“…Unfortunately, the truth about sunscreen might shadow your sunshine pleasures this year. We’re told that sunscreen will protect us from sunburn, wrinkles, and skin cancer. Yet, research now suggests that sunscreen might not do any of these things very well: instead, many of the most popular sunscreen brands might actually increase our chances of getting some cancers.
If you are shopping at most big box retailers, you can pretty much be guaranteed your sunscreen is toxic muck. By toxic muck, I mean that leading independent researchers suggest the sunscreen is likely to increase your chances of cancer rather than diminish it. In a recent wander through several big retail websites, I didn’t find a single sunscreen that was recommended as safe and effective by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The EWG is a group of independent researchers that research the truth behind many skincare products, including sunscreen…
The FDA says it is “not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer,” according to a recent Huffington Post article. It gets worse. A 2007 meta-analysis of 17 (out of 18 known) studies on the subject concluded that: “there was no statistically significant effect of use of sunscreens on risk of melanoma.” The study further found that in latitudes greater than 40 degrees (New York and north…) the use of sunscreen might actually “contribute to the risk of melanoma.” (Malignant melanoma is the deadliest of skin cancers accounting for about 4% of skin cancers but 75% of skin cancer-related deaths.)
EWG reviewed 500 popular sunscreens and recommended only 39 of them as safe for consumers. The worst offenders were often the market leaders: None of the 39 rated safe received a perfect score. Even worse, they found that many brands made inaccurate and misleading claims such as “water-proof,” “broad-spectrum protection,” and even “chemical-free.” Other words to be wary of: “for babies,” “natural,” and any SPF over 50. Many sunscreens, including those marketed specifically to children and babies, had known carcinogens, neurotoxins, ingredients known to become unstable and reactive when exposed to sunlight, and chemicals linked with endocrine disorders (gender-bending effects), and birth defects. Some of the worst offenders include the more popular brands (Neutrogena, No-Ad, Coppertone, Banana Boat) and their packages were littered with the above-mentioned meaningless statements.”
-- Manda Aufochs Gillespie (“The Green Mama”), “Is Your Sunscreen Increasing Your Risk of Cancer?,” Parade Magazine, June 20, 2013
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I’ve discussed sunscreens several times over the years, and below is a revised version of previous comments. Summer is the season, of course, when we see many people applying a generous coating of sunscreen to their skin while outdoors.
For those of you haven’t heard it before, I’m sorry to bring you some not-so-great news about sunscreens, which are supposed to protect us but may do the opposite. I hope you won’t let such news hinder your enjoyment of the Great Outdoors.
I haven’t used a sunscreen for over 20 years. I stopped after reading an alarming 1993 article by medical journalist Michael Castleman in Mother Jones magazine -- which was based on science, not conjecture -- about the dangers of sunscreens.
The message of that original article is reflected in the one excerpted above from a popular magazine, Parade (it was surprising to see such an article in a high-circulation publication, since most mainstream media avoid criticism of corporate products that are advertised in the media -- and even more so when the viewpoint conflicts with the conventional advice of doctors and dermatologists).
In recent years other articles have appeared on this subject which suggest that the public has been sold a bill of goods regarding the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens. If you haven’t read such an article, you may not be aware of the risks.
Unfortunately, the science is complicated and difficult to summarize briefly. Which is why we sometimes have to rely on journalists. Many people, of course, choose to believe assurances of the companies that manufacture such products that they are safe. But some scientists say otherwise. Who would you trust more?
Some of us have had contact with dermatologists or doctors who believe strongly in the importance and efficacy of sunscreens, of course, and most of our media recite such beliefs. Attitudes change slowly, and it takes years for new research to become widely publicized, especially when it contradicts previously-held beliefs.
Obviously, the less we expose ourselves to potentially carcinogenic substances, the better. Those of us who care about what we put in and on our bodies naturally want to totally avoid any products that could increase our risk of getting cancer.
How have I been able to manage spending so much time outdoors without using sunscreens? (I know that some others of you reading this also avoid sunscreens).
As I often mention at this time of year, the good news for hikers is that in the northeastern US, there’s LOTS of protective shade available in mountain forests.
Only on open mountaintops, on rocky cliffs, or at lake shores are we often totally exposed to the sun, and usually there are shady trees nearby to retreat to.
I do recommend carrying a sun hat, and often wear mine when I’m in the open sun. And I always have a long sleeved shirt and long pants in case I need to cover up.
Also, overcast days and cloudy weather are common in the mountains, so there are many days when we don’t have to be concerned about getting too much direct sun.
And during the months when the leaves are down (late fall through mid-spring), meaning there’s much less shade in the woods, the sun’s rays are much less direct and therefore a lot less likely to damage our skin, even with extended exposure.
Finally, as I’ve written about previously, there’s now plenty of evidence that for optimal health, we actually benefit greatly from receiving “unprotected” doses of sun (while being careful to avoid excessive exposure and burning). It turns out that sunlight gives a boost to our immune system and fortifies our health in other ways.
Some well-known cancer experts agree that the research on this is now solid. Other “authorities” adamantly disagree. So the subject remains controversial. If you have time, read up on it. And try to ignore the fear-mongering that insists that everyone should completely cover-up with sunscreen and clothing whenever they go outside.
[Note: right before I addressed this subject in an Update two summers ago, The New York Times featured an "Ask Well" column by Deborah Blum (7/17/14) about titanium dioxide nanoparticles that are now used in many sunscreens -- which some scientists believe may be carcinogenic and/or may promote skin aging. This seems to be additional evidence that we should be extremely careful about ALL products we apply to our skin, given the potential risks that continue to exist].
-- Charlie Cook