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Sunscreen: Choose One That Leaves You Healthier

couple sitting in the sun
July 24, 2018 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

Summer’s here, so it’s time, once again, to determine which sunscreens are hazardous to our health. There are zillions of sunscreens out there, and many contain known health-threatening ingredients and untested ingredients that might also be dangerous. So before we go dancin’ in the sun-bathed streets, let’s learn sunscreen smarts.

We all have skin in the game

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that our skin is not, as some think, just an envelope filled with organs. It’s an organ unto itself, the largest, in fact, in our bodies.  And it interacts constantly with all of our other organs. So we should be very picky about what we put in it and on it—especially when, in the case of sunscreen, we put it all over large parts of ourselves.

When sunscreens go beyond the call of duty

Sunscreens are complex chemical compounds that often do more than we want them to.

So for every ingredient in every sunscreen, we have to ask very pointed and specific questions:

  • Will the chemical penetrate my skin and reach living tissues?
  • Will it disrupt the hormone system?
  • Can it affect the reproductive and thyroid systems and, in the case of fetal or childhood exposure, permanently alter reproductive development or behavior?
  • Can it cause a skin allergy? Or damage?
  • What if it is inhaled?
  • Are there other toxicity concerns?

These aren’t just random questions. There’s a reason for each one—symptoms or conditions have been observed, in a laboratory or in a clinic, that point to unwanted results.

The rulebook has very few “rules”

Unfortunately, we can’t count on sunscreen makers to take our best health interests to heart:

  • Producers aren’t required by law to safety test ingredients or finished products
  • Labeling laws are so lax that ingredients lists may not include everything or may misstate certain elements
  • Product claims are not subject to review, so manufacturers have no obligation to be accurate when they describe a product’s benefits
  • Few restrictions limit which chemicals can be used in sunscreens

Wait. No safety testing? No truth testing?

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, tested more than 1,400 sunscreens.

Guess how many met the EWG’s realistic, reasonable, safety standards?

Only 5 percent.

Guess how many contained ingredients known to be potential contributors to skin cancer?

A damning 40 percent.

And how many didn’t adequately protect skin from the sun’s damaging rays—in addition to containing potential health hazards?

A frightening 80 percent.

Moreover, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency recently reviewed the safety of active ingredients in sunscreens and concluded that most ingredients lacked information to ensure their safety.

  • Sixteen of the 19 ingredients studied had no information about their potential to cause cancer
  • None of the ingredients provided information to determine the potential risks of sex or thyroid hormone disruption—even though published studies suggest that several common sunscreen chemicals do exactly that

The dark side of sunscreens

If you need convincing that some in the sunscreen industry are more interested in selling than protecting, say hello to The Skin Cancer Foundation, which chases and accepts donations from many sunscreen manufacturers.

Here’s their latest position, italics mine:

“For adequate protection against melanoma, non-melanoma skin cancers, and photo-aging, everyone over the age of six months should use sunscreen daily, year-round, in any weather.”

The mind reels.  I’m speechless.

Especially because as sunscreen sales have climbed steadily for decades, so have melanoma rates.  Something is clearly going very wrong.

For example, one study of sunscreen users compared a group of 571 people with a first diagnosis of melanoma with 913 healthy control subjects.


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Those who used sunscreens moderately were nearly twice (1.8 times) more likely to contract melanoma than those who did not. Among those who always used sunscreens, to stay out longer in the sun, the risk of melanoma was 8.7 times greater than those who used no sunscreen.

What works best, for whom, and how safely, is a tangled and charged political issue. Many people fault the FDA for approving only 16 sunscreens for domestic use, while refusing to approve any of 27 European Union-approved sunscreens for U.S. consumption. This despite the acknowledged recognition that the EU formulations are more advanced, safer, and more effective than our 16.

But back to you and your choices.

Rulebook says “no”

Let’s get to the action points—your do’s and don’ts when choosing a sunscreen.

If the label says any one of these, don’t buy it:

  • PABA
  • Methoxycinnamate
  • Oxybenzone
  • Nanoparticles

The first three ingredients have been linked to various health issues, including hormone disruption—especially oxybenzone, which can reduce sperm count in men, among its other drawbacks. It’s also associated with a 65 percent elevated risk of women developing a painful, hormone-related condition known as endometriosis.

So here we see a product we’re told will do one simple thing—cover our skin to protect against sun damage. When we find it circulating around our bodies, and affecting vital functions like hormone regulation—it’s red-flag time.

As for nanoparticles, the following horror show should convince you to run the other way. A recent study found that fish exposed to nanoparticles of titanium oxide developed holes in their brains and experienced death of nerve cells in the brain as well.

Other studies have found similar types of damage from these tiny particles, which are widely used not just in sunscreen, but also in moisturizers and other cosmetics—with zero conclusive research proving they’re safe or harmless.

Rulebook says “yes”

Here, it does get simple. Look for a product containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, the primary ingredients in what are sometimes called mineral sunscreens

And look for wide-spectrum sunscreens, which protect against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Ignore conventional wisdom that says to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. Hold off, and get at least a few minutes of sun exposure on bare, clean skin— no lotions, creams, or cosmetics of any kind. Start with just a few minutes of exposure each day to avoid burning. Gradually increase the amount of time, but don’t go beyond 20 minutes.

If you plan to remain outside, move to the shade or dress for protection—a wide-brimmed hat, a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt or top, and loose-fitting pants or a skirt. If you’re well covered, you’re well protected. No sunscreen needed.

If you want to stay outdoors uncovered, use your sunscreen, and remember to reapply it every couple of hours. It can be removed by sweating, swimming, or even rubbing your skin.

And don’t forget to protect your eyes when you’re outside. I recommend sunglasses equipped with side panels to shield your eyes from UVA and UVB rays. Exposure to sunlight has been linked to cataracts.

Finally, let’s head off any confusion if you’re wondering about those hundreds of after-sun products.

Use 100% aloe gel (many aloe products also contain skin-drying alcohol, avoid those) or extra virgin coconut oil. It’s all you need.

Protect yourself from the inside out

Antioxidants and healthy fats in your diet or as supplements are for super skin health.

Count on these wonderful menu items to reinforce your body’s own sun-protective mechanisms:

  • Carrots and other yellow-orange fruits
  • Salmon, shrimp, and algae
  • Tomatoes (especially when cooked in a small amount of oil), pink and red grapefruit, and guava
  • Citrus fruits and most vegetables
  • Sweet potatoes, milk, and eggs
  • Green leafy vegetables, raw nuts, and wheat germ
  • Fatty, cold–water fish, such as cod, herring, and anchovies

Adding a supplement or two to complement your diet is another sun-smart move:

  • Astaxanthin: 4 to 6 mg one to three times daily
  • Lycopene: 10 to 30 mg daily
  • Vitamin C: 500 to 1,000 mg three times daily. If you develop loose stools, decrease the dosage
  • Vitamin E: 400 IUs daily of a product made from mixed tocopherols and the natural form of vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol), not the synthetic form (dl-alpha-tocopherol)
  • Omega-3 essential fatty acids: 1,000 mg twice daily of a purified, molecularly distilled product. Be sure to read the label and make sure you’re getting 1,000 mg of omega-3s and not just 1,000 mg of oil.

It’s always best to make sure your doctor is on board with any supplements you want to take.

Enjoy your summer!


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