Shedding Light on Sunscreen
What if you found out that sunscreen offered little to no protection against skin cancer? Would you still lather it all over your body and your children if you knew the active ingredients in sunscreen are absorbed through the skin and deep into the body where they can cause infertility, DNA damage, and serious hormone disruption? As it turns out, these statements may not be far from the truth, despite what we have been repeatedly told by marketing efforts urging consumers to liberally apply a high-SPF sunscreen for protection against the sun’s “harmful” rays. Read on to learn why you may be doing yourself and your family an astronomical favor by tossing your commercial sunscreen right into the garbage.
The Toxic Ten: 10 Reasons to Ditch the Sunscreen
 The evidence correlating skin cancer and sunscreen is conflicting.
The research is all over the board when it comes to whether sunscreen is helpful or harmful. Some research reports that sunscreen decreases the risk of melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer), while other studies show quite the opposite effect: sunscreen increases melanoma risk. For decades researchers believed that only UVB (short-wave) was of concern for instigating skin cancer. Only recently has it come to light that long-wave “UVA contributes to and may even initiate the development of skin cancers”. Clearly we are in dire need of more research, yet the FDA allows manufacturers of sunscreen products to perpetuate the mirage that sunscreen is not only safe, but an essential component in the prevention of skin cancer.
 Skin cancer rates are on the rise, despite the widespread use of sunscreen.
The rate of the deadliest form of skin cancer (melanoma) continues to rise significantly each year, and has more than tripled since the 1970s in the U.S and worldwide, despite a concurrent and drastic increase in sunscreen use.
 Chemical filters that penetrate into the body and wreak havoc.
The active ingredients found in commercial sunscreen products filter the sun’s UV rays in one of two ways: mineral filters or chemical filters. Chemical (organic) UV filters are by far the most common type of active ingredient contained in commercial sunscreens, and are found in the vast majority of sunscreens sold in the U.S.
Chemical (organic) UV filters (such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, octisalate, and homosalate) work by absorbing UV radiation. The chemical reaction that occurs between sunlight and these filters can cause skin allergic reactions, as has been recently reported with several Neutrogena products. But the toxicity doesn’t just run skin deep. These chemicals also penetrate through the skin and enter into the body where they have been shown to disrupt hormones, cause reproductive toxicity, and act as free-radicals and carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). Studies have detected sunscreen chemicals in human breast milk, blood and urine within only a few hours after application to skin. Additional studies have detected chemical filters in the urine of more than 96% of the U.S. population.
 Mineral filters that may or may not penetrate into the body.
Mineral (inorganic) UV filters use minerals to reflect UV radiation, like tiny mirrors. A handful of sunscreens that are marketed as more “healthy” use nanoparticle mineral filters like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (or a combo) to reflect the sun’s UV rays. Mineral filters are thought to be a better choice than chemical filters as most current evidence suggests that these filters do not break down and penetrate the skin to enter the body as readily as the chemical filters. However the current research is controversial as to whether nanoparticle size or shape may play a factor in their ability to absorb through the skin and cause tissue damage. Currently sunscreen manufacturers are not required to report information about nanoparticles to the FDA. Of the two, zinc appears to be slightly less toxic and less apt to penetrate skin compared to titanium. An even better option would be a non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen, or a homemade zinc sunscreen.
 Inactive Ingredient Toxicity.
Inactive ingredients found in sunscreen, such as aluminum (a toxic heavy metal) can also increase the risk of skin cancer by acting as a free-radical. A common ingredient added to sunscreens is vitamin A (Retinyl palmitate), which upon interacting with sunlight, may trigger the growth of tumors or lesions on the skin. Preservatives like methylisothiazolinone (MI) are also a serious health concern, and found in several commercial skincare products.
 Made in America Sunscreen is Inferior.
U.S made sunscreens work at preventing sunburn, but aren’t so great at stopping the chemical reactions that occur on the skin’s surface (and inside of the body) as the result of UVA rays. In contrast, Europeans have a wider access to UVA-filtering ingredients (compared to American manufacturers who are limited by the FDA). The moral of the story is that European sunscreen products are much better at blocking UVA than American made products.
 WTF SPF?!
High SPF sunscreens are a problem. They trick consumers into thinking they are getting better sun protection, which the EWG calls “negligible”. For example SPF 50 should block 98% of sunburn rays, whereas SPF 100 blocks 99%. An additional issue is that SPF refers to the ability for a sunscreen to block UVB rays, but accounts very little for the product’s ability to shield against UVA rays. UVA rays are currently not-well understood, but are thought to be more dangerous than UVB rays because they can penetrate through the skin (right past though American-made sunscreens) and wreak havoc deep within the body.
The reality is that wearing sunscreen encourages people to stay out in the sun for much longer than is safe. The best way to protect yourself from sun damage is to moderate your time spent in the sun, particularly mid-day when the rays are the strongest. Try rotating sun with shade, wear a wide-brimmed hat, get under an umbrella, and overall work to build up a gradual sun tolerance.
 Vitamin D-eficient?
Blocking UV rays also inhibits your body’s ability to convert the inactive form of vitamin D found in your skin (7-dehydrocholesterol) to the active form (D3) that your body needs to perform several critical functions including calcium absorption for bone health, immune function, hormone production, and so much more. Sunscreen enthusiasts should have their blood vitamin D levels (25-hydroxyvitamin D) monitored, as a large number of individuals are deficient in this important “vitamin” (did you know vitamin D is more accurately termed a “hormone”?!). Supplementing with vitamin D may also help to build up natural sun tolerance.
 Sunscreen alone will not protect you from skin cancer, and who knows, may even give you skin cancer!
To quote the Environmental Working Group: “Every major public health authority – the FDA, National Cancer Institute and International Agency for Research on Cancer – has concluded that the available data do not support the assertion that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of skin cancer.” All in all, the current science is inconclusive and controversial, and we simply need more evidence and better sunscreen formulations. Hopefully, these will come with time. In the meantime, it’s critically important to not rely on sunscreen alone to protect yourself against skin cancer.
Sunshine is Paleo. Sunscreen is Not.
The FDA first started recommending use of sunscreen in the 1970s. These recommendations were for the SEASONAL use of sunscreen products in FAIR-SKINNED people used on a minimal amount of skin. At the time they did not anticipate that such a large proportion of individuals would end up using sunscreen on such a regular basis, on large percentages of their bodies. The FDA recognized this issue in their September 2014 meeting on “Sunscreen active ingredient safety testing” and are currently conducting research about some of the above-mentioned concerns. I for one will not be waiting around for research to ‘figure it all out’ or for updated FDA recommendations. After all, there are much better and safer ways to protect yourself from getting sunburned that are far less controversial.
It’s pretty scary to realize that the vast majority of commercial sunscreens pose some serious health risks. To answer the question: “Is sunscreen Paleo?”, I’m going to have to say, um, NO. What would be totally Paleo however, is making your own non-toxic sunscreen and practicing good ol’ moderation. I’ve linked to a couple of homemade sunscreen recipes below, and please feel free to share your favorite Paleo sun protection methods in the comments at the bottom of this page!
In case you aren’t familiar with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), well, you should be! The EWG is a non-profit organization working to inform consumers about the toxicity of common household products, and how to make healthy selections. Check out their in-depth Sunscreen Guide for everything you need to know about the ins and outs of sunscreen, and their guide to the safest and scariest sunscreens on the market.
Wishing you a bright and sunshiny day!
In good health,
Kinsey Jackson, LMP, MS, CNS®
Additional (Awesome) Resources:
Mark Sisson – 8 Natural Ways to Prevent a Sunburn (And Sunscreen’s Not One of Them)
Chris Kresser – Are Your Skincare Products Toxic? Sunscreen.
Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide
Wellness Mama – Make your own sunscreen
Mommypotamus – Homemade Sunscreen