Is it more harmful to wear sunscreen than not?
This is the question I used to ask myself every Summer. There is evidence supporting that wearing too much sunscreen is harmful to our bodies and may even cause cancer, while there is also evidence supporting the fact that not wearing sunscreen and getting badly burnt may also lead to cancer… So how do you choose?!
Why is Sunscreen Harmful?
Sunscreen use has largely increased over the past few decades as we are constantly told to wear sunscreen, by doctors and the media, to help protect our skin from the harmful UV rays that cause sunburns and overtime, possibly skin cancer. But there is a problem with this billion dollar a year industry… and that is how not all sunscreens are created equal and in many cases sunscreen is more harmful than helpful.
And here’s why:
There are two ways that sunscreen can protect skin from sun damage; either with a chemical barrier or a mineral one.
Chemical sunscreens use one or more chemicals including homosalate, avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and octinoxate to create a physical barrier on the skin to protect it from the sun. But the reason these chemicals raise such a concern is that they’re able to cross over into the skin and thus enter the body.
With this in mind, we begin to ask ourselves, “Do these chemicals cause any side effects or harm to the body if absorbed by the skin, such as having the potential to disrupt hormones, especially in children?”
New research by the EWG (Environmental Working Group) reveals that these chemicals often used in sunscreens are in fact endocrine disruptors, and may interfere with thyroid and other hormone processes in the body.
A recent study conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that oxybenzone, one of the most commonly used chemicals in sunscreens, was found in 96% of the population. This is particularly alarming as oxybenzone is considered an endocrine disruptor, may contribute to endometriosis in women and reduce sperm count in men.
The EWG tested 1400+ sunscreens, and of those, only 5% met their safety standards and over 40% were listed as potentially contributing to skin cancer.
One of the reasons for this is that retinyl palmitate, a Vitamin A derivative, often used in sunscreens was found to speed up the growth of cancerous cells by around 21%.
What About Vitamin D?
While we’ve been told to ‘slip, slop slap’ to ensure we prevent any sun damage to our skin while out in the sun, there is another downfall to this and something that is becoming more prominent in our society… Vitamin D deficiency.
Most sunscreens completely block the body’s ability to process vitamin D. You may be thinking, we still receive vitamin D from our food, and yes, this is true. However, vitamin D from the sun is one of our biggest, and most easily absorbed sources for the body.
As Australia is thought to be one of the sunniest places on Earth, you would not expect to find such high rates of vitamin D deficiency, but it is estimated that 30% of Australians are Vitamin D deficient. A deficiency in vitamin D has been linked to higher risk of cancer and heart disease. (1,2)
It’s a tricky balancing act trying to juggle sun protection while ensuring we still receive enough vitamin D daily. We definitely must exercise caution in exposure (particularly overexposure) to the sun. However, relying solely on chemical sunscreens to keep us safe from skin cancer may not be entirely wise, as more and more evidence emerges about the dangers of many sunscreens and their potential to increase rates of skin cancer, it is important that we don’t fully depend on sunscreens or think that regular sunscreen use decreases the risk of developing skin cancer.
A study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics reported that sunscreen does indeed protect against sunburn, but there is no evidence suggesting they protect against basal cell carcinoma or melanoma.
Even with the huge push for more awareness around sun exposure and being advised to use sunscreen whenever we go outside, the incidence of skin cancer, especially melanoma, continues to rise dramatically.
Covering up is one of the best and safest options for sun protection, especially if sun exposure is a big concern for you or you have a family history of skin cancer.
With all the information and mis-information about sunscreen out there, the easiest and safest way to avoid sun damage is to cover up, stay in the shade, and wear sunnies and a hat.
Mineral sunscreens are thought to be a safer option, but there are still a few things you need to be aware of when using them…
Some mineral sunscreens may also contain some of the chemical ingredients I mentioned above and therefore bring with them similar risks.
Furthermore, if nano particles of titanium oxide or zinc oxide are used these can enter the body and bring with them risks as well.
The homemade natural sunscreen I use contains non-nano zinc oxide for natural and safe sun protection.
Protecting Skin from the Inside Out
After reading a post by Wellness Mama, I learnt the importance of protecting skin from sun damage through supporting the body internally though my food choices.
In doing so, it is important to avoid foods that increase inflammation, such as:
- Excess sugar (especially refined sugars)
- Processed grains
- Processed vegetable oils
And focus on foods that will nourish your body and provide plenty of healthy fats to promote skin health, such as:
- Coconut oil – The MCFAs (medium-chain fatty acids) and saturated fat are easily utilised by the body for the formation of new skin and also help to protect against burning.
- Vitamin D3 – New research has shown that improving levels of Vitamin D in the blood may help in protecting the body against sunburn and skin cancer.
- Vitamin C – This antioxidant is a potent anti-inflammatory, and is a great immune booster.
All in all, the safest option is to cover up, stay in the shade, and support skin health both internally and externally. Mineral sunscreens (without nano particles or any sunscreen chemicals) are also a good option, but spray and chemical sunscreens should be avoided for the most part.
As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor before trying or using any new products.
* * *
What is your biggest concern with sun exposure? What sunscreen do you use? Do you make your own?
Wells, Katie. (May 31, 2019). Why (Most) Sunscreen is Harmful. Wellness Mama. Retrieved from https://wellnessmama.com/55366/sunscreen-is-harmful/