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Sunscreen: Myths, Truths and Alternatives

February 20, 2014 Reviewed by Marta 4 Comments

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). 

  • April 18, 2015

    by diana

    I think it would be wise to share that most sunscreen ingredients are classified as "safe" only if they are used in particular amounts or concentrations.

    Too many studies are claiming that sunscreen ingredients are cancer causing, or are hormone disruptors etc, but they are leaving out the amounts of the ingredients that are needed to make such claims.

    As an example: Homosalate is safe for UVB protection in sunscreens provided that the chemical formulation uses less than 15% Homosalate.

    Its like anything; in excess, yes it can be harmful, but in responsible doses and used properly they are excellent to prevent sunburn.

    Mineral SunBlocks are the way to go provded that they are not "nano particles" and aren't absorbed in to the body. I prefer mineral blockers as they dont absorb UV rays as chemical sun screens do, mineral sun blocks physically block them.

    Anti-oxidants are totally the new UVA protection in my opinion, they prevent free radical damage and correct photodamage in the skin.

    Just remember to be safe in the sun, don't over expose and dont go out in the sun for extended periods of time if you already have sun damage or a burn, you'll just make it worse.

    Remember sun burns can take up to a year to physically heal, if you burn more than once in a summer season it can take years for your skin to heal properly.

  • August 19, 2014

    by Joyce

    Brilliant and well-researched! Main-stream perspectives are products of popular opinion! Logic dictates here. These ingredients get absorbed and compromise the inner terrain with future toxic consequences. When it comes to sun protection, it is much more comforting to apply a product that deflects the suns strong rays, hence zinc oxide which is promoted for babies and children.

  • February 20, 2014

    by Amy

    Thanks Marta for publishing this report. My fair complexion once was a big opponent of getting rays until I started to research online and reallized that people need to do their homework before blaming the sun for cancer, and slathering chemicals on their body. There is information that contradicts what we've been taught all these years. If the big cosmetic conpanies are funding some of this media-hyped research, it's no wonder everyone is afraid of the sun and spending billions a year on their products. Moderation is key. It is a very controversial topic, but one that needs to be delved into more so we can actually get unbiased information. Thanks again.

  • February 20, 2014

    by Jan

    Thanks for the informative article Marta! I have been negligent using sunscreen for years and as as result have sun damage to my skin. I was going to become more diligent come this spring and start using it, but I will now definitely do some research before I purchase a sunscreen for outdoor activity. On another note, it seems like many women 50 and over have vitamin D deficiency. I have wondered if some of this is due to the constant wearing of sunscreen and not allowing our bodies to get sufficient vitamin D from the sun.

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