We have been told since the 1970s about the importance of using sunscreen. The popular press and medical profession tell us that with regular sunscreen use, we are less likely to develop skin cancer and premature skin aging. Advertising campaigns promoting the benefits of sunscreen have been so effective that sunscreen use is almost universal among light-skinned populations in North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.
Skin cancer rates going up
The first sunscreens that were produced blocked only ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, the sunlight spectrum that burns the skin. Unfortunately UVB-blocking chemicals do not protect against ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, the spectrum of sunlight that causes skin aging via production of free radicals, as well as promoting all types of skin cancer: melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Newer sunscreen chemicals, such as avobenzone, that block UVA rays were subsequently developed. Unfortunately there are problems associated with them, such as skin irritation, breaking down quickly in the sun (thus becoming ineffective), absorbing through the skin into the body, and rinsing off quickly in water.
People are lulled into a false sense of security by sunscreens. They believe that by preventing a sunburn, significant skin damage is not taking place. Unfortunately it still is… it’s just not immediately visible.
The FDA has approved at least 16 chemicals for use as sunscreen active ingredients. Even more chemicals have been approved in Europe, where sunscreens are classified as cosmetic rather than medical. Amazingly, individual chemicals in sunscreens can have 10 or more names, making it difficult to know exactly what ingredients you being exposed to when you slather the products on your skin. For example, avobenzone is also known as BMDBM, Butyl methoxy dibenzoylmethane, Escalol 517, Eusolex 9020, and Parsol 1789. While the toxicity of avobenzone may seem low, according to its MSDS (material safety data sheet), the carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic and developmental toxicities of this chemical are unknown, leaving us guessing at what problems it might be causing that we will discover in the future.
Sunscreen chemical are so ubiquitous they are even found in the bodies of Americans who have never used sunscreen. A new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reveals that 97% of Americans’ bodies contain a widely-used sunscreen ingredient, oxybenzone, that has been linked to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage. A companion study published around the same time revealed that this chemical is linked to low birth weight in baby girls whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy. Oxybenzone is also a penetration enhancer, a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin.
Problems caused by sunscreen chemicals
There are a lot of problems with sunscreen chemicals. Some of them break down when exposed to the sun and fail to provide the expected protection. Some cause allergic reactions. Several of them have feminizing effects, as they can mimic estrogen in the body, similar to the plastic bisphenol A, or BPA, which has been removed from many consumer products due to its hormone-mimicking effects. There are increasing numbers of boys being born with undescended testicles and hypospadias, a condition where the urinary opening is in an abnormal location on the underside of the penis… signs of an estrogenic influence. Men today are experiencing low sperm counts, development of abnormal breast tissue, and other hormonally-related problems thought to be caused by environmental chemicals, including those found in sunscreens.
As stated by Scientific American, the fundamental problem is a lack of information: No one other than the manufacturers know the exact ingredients in their products and little safety testing has been done or documented on the vast majority of chemicals commonly used in sunscreens.
Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are extremely small, were introduced into sunscreens with the idea that they would provide a barrier on the skin to reflect the sun, but not leave a visible residue. While larger non-nano particles of these minerals do sit on top of the skin, nanoparticles are readily absorbed into the body and can create a variety of problems, including the creation of reactive oxygen species, which predisposes users to cancer. Some nanoparticles in sunscreens can cross the placenta; some can enter the brain.
Vitamin D deficiency
Another unintended consequence of sunscreen use is widespread vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is created in the outermost layer of the skin when UVB rays hit the skin, transforming a vitamin D precursor into active vitamin D. Since sunscreens block UVB rays, they block this essential conversion. We have seen an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency, resulting in many health problems, including osteoporosis, obesity, immune system problems, and higher likelihood of developing cancer.
What you can do to protect yourself
There are obvious measures to take to avoid sun damage. While a modest amount of sun exposure (20 minutes per day) is health-promoting, it is best to avoid being outside for long periods of time from 10 am – 2 pm, when the sun is most intense. Wear sun-protective clothing and spend time in the shade. Taking antioxidant supplements and eating antioxidant-rich foods will also help prevent skin damage from the sun. Blueberries, plums, and dark chocolate, among other foods, are known to be high in antioxidants.
Many people will burn less if they optimize their vitamin D levels. Taking 5,000 to 10,000 units daily (exact dose being determined by your blood levels of vitamin D and in consultation with your doctor) will prevent many people from getting sunburned. Many natural oils, when applied topically, contain some sun protective factor, including carrot seed oil, red raspberry seed oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil.
Unfortunately most commercially available sunscreens, even those that are marketed as natural and organic, contain toxic chemicals. To date I have found one brand, Badger, that seems to contain safe ingredients. Homemade sunscreens can be put together using simple ingredients such as beeswax, shea butter, coconut oil, and non-nanoparticle zinc oxide. Recipes can be found on-line.
For this wanting a more comprehensive understanding of the problems associated with sunscreens, I recommend a book, Sunscreens – Biohazard, by Elizabeth Plourde.
Summers are short in Northeast Ohio. Enjoy the warm weather and the multitude of activities and fresh produce your community has to offer. Keep healthy and chemical free, including the avoidance of commercially made sunscreens.