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Should I Use Sunscreen?

According to the FDA and the International Agency for Research on Cancer:

There’s no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer. (Source)


In addition, some research suggests that sunscreen use many even increase your chance of melanoma skin cancer.  Possible reasons for this startling finding include:
  • the fact that sunscreen users may stay out in the sun more
  • the release of free radicals as sunscreen chemicals break down in UV light
  • the poor UVA protection of almost all sunscreens on the market for the last 30 years (UVA rays can cause cancer but do not cause sunburn, so your exposure easily goes unnoticed)
Because both UV radiation and many common sunscreen ingredients generate free radicals that accelerate skin aging and cause skin cancer, if you use sunscreen improperly, you may be causing more harm than good.   According to EWG, "Most experts agree that people should use sunscreens to protect their skin from the sun, but they disagree widely on how well they actually work." Many experts now recommend clothing and shade, not sunscreen, as primary barriers from sun exposure.

Bottom Line:

Make sure your use of sunscreen does more good than harm.

If you use sunscreen, make sure you:
  1. Use it properly!  Apply an adequate amount (about a palmful or one ounce evenly over all exposed skin) every couple of hours and immediately after being in the water or sweating a lot.  Experts state that there is no such thing as a "waterproof" sunscreen.  
  2. Don't trust the FDA to set adequate sunscreen standards.  Just because a sunscreen is sold in stores does not guarantee that the sunscreen is safe or effective.  Do your own research.  
  3. Use a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays (broad spectrum).  This is not the norm for sunscreens in the U.S. (although it is the norm in Europe and elsewhere).
  4. Use sunscreens (listed under "active ingredients") with mineral or physical sunscreens, not chemical sunscreens which are potential hormone disruptors.  Mineral sunscreens such as titanium and zinc are stable in sunlight and do not appear to penetrate the skin.  If you want to be extra safe, avoid nanoparticles, which some believe have not been adequately tested for safety.
  5. Avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A found in two-fifths of U.S. sunscreens.  A National Institute of Health panel recently concluded that retinyl palmitate speeds the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.
  6. Use creams rather than sprays and powders (which can be inhaled).
  7. Avoid suncreens with other controversial ingredients.
  8. Don't believe claims of extremely high SPF.  No proof has been found that they are actually better (some brands even claim SPF over 100!).
  9. Make sure you get your vitamin D.  According to EWG, "Too little sun might be harmful, reducing the body’s vitamin D levels."  The American Medical Association recommends 10 minutes of direct sun (without sunscreen) several times a week, but other health organizations recommend supplement use instead.
  10. Even while using sunscreen, limit your amount of time in the sun (especially when the sun is at its strongest), utilize protective clothing (long sleeves, hats, sunglasses), and seek shade as well.  Be especially careful with infants in direct sunlight (sunscreen use is not recommended for infants under 6 months of age).  
I strongly recommend using EWG's Guide to the Best Sunscreens to help you choose a safe sunscreen (this is a simple way to accomplish numbers 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 in one fell swoop).

What do I do?  

We live in a sunny climate and try to spend an hour or two outside every day whenever weather permits.  I personally think a little sunshine is important for mental health.  For me and my kids, I choose to cover up with clothing and hats without sunscreen almost all of the time.  This is faster, simpler, and cheaper.  I also make this choice because I like to use very few personal products on my children, "natural" or not.

Long-sleeve, thicker, tightly woven, dark fabrics make the best barriers to UV radiation.  According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, "the easiest way to test if a fabric can protect your skin is to hold it up to the light. If you can see through it, then UV radiation can penetrate it – and your skin."  I do not use clothing with an SPF rating (which sometimes has chemical sunscreens applied to the fabric).  I don't worry about my kids getting a little sun because I want them to get some vitamin D.  We also use vitamin D supplements.

My children do have fairer skin, so I am vigilant about never letting them burn (childhood burns in particular are associated with elevated risk of skin cancer.  They are also super painful!).  When I know we will be outside in direct sunlight for an extended period of time (as on a day at the beach), I slather my kids up while they are still in their car seats, in addition to using protective clothing and putting up umbrellas for shade.

I use mineral sunscreens without nanoparticles.  With these sunscreens, you end up with a thin white film on your body that makes you look a bit ghostly. Some people dislike this.  I like knowing that my kids' sunscreen is sitting on top of their skin acting as a physical barrier to the sun and is not being absorbed into their skin cells.   I do not use sunscreen on babies under 6 months, even at the beach.  My infants are usually tucked inside a baby carrier in protective clothing while we are outside.  I wrote about a few of my sunscreen choices last year in this post.

Additional Resources

Environmental Working Group

Healthy Child Healthy World

Do you use sunscreen?

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