Sunscreen – helpful or harmful?

Posted on Mar 1, 2016

When it comes to sunscreens, most people would say that they are an absolute must in this day and age. We have been conditioned to fear the sun and to slather on the sunscreen in order to avoid getting skin cancer. However, there is much more to the story that needs to be told in order to make a fully educated decision when it comes to what you put on and IN your body. Your skin is the largest organ in the body and whatever you put on it ends up in your cells, tissues, and organs very quickly. The question is, do you really know what is in your sunscreen? Furthermore, do you know the real truth about whether they are necessary at all?

If you look back to the 1930’s, skin cancer was very rare. Today, skin cancer diagnoses are very common. According to the CDC, well over 1 million Americans will be diagnosed this year. Current research suggests that 1 in 5 people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. How is this possible when we have more sunscreens available then ever before, with higher SPF’s and much more usage than ever before? Has the sun changed? Are we spending more time in the sun? The obvious answers are no. In the early 1900’s 75% of Americans worked outside in the sun for many hours every day yet skin cancer was virtually non-existent. Today, less than 10% work outdoors yet skin cancer rates continue to rise.

Unfortunately, the sun has received a bad reputation and as a result, people are not taking advantage of the tremendous benefits of the sun- namely Vitamin D production. The sun, when it hits the skin, results in Vitamin D production. Vitamin D is used by every cell in the body and adequate levels are key to preventing almost every disease. Unfortunately, many Americans don’t get enough sun and when they do, they actually block the production of Vitamin D by using sunscreens. Ultarviolet light from the sun has two types of waves: UVB – highest in mid-day and are the rays responsible for Vitamin D production. UVA – cause free-radical damage and penetrate deeper into the skin. UVA rays are more constant throughout the day. Until very recently, sunscreens only blocked the UVB rays and not UVA. This actually increases skin cancer risk! Blocking Vitamin D production is very dangerous since it plays a such a large role in cancer prevention. Low Vitamin D levels result in a much higher risk for cancer. Alarmingly, according to Dr. Juhi Kumar (a fellow in pediatrics at Children’s Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital and Academic Medical Center for Albert Einstein College of Medicine) “seven of every 10 U.S. children now have low levels. Those most likely to be deficient include children who are obese or who spend more than four hours daily in front of the TV, computer or video gams.” (Kumar 2009). Putting children in front of the TV instead of out in the sun can be very detrimental to their health.

There are many things to take into consideration before opening the bottle of sunscreen. . Many sunscreens contain ingredients that commonly cause skin irritations and even worse. Ingredients like paraaminobenzoic acid (PABA) and benzophenones can cause skin irritations and free radical production when exposed to sunlight, “the cell-damaging reaction occurs when sunscreen penetrates into the deeper layers of your skin”, according to Dr. Kerry Hanson (October 2006 volume of “Free Radical Biology and Medicine”) Free radicals cause damage to the cells of the body and leave people more susceptible to cancer growth and proliferation. This is certainly an unwanted effect that many people are unaware of.

Another alarming ingredient is retinyl palmitate. As stated by the Environmental Working Group, “A form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, found in 41% of sunscreens, could speed up skin damage and increase skin cancer risk when applied to the face, arms, legs, back, and chest.” Negative effects from ingredients like this one are not readily disclosed on labels so it is buyer beware.

Many of the ingredients in sunscreens (and many other lotions for that matter) are extremely toxic to the body. For example, oxybenzone, a common sunscreen ingredient, is a known hormone disruptor. If you look at sunscreen labels, most of them have “do not swallow” warnings. Yet, if you are rubbing it on your skin, it is still entering the body. Even more concerning is the fact that many of the most toxic ingredients are found in sunscreens marketed to babies and children. Children are some of the largest consumers of sunscreens and are at the most risk. A child’s immune system is not yet fully developed, the toxic accumulation of sunscreens and other exposures is greater over time, and a child’s skin is more sensitive and absorbs more readily. All of these factors should be considerations in deciding what to put on your child’s body.

So before you jump on the sunscreen bandwagon, read the ingredient labels and get more information if you need to. If you want to see how your favorite sunscreen fairs in the EWG’s toxic ingredient scorecard, go to www.

There are natural and healthy ways to protect yourself from the damaging rays of the sun that have been used throughout the centuries. They include: coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil, and jojoba oil. Coconut oil is especially beneficial as it is a natural sunscreen, it is antiviral, antimicrobial, and highly moisturizing. When using these natural products, you should “work up” to increased sun exposure rather than extended periods all at once.

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