself and your family.
Your comments and questions are always welcome, and I invite you to leave them in the comment section.
Until next time, remember, “Your Skin Deserves Love Too!”