Your Sunscreen May Be Killing You
By John Nicely, PharmD
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, over the past 30 years, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. In fact, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime. Because of this, protecting our skin from the sun’s harmful rays by wearing sunscreen on a daily basis has been advertised heavily. Even some makeups now claim to offer protection from the sun’s UV rays.
As the years have gone by, it’s become very apparent that we need to be more concerned about the relationship between our skin and the sun, but is wearing sunscreen really the healthiest choice? There’s mounting evidence of a link between the ingredients in many sunscreens and skin cancer. Yes, that tonic you thought was going to protect you from getting cancer might actually be giving it to you instead. Let’s look at what sunscreens are, what they’re supposed to do, and most of all what they might actually be doing.
Sunscreens are supposed to block both UVA and UVB sunrays. UVA rays are associated with skin damage such as wrinkling, while UVB rays are associated with melanomas and other skin cancers.
Unfortunately, while sunscreens block harmful UV rays from our skin, they also block our absorption of vitamin D from the sun’s rays. Vitamin D is essential for our synthesis of cholesterol. (Cholesterol is not a bad substance; it is needed for steroid and hormone formation. The cholesterol that we consume by mouth in fats is what can give our hearts and arteries issues.)
Over 1,500 brands of sunscreen are available. The sunscreen industry is huge — worth billions of dollars annually. It rose to mega-profitability when the link between skin cancer and overexposure to the sun was discovered in the late 1960s/early 70s. Despite the increased use of sunscreen since then, however, incidences of skin cancer continue to rise.
An investigation by the Environmental Working Group of over 1,500 sunscreens and other sun-blocking products currently on the market found that three out of five sunscreens don’t protect skin from sun damage, contain hazardous chemicals — or both.
Take a look at this partial list of ingredients that can be found in many sunscreen lotions:
- Aminobenzoic acid — carcinogen implicated in cardiovascular disease
- Avobenzone — carcinogen
- Cinoxate — evidence of skin toxicity
- Dioxybenzone — strong evidence of skin toxicity and carcinogen, hormone disruptor, has been shown to have a “gender bender” effect in animals
- Diazolidinyl urea — carcinogen, endocrine, central nervous system and brain effects, skin toxicity and compromises the immune system
- Ecamsule — carcinogenic
- Homosalate — endocrine disruption
- Methylparaben — interferes with genes
- Octocrylene — found to be persistent and bioaccumulative in wildlife, liver issues and carcinogenic
- Octyl methoxycinnamate — accumulates in the body, disrupts liver and is a carcinogen
- Octyl salicylate — broad systemic effects in animals at moderate doses
- Oxybenzone — carcinogen and contributor to vascular disease
- Padimate O — carcinogen
- Phenylbenzimidazole — carcinogen
- Phenoxyethanol — irritant, carcinogen, endocrine disruption
- Sulisobenzone — strong evidence of skin toxicity, affects sense organs in animals
- Titanium dioxide — carcinogen when in nanomaterial form
- Zinc Oxide — bioaccumulative in wildlife, evidence of reproductive toxicity
Please do not purchase sunscreens with any of the above ingredients.
Millions of gallons of sunscreen are consumed each year. After application, it doesn’t mysteriously vanish; it winds up either soaking into our bodies and accumulating there, or it is excreted or washed off into the environment. Does it make any sense that in order to prevent skin cancer, we need to slather on carcinogenic compounds and chemicals that interfere with our immune and reproductive systems and also pose a risk to the environment?
No studies have proven that sunscreen helps protect against melanomas. Researchers have, however, proven that the ingredients used to make sunscreen are carcinogenic. A carcinogen is any substance, radionuclide or radiation by-product that is an agent directly involved in causing cancer. In other words, some sunscreens could actually give you cancer and cause other health and environmental issues.
“If the sun’s rays are harmful to me,” you might be asking, “am I just supposed to stay inside all the time?” No. Here are some safe options, provided by Sunwarrior, a superfood company.
Wear clothing. Clothes are the best sunblock. They absorb or reflect sunlight and keep your skin safe.
Eat well. Eating foods rich in healthy fats and antioxidants helps protect your skin from damage, including UV damage. That means you should reach for dark, colorful fruits and vegetables that contain carotenoids and other powerful antioxidants. Also eat nuts, seeds, coconut oil, avocados, sea vegetables, and microalgae for the best omega fatty acids and even some healthy saturated fats.
Take astaxanthin. This antioxidant is also a carotenoid. It is more powerful than vitamin C, vitamin E, or CoQ10. It protects our skin from solar injuries and even helps prevent DNA from being damaged by UV rays. It is literally a bit of sunscreen in a pill, but it also protects the heart, brain, joints and eyes.
Apply some red raspberry seed oil, wheat germ oil, or sesame oil. Red raspberry seed oil is one of the best seed-oil sunscreens. It averages between 28–50 SPF and blocks the troublesome UVB rays. Wheat germ oils are naturally moisturizing while touting an SPF of 20. Sesame oil blocks 30% of sunlight, letting you stay in the sun longer without burning. Apply it every hour or two if you plan to be out longer.
Use some coconut oil. Coconut oil blocks about 20% of the sun’s rays. That means you can enjoy the sun 20% longer than normally without getting burned. That’s not really much longer, so don’t think you’re covered for hours. You are more likely to tan and keep your tan with coconut oil in shorter, half hour or so bursts. It also moisturizes skin, lessens inflammation, and smooths out blemishes while it limits solar damage. Coconut oil works even more if you take it internally too. It fights inflammation from the inside and contributes to the healthy production of vitamin D.
Apply aloe vera. Aloe is often used after a sunburn to sooth hot, angry skin. It works beforehand too by blocking out about 20% of sunlight, like coconut oil.
Buy “natural” sunscreens. Check the labels. Many companies are offering some healthier options when it comes to sun protection.
Let common sense be your guide. It’s best to limit your sun exposure during peak periods of day — between 10 a.m and 4 p.m., depending on Daylight Saving Time. If you can, cover up. For exposed areas, pick a safe sunscreen and lather and re-lather (at least every two hours or after sweating or swimming). And understand that light skinned people burn more quickly and more severely than dark pigmented people.
A burned body is not a healthy body.
About the author:
John Nicely is Advent Christian Village’s pharmacist at the Village Pharmacy in Copeland Medical Center. He received his Doctorate of Pharmacy (PharmD) in Clinical Pharmacy from the University of Colorado School of Pharmacy. John has practiced pharmacy in Dowling Park since 2006.
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