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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  1. Thanks for all the great tips! We have been using California Baby sunscreen for years-not cheap ($20/bottle and we need enough to cover 5 people!). I always check in with EWG Skin Deep. They publish a list of safe sunscreens each year. California Baby has been high on the list.

  2. We have used and liked California Baby too. I like their product line in general. While out-of-town last summer, I dropped by Target to try to find a decent sunscreen. They were out of Cal Baby (which they usually carry -- yea!), so I got Johnson & Johnson's Baby Sunscreen Lotion SPF 40, which is also well-rated. Whenever we run out sunscreen, I check in with EWG too!

  3. Thanks for this well-informed post! I have used sunscreen morning, noon and night during spring, summer, fall and winter since I was a kid growing up in California and neither sunscreen nor sunblock (SPF 55+) has prevented the sun's rays from damaging my skin: burns, sunspots, wrinkles, the works. And I don't even have fair skin. In my experience, the best protection is to stay out of the sun and seek shade as often as your lifestyle permits, wear long sleeves (don't forget to cover up your decolletage unless you want a crepey turkey neck!) and wear a hat and sunglasses. I go so far as to wear sun protective gloves and scarves my mom brought me back from Japan. If you're not as wacky as I am, at least choose a physical sunblock with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which I've found to work better than chemical sunscreens. A little white sheen is better than even the smallest bit of cancer!

  4. The Outlaw Mom, you sound like you have some serious sun sensitivity. I hope you will be rewarded for your vigilance! I guess the Japanese know something about sun damage that escapes most Americans.

  5. I am redheaded and have fair skin that freckles and burns easily. I also live in Arkansas where it can get up to 115 in the late summer, so I often choose to just not go outside very often. But I know I can't hide indoors now that I have an 11-month-old. But, realistically, I can't wear long sleeves in the summer down here so I'll wear sunscreen. When I was a kid, I learned to reapply sunscreen every 30 minutes to an hour even if the bottle said I could go longer. And especially if I was swimming. I had no idea there could be harmful chemicals in sunscreen but it makes sense...I just never think about those things. I was looking at baby sunscreen at the store the other day and ended up not getting any but I was just wondering which type I should get, so thanks for the link to that list.

  6. Thanks for the good information. I have sensitive skin and I have never found a sunscreen I can tolerate, so this is good news to me. Have you ever visited the marks daily apple site? You may find it interesting.

  7. Great post! The first thing I thought of when I saw that picture was "I wish it was beach weather here!" (Maine) but then I also remembered just because it's not beach weather, doesn't mean it's safe to go without sunscreen! :)

  8. Hi Betsy,

    Thanks for this great post. For your knowledge, Badger makes a non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen that is in a base of certified organic ingredients. Though I'm sure the J&J sunscreen works well, have you peeked at the inactive ingredients? While they may get a decent score from the EWG, many of their ingredients raise red-flags, including "Aluminum Hydroxide" and "Alumina", both of which are suspected developmental toxins.

    Also, the EWG does not strictly regulate mineral listings, so there is no guarantee that the products do not contain nanoparticles. Most likely, if a mineral sunscreen applies clear (no white residue), it contains nanoparticles. Badgers average particle size is now 6,800nm - this is from independent lab testing.

    This is just some food for thought. As you mentioned, when choosing a sunscreen, it is best for individuals to do their own research. And, of course, I work for a natural sunscreen company - so I am biased! :)

    Badger Jentri

  9. I know that EWG very highly recommends Badger sunscreen, and I would be happy to try it. However, I have not found it to be widely available! I haven't even been able to buy it at my Whole Foods (I've looked, with my EWG list of recommended sunscreens in hand). I can attest to the fact that the Johnson & Johnson sunscreen I mention above goes on pasty white, which makes me believe there are no nanoparticles. While the ingredients may not be 100% ideal, they are passable for occasional use for me, and the sunscreen is widely available.

    Thanks for your comment!

  10. We got our Coolibar catalog ( yesterday, so I just wanted to mention that their UPF products are great for sun protection and they're from Australia, where they know a thing or two about keeping the sun's rays at bay! I'm not sure how eco-friendly the materials and manufacturing processes are, but the children's chlorine-resistant bucket hats save my children from getting burned in the California and Hawaii sun.

    The Outlaw Mom


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