Are Sunscreens Actually Bad for You?

The Green Mama on sunscreen use and other ways to protect your skin from the sun

The sunscreen question has left most parents flummoxed. I have researched this issue for many years, and I still find myself in ridiculous situations: running after a naked child, screaming threats, and waving a sunhat in one hand and full-body suits in another. So why are we so attached to sunscreens when many provide little or no full-spectrum sun protection and may even contain chemicals that are potential carcinogens? The answer: it's complicated, but you can protect yourself from the sun's harmful rays without compromising your family's health.

Biggest gripe: sunscreen labeling

Without having a degree in chemistry, it's nearly impossible for a parent to know what is truly safe and effective by reading the label on a sunscreen bottle. There are very few regulations regarding labeling of sunscreen in North America. While it is true that things are even worse in the US—where it has been decades since new sunscreen regulations have been in effect—parents in Canada don’t have it that much better. The same products on the shelf in the US are on the shelves in Canada, with the exception of a few additional products available here. And while there are numerous new ingredients now available in Europe and Japan for sun protection that are considered safer and more effective, they are banned entirely from the US markets and are either banned or hard to find in Canada.

Why are toxins allowed in sunscreen?

It’s a good question and one on which the governments of both countries have been relatively silent. Because sunscreen is considered a drug, it doesn’t have to label all of its ingredients and it takes longer to get newer (and sometimes safer) ingredients approved. Thus the "good ol'" products (which, it turns out, may not be so good) remain on the shelves. Not only that, the sunscreen (and the skin care industry in general) industry is notorious for misleading labeling: full-spectrum, water-proof, and “Safe for Baby!” have been routinely used by brands even after their products have been found to contain no UVA protection, wash off immediately upon contact with water (there is no such thing as truly water-proof sunscreen), and contain suspected carcinogens.

Isn't some sun protection better than nothing?

Can't you just slather them up with something and give them a good bath later? The answer, people, is no. In 2007, the FDA stated it was “not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” It gets worse: a 2007 meta-analysis found that in 17 out of 18 studies “there was no statistically significant effect of use of sunscreens on risk of melanoma.” According to the same research, in latitudes greater than 40 degrees of latitude north (i.e. all of Canada), 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.) The study specifically points out that common sunscreen formulations do absorb UVB rays almost completely, but allow transmission of large quantities of UVA. It is believed that this might be at the heart of why many sunbathers who cover up with sunscreen are at higher risk for developing melanoma skin cancer. The skin doesn’t get “burnt” because the burning UVB rays are blocked, but it still gets zapped by harmful radiation.

How can I safely protect my family from UVA?

The information is scary and the science inconclusive, but fortunately there are many ways to protect your skin and avoid sunscreens with questionable chemicals.

Look up your sunscreen

EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database rates cosmetic products for ingredient safety. If it doesn't rate, chuck it. Choose a better sunscreen that protects against UVA rays and doesn’t contain any of these ingredients: parfums/fragrances, nanoparticles, oxybenzone, parabens, PABA, retinyl (retinol) palmitate. A better bet is to go for barrier (physical) sunscreens that have a base of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Use protective clothing

Invest in a sun hat, consider sun protective bathing suits, and try out protective clothing with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating.

Eat your sunscreen! 

You can support skin health with your diet. Foods high in carotenoids provide natural sun protection. These include many fruits and vegetables, especially leafy dark greens and those that are yellow-orange like apricots, carrots, and yams. Other good sources include eggs, spirulina, and algae. The red pigment found in salmon, trout, and shrimp is another potent carotenoid.

Get your vitamin D

A fair-skinned person needs to spend about 15 minutes between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, with 85% of their body exposed for optimal vitamin D absorption (much more for a dark skinned person). Most people will not get enough vitamin D from sun or diet, so don’t rely on potentially risky sun exposure. Take a supplement instead.

Beware of sunscreens over 50 SPF

Most of these are disingenuous at best and are possibly loaded with even more of the most hazardous ingredients. It is better to use an SPF between 15 and 30 and reapply frequently and generously.

Do not use sunscreen on infants under 6 months

Their skin is super absorbent and even subtle exposures to their developing organs can have lasting effects. Furthermore, fair-skinned babies do not have melanin proteins for sun protection. Keep babies protected with shade and by dressing them in light clothing.

Avoid harmful chemicals

Fragrance or parfum

Considered trade secrets so even in Canada, where ingredients are supposed to be listed, dozens of chemicals—including suspected neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors—can be hidden behind these seemingly innocuous terms.

Nanoparticles

Micronized or nanoscale particles of minerals are often found in titanium or zinc-based sunscreens. These tiny particles are easily absorbed into the body and blood.

Oxybenzone

Found in almost all sunscreens, oxybenzone is an allergen and a potential endocrine disruptor. It is easily absorbed through the skin, particularly in children, and can interfere with hormone development.

Parabens

Parabens, such as methyl paraben and butyl paraben, are endocrine-disrupting chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen and are linked with reproductive disorders in boys and possibly cancers in women.

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)

Has mostly been phased out of sunscreens because of high incidence of allergic reactions in response to its use.

Retinol or retinyl palmitate

Found in many name-brand sunscreens, this form of vitamin A is photocarcinogenic and might actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.