Does Sunscreen Cause More Harm than Good?

April 5, 2011

78155013You may not be receiving the protection you thought you were.

Americans have a long-running love affair with sunscreen. These days you can choose if you want a lotion, a spray, or a mist. After a trip down the makeup isle you’ll be getting SPF just from powdering your nose. And who needs SPF 30 when you could have SPF 90? It almost seems like we’ve become “afraid” of the sun—but is it sunscreen we should be afraid of?

At least 75 percent of our body’s vitamin D supply is made when a type of cholesterol in the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. When you hide from the sun, you’re much more likely to become deficient in vitamin D, appropriately known as “the sunshine vitamin.” Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and bone mineralization—a deficiency that causes rickets (bowing of the legs and stunted growth) in children, and osteomalacia (a condition known as “soft bones”) in adults.

Optimal sunlight exposure depends on many factors, including an individual’s genetic heritage. Darker skinned people require more sunlight exposure than those with lighter skin to synthesize the same amount of vitamin D. This fact alone demonstrates why a “one-size-fits-all” sun exposure prescription just will not work for everyone.

Being out in the sun for at least 30 minutes while wearing sunscreen will not prevent vitamin D deficiency. Since sunscreen absorbs the ultraviolet rays that are needed for our bodies to synthesize vitamin D, constant sunscreen use has been found to decrease vitamin D levels in the blood.

Chemical sunscreens absorb UVE radiation, but not all prevent UVA light—which penetrates the farthest into the skin and is involved in the formation of melanoma. UVA light suppresses the immune system, specifically causing a loss of Langerhan’s cells, which are designed to keep the skin healthy and protect it from free-radical damage, bacteria, and other pathogens.

Over 15 years ago Canadian researcher and chemist Hans Larsen, M.Sc., ChE., agreed that chemical sunscreens may help promote the formation of skin cancer. Larsen explained that most chemical sunscreens contain benzophenone or its derivatives (oxybenzone, benzophenone-3) as their active ingredients, and in an article in the International Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, Larsen wrote “Benzophenone is one of the most power free-radical generators known to man.”

It doesn’t help that people using sunscreen usually stay in the sun longer than others who don’t because they develop a false sense of security when they’re not getting sunburned. While sunscreens do prevent burning and protect against the formation of actinic keratoses—believed to be a precursor of one type of skin cancer—it hasn’t been proven to protect against melanoma or basal cell carcinoma—the most prominent forms.

Furthermore, a recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that topical vitamin A—a common ingredient in sunscreen—may speed the development of cancer. A one-year study by the FDA concluded that the tumors and lesions of lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream developed up to 21 percent sooner that the control group after both groups were exposed to nine minutes of maximum intensity sunlight daily.

Safe Alternatives
So what can you do to practice “safe sun?” Multiple studies have found a link between melanoma prevention and omega-3 oils. In fact, an Australian study yielded a 40 percent drop in melanoma among those who ate a regular diet of fish.

I recommend adding daily omega-3 rich Super-EPA (1-3 daily), and Flax Seeds or Chia Seeds (2-4 tablespoons) into your daily regime for a diet high in skin protective essential fatty acids.

In addition, many studies have suggested that increasing your intake of antioxidants is a very important strategy for preventing skin cancer and lessening the damage to skin caused by sun exposure. Take a broad-spectrum antioxidant like Oxi-Key and make sure your multi contains Beta Carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, Selenium, and Zinc. Proanthocyanidins found in cranberry juice, berries, pine bark, and grape seed extract are also top notch for skin health.

When you are purchasing and using sunscreen, choose one that contains zinc oxide. Zinc is a mineral helpful for skin health and healing. It is a key component of that old standby calamine lotion. As for titantium dioxide, the other commonly found ingredient in sunscreens these days, I’m really unsure. This is a strong chemical that is not “native” to the body.

Chemical sunscreens—such as those that contain benzophenone—work by absorbing UVB rays. Inert minerals—such as zinc oxide—work by reflecting UVA and UVB rays away from the skin instead of absorbing them. This difference makes physical sunscreens much safer to use than their chemical counterparts.

Whether you choose to use sunscreen or not, limit your exposure and always avoid getting burned. As the sun comes out and we venture back outside, start with a few minutes each day and slowly build up your tolerance.

Related Articles and Podcasts

Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, CNS, is an award-winning New York Times bestselling author of more than thirty books including The Fat Flush Plan series and her latest book, Radical Metabolism. She’s been rewriting the rules of nutrition for more than 40 years and is internationally recognized as a pioneer in the field of diet, detox and women’s health issues. 

For a FREE daily dose of tips and strategies for maintaining healthy weight, conquering insomnia, and much more…check out my Radical Health Tips.

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  1. Mary

    Dear Ann Louise,

    Your article mentions that topical vitamin A may speed the development of cancer. Would this include retinol? Many anti-aging treatments today contain this ingredient. Do you have any advice on this? Thanks for all the great info.

  2. Administrator

    Dear Mary: Retinol is fine.. The blog referes to a chemicalized version of Vitamin A that was synthetic and inflammatory.

  3. Marianne Leigh

    Oh, boy, Retinol! Be careful with that and the sun. It makes your skin cells ‘mature’ faster and give you a fresher look – but you are much more sensitive to the sun because your outer dead skin in thinner or non existent. You can burn in minutes. Ditto anything with glycolic acid, salicylic acid, etc. But in my experience, Retinol is the most sensitizing, followed by glycolic. BTW, I’m fair, blond with blue eyes. I do tan, though not as well as some people.

  4. Shellie Richter

    Suggestions for people with melasma? I hate wearing spf 85, but I don’t want it to get worse! Thanks so much!

  5. Sierra

    Shellie, I might suggest having your hormones tested with the Salivary Hormone test as sometimes melasma is brought on by hormone imbalance. You may be able to get some relief if you bring your hormones back into balance. Definitely use zinc oxide to keep yourself protected from all spectrums of light!

  6. Shellie Richter

    Thanks so much for your reply Sierra. I’ve been to an endocrinologist and was given a very snooty reply when calling for my test results, ” We would’ve called you if something was wrong!” Sigh. SOMETHING’S wrong when over half your face is covered, but a lot of Western medicine practicioners like to think they have all the answers. :)Would the saliva test would give different results than a blood test?
    I have seen the natural sunscreens in Whole Foods, but they are only for “moderate sun exposure.” I live in Vegas and, unfortunately, there’s nothing moderate about this place, ugh. I’ll try the natural sunscreens, keep wearing my big hats and try the saliva test. Thanks again for your help! Have a great day!

  7. Sierra

    Saliva tests are very accurate, as they show more than just the hormone levels that are circulating in your blood. And believe me- I understand your frustration with western medicine! I hear that Dr. Ann Louise’s new skin care line might include an all natural sunscreen, and until that’s available you should keep up what you’ve been doing! Good thing big sun hats are totally ‘in’ this season!! 🙂

  8. Sierra

    Ann, I would definitely recommend taking Oxi-Key, a great broad spectrum antioxidant. Flora-Key will also be helpful in fortifying your natural defenses!



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