Slip, slap, slop has been the American Cancer Society’s mantra for so long that no one would think of questioning the wisdom of a daily sunscreen, rain or shine. Well, I’m going to take a huge gulp of air, brace myself for the backlash and admit that I do. I think a daily sunscreen is potentially harmful and not proven to be effective against cancer. I’m not just being willfully argumentative; when you stack up the facts the sunscreen truths put the myths in the shade.

Myth: Sunscreen prevents malignant melanoma.

Truth: In 2009, the British Journal of Dermatology claimed that there was a lack of evidence demonstrating the ability of modern sun protection products to prevent melanoma. The author, Professor Brian Diffey from the department of Dermatology at Newcastle University, says that recent meta-analyses of observational case control studies have demonstrated no association between sunscreen use and either the prevention of the development of malignant melanoma.

Myth: Well, better be safe than sorry – at least sunscreen won’t cause melanoma.

Truth: There are some scientists who even believe that sunscreen might actually cause melanoma. For example, octocrylene can penetrate into the skin and act as a photosensitizer, resulting in an increased production of free radicals, according to this study. Free radicals can induce indirect DNA damage and potentially contribute to the increased incidence of malignant melanoma in sunscreen-users compared to non-users.

Myth: So I’ll be OK if I avoid octocrylene?

Truth: Unfortunately most chemical sunscreens are extremely controversial. A study in the journal of Free Radical Biology and Medicine raised concerns about the effect of sunscreen when absorbed into the skin after reacting with the sun. The report suggests that under certain conditions, sunscreens with oxybenzone and other ultraviolet filters could lead to free-radical damage to the skin, more than if the skin was exposed to the sun.

For many years, the dangers were ignored on the assumption that oxybenzone didn't get absorbed by the skin. A team of researchers in Australia, led by Cameron Hayden, demonstrated otherwise using commercially available sunscreen with a 6% concentration of oxybenzone. Haydon's conclusion: the use of oxybenzone is inadvisable for large surface area application for extended and repeated periods.

Octinoxate is the most widely used UVB blocking agent in the skin care industry. It can become unstable and break down under sunlight (an ironic limitation for a sunscreen). According to the EWG, Octinoxate can produce estrogen-like effects and should not be used by pregnant women and children. One Norwegian study in 2000 declared toxicity on mice at levels much lower that that used in sunscreen.

Myth: So I’ll be OK if I stick with mineral sunscreens?

Truth: Alas no. Mineral sunscreens – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – also raise safety concerns. Titanium Dioxide has been found to be a photosensitizer that can be absorbed by the skin (although the particle size does minimize this effect) and result in an increased production of free radicals, causing substantial damage to DNA, according to a study entitled Deleterious effects of sunscreen titanium dioxide nanoparticles on DNA: efforts to limit DNA damage by particle surface modification. In a book called Sunscreen Photobiology: Molecular, Cellular and Physiological Aspects, the author Francis Gasparro says TD illuminated by short wave UV kills human cells. Zinc oxide is also a photosensitizer. However, with mineral sunscreens, the assumption is that they do not easily penetrate the skin.  

So what’s my personal position? Sunscreen is my frenemy. I know that I can’t go without it. But I don’t wear it if all I’m going to do is walk 15 minutes to my office under a cloudy sky. For outdoor activities I try to choose sunscreens that are pioneering new actives and that back up their actions with antioxidants.

Dr Steven Q Wang, who presented research to the American Academy of Dermatology said that “adding antioxidants to sunscreen is an innovative approach that could represent the next generation of sunscreens.” And a study from 2004 that said that vitamins C and E and α-lipoic acid have been shown to reduce inflammation following sunburn in human skin. A Duke University Study found ferulic acid particularly good for preventing sun damage, and studies elsewhere have demonstrated that exposure to ultraviolet light actually increases the antioxidant power of ferulic acid.

My personal experience is that in the last couple of years of fairly intensive antioxidant use, my face gets much less sun burned than it used to — even though I don't wear sunscreen every single day. And when I do, I try to find ones that have antioxidant power.

Sunscreen Boosters and Safe Options

Astaxanthin is an absorber of specific ultraviolet sunlight rays that may contribute to skin aging and cancer. It can be found in a mineral sunscreen by Suntegrity, Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen and Primer ($45 in the shop).  

Raspberry seed oil has absorbency in the UV-B and UV-C ranges with potential for use as a broad spectrum UV protectant.  Layer Juice Beauty Refining Finishing Powder ($22), with raspberry and strawberry oils, over Sweetsation Q*Lumiere Organic Day Creme ($29) for extra protection. There’s raspberry oil in Osmotics Skin Rescue Nourishing Oil ($58).

Broccoli works by stimulating the body's own cancer protection mechanisms. And once they get switched on they can keep going for days after you've showered off the sunscreen.  It dominates the veggie blend in Lumavera 24-Hour Moisturizer ($65).

Galangal is a member of the ginger family and amazingly it is a natural source of ethyl methoxycinnamate, which is produced chemically as the sunscreen active known as octinoxate. It is in Snowberry Everyday Broad Spectrum SPF 15 ($36).

Reishi mushrooms have been shown in research to protect against UV damage. Prana Reishi Mushroom Shield ($42 in the shop).