Should You Use Sunscreen… Or Not? : Exclusive Renegade Health Article

Wednesday Jun 20 | BY |
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With all the confusing information out there, are you better off using a sunscreen, or not? If you do use one, which is the best?

Do sunscreens protect against skin cancer, or encourage it? Do they do anything beyond protect you from a sunburn? And what about nanoparticles, and other questionable ingredients? Put it all together, and are you really doing something good for your health by slathering the stuff on, or would you be better off forgetting about all and heading out au naturelle?

Do Sunscreens Protect Against Skin Cancer?
The general consensus is that they do, but the evidence supporting that notion is actually pretty scant. After reviewing the scientific literature, the FDA stated that available clinical studies “do not demonstrate that even [broad spectrum products with SPF greater than 15] alone reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.”

The International Agency for Research on Cancer recommends clothing as a first line of defense, stating that “sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun.”

Meanwhile, despite the rise in use of sunscreens, cases of skin cancer continue to increase. In 1972, sunscreens and sunblocks took in about $18 million. Last year, a single Banana Boat brand took in that much, while the top 10 sunscreen products netted more than $300 million in sales. Yet rates for melanoma have increased from approximately 8.7 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 25.3 per 100,000 in 2007, according to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force.

If we’re using more sunscreen, why haven’t the rates gone down?

Theories and More Theories
Some studies have shown that sunscreens protect against skin cancer, and some don’t. Some experts believe that the most recent study—conducted over a 10-year period in Australia and following over 1,600 adults—which concluded that sunscreens do protect against melanoma, is one of the best academic studies we’ve seen so far, and essentially lays the question to rest. Others note that the study found sunscreens to protect against one type of skin cancer, but not another, and that such information cannot be ignored.

Another study published in 2011 (Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics) concluded that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that sunscreen use alone is adequate protection against UV radiation. Lead researcher Marianne Berwick, Ph.D., noted that differences in sunscreens, as far as how protective they are or aren’t, could be part of the problem.

Other experts theorize that many people who are at risk, who stay out in the sun for hours, don’t reapply sunscreen often enough. The fact that skin cancers often show up on sites of the body that are usually not exposed to the sun, like backs, trunks, and legs (rather than arms and faces), may indicate that these areas don’t get time to build up natural defense mechanisms.

Could Sunscreens Increase the Risk of Cancer?
In addition to the concern that sunscreens may not adequately protect against cancer is the concern that some of them may actually encourage the formation of the disease. Several studies in the 1990s indicated that frequent sunscreen users were more likely to suffer the deadliest form of skin cancer. Others came up with the opposite conclusions.

One study, for instance, by researchers at Missouri University of Science and Technology, found that when exposed to sunlight, some sunscreens undergo a chemical reaction that may release unstable molecules known as free radicals—which have been linked to cancer and accelerated aging. (Note: the sunscreen used was formulated in nanoparticles, which many have cautioned about because of their potential to penetrate skin and sink into the body.) Other studies have found that chemical sunscreens like octocrylene, octylmethoxycinnamate, and benzophenone-3 create intense free radical damage when exposed to UV rays.

Recent results from the FDA also indicated that retinyl palmitate, a common form of vitamin A available in many sunscreens, may create free radicals and speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight. In the one-year animal study, tumors and lesions developed sooner in those participants coated in a vitamin A-laced cream than in those wearing a vitamin-free cream. Both were exposed to only nine minutes of maximum intensity sunlight each day.

What About Vitamin D?
According to an article in Scientific American in 2009, three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults are deficient in vitamin D, the so-called “sunshine vitamin.” Such deficits have been linked with several health problems, from cancer to heart disease to diabetes. According to the study quoted, there is a trend of vitamin D deficiency going on. Between 1988 and 1994, 45 percent of people examined in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey had 30 nanograms per milliliter or more of vitamin D—considered sufficient for overall health. A decade later, only 23 percent of those surveyed had that much.

Other experts are skeptical that there is such a widespread problem, as there is disagreement about how much vitamin D we really need. Nevertheless, there is some agreement that many of us aren’t getting enough vitamin D, and since there are few sources in the diet, we really need to use supplements or the sun to create it in our bodies. (Please note—for some people, sunshine doesn’t raise vitamin D levels at all, so be sure to get tested to be sure your levels are in the optimal range.)

How much time in the sun you need to develop enough vitamin D depends on your skin color, your age, how intense the sun is, etc. So again, we’re left confused. Spend 10-15 minutes unexposed, then put on the sunscreen? Or just go with supplements? You may need to have your blood levels of vitamin D checked on this one, then ask your doctor for the best approach.

What to Do?
The whole sunscreen question seems to be growing more confusing by the year. With the FDA delaying its enforcement of new regulations that might have made choosing a sunscreen product a little easier, consumers are still left on their own to sift through all the research and conflicting information to come up with the best option for them.

Here are some general guidelines likely to help:

  • Use clothing and shade as a first line of defense. Do not rely on your sunscreen alone to protect you. If it’s too hot, look for special sun-protective clothing that’s woven in a way to allow the material to breathe while blocking UV rays. Try SunPrecautions, Coolibar, and Patagonia brands.
  • Choose brands of sunscreens that you can feel confident about—those that are natural and organic, and are committed to consumer safety. Start with the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen guide for a little help on what’s what.
  • Be smart about what parts of your body are exposed. If you rarely show your belly to the sun, for instance, be more careful to protect it.
  • If you’re low on vitamin D, consider 10-20 minutes of exposure a day on your arms, hands, and areas of your body that are used to the sun. How much sun you want to get of course depends on your skin, your sensitivity (those with rosacea are advised to avoid the sun), and your risk factors for cancer. Slowly build up your resistance (a tan). Just be sure you don’t burn. Note: Vitamin D is critical to health. It’s important to get your blood tested to be sure your levels are in the optimal range, and to take a supplement if necessary.
  • Choose sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, preferably not in nanoparticles. Go with conscientious companies that are putting out smart choices.
  • Avoid those products with chemical sunscreens (like oxybenzone) and vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or retinol), and avoid sprays and powder—choose lotions instead.
  • Go with an SPF of 30–50.
  • Keep an eye out for moles that change color. Be particularly careful with areas that are hard to see, like backs and scalps.
  • Fight against free radicals with antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin E. Eat antioxidant-rich foods like berries, leafy green vegetables, artichokes, red beans, and the like. Consider vitamin C and E supplements.
  • Try a glass of green tea before you go out—some studies have indicated it may help protect against skin cancer.
  • Try some natural sun-protecting oils like red raspberry seed, hemp seed, macadamia, sesame seed, and jojoba, but realize the effects are varied and limited.
  • Look for natural sunscreen formulas that may contain horse chestnut, helichrysum extract, and sea algae, as these are being explored for their potential UV-protective benefits. Avoid bergamot and other citrus oils, however, as they increase the skin’s sensitivity to light.

Kev’s thoughts:

I’m a really white guy. The best sunscreen for me is the shade. I don’t like the idea of putting a chemical laden product on my skin and having it “bake” into me. I spend time in the sun, but I keep it light rarely more than 30-60 minutes and almost always in the later afternoon.

Also, after now being in the skin care industry for a while — and after attempting to make a truly natural sunscreen — I don’t trust any product on the market. Maybe I’m jaded, but we learned a lot about what you do and what you don’t have to put on the label. The sad thing is that you can leave off just about anything nasty that you want to make the product appear natural.

Where do you land on the sunscreen debate? Any tips to share?

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Photo courtesy esmjFitness-Sean Hammers via

“Sunscreens Exposed: Nine Surprising Truths,” Environmental Working Group,

Emily Main, “Why Sunscreens Can’t Keep You Safe,” Rodale News, January 2012,

Ani, “Sunscreen Ingredient May Up Skin Cancer Risk,” Times of India, May 14, 2012,

Jordan Lite, “Vitamin D Deficiency Soars in U.S., Study Says,” Scientific American, March 23, 2009,

Kevin Gianni

Kevin Gianni is a health author, activist and blogger. He started seriously researching personal and preventative natural health therapies in 2002 when he was struck with the reality that cancer ran deep in his family and if he didn’t change the way he was living — he might go down that same path. Since then, he’s written and edited 6 books on the subject of natural health, diet and fitness. During this time, he’s constantly been humbled by what experts claim they know and what actually is true. This has led him to experiment with many diets and protocols — including vegan, raw food, fasting, medical treatments and more — to find out what is myth and what really works in the real world.

Kevin has also traveled around the world searching for the best protocols, foods, medicines and clinics around and bringing them to the readers of his blog — which is one of the most widely read natural health blogs in the world with hundreds of thousands of visitors a month from over 150 countries around the world.

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