Should I Use Sunscreen?

Can sunscreen actually do more harm than good?

Reader Contribution by Ellen Sandbeck
article image
by Pixabay/chezbeate

I’m confused about whether sunscreen is necessary to protect my skin, or if it might actually be bad for my health.

Sunscreen use is a complicated issue, so before we dive into recommendations, here are a few facts to keep in mind:

You Need Some Sun Exposure to Get Enough Vitamin D. Your body produces this essential vitamin whenever your bare skin is exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Unfortunately, as many as 32 percent of Americans have inadequate levels of vitamin D, which increases the risk of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Some researchers suggest that 5 to 30 minutes of direct sunlight at midday, twice a week, will give you enough vitamin D. However, many factors, including age, skin tone and latitude affect vitamin D production.

Sunscreen Alone Won’t Prevent Cancer. Sunscreen may protect your skin to some extent; however, the pain and blistering of sunburn serves as a warning that you are getting too much solar radiation. Thus, sunscreen may lull some people into complacency and overexposure to the sun. Some studies have found that frequent sunscreen use is actually associated with a higher incidence of malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

You Can’t Rely on the SPF Number. Sunscreen generally doesn’t perform as advertised, because most people don’t follow the application recommendations. Many of us don’t slather on enough sunscreen or reapply it often enough to reach advertised protection levels.

Some Sunscreen Ingredients May Be Harmful. Several common chemical UV-filters in sunscreens are hormone disrupters.

• Octyl-methoxycinnamate and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor interfere with thyroid hormone.

• Benzophenone-3, 3-Benzylidene camphor, Padimate O and homosalate are additional hormone disruptors commonly found in sunscreen.

Your Best Bets for Sun Protection

You don’t need sunscreen to protect yourself from excess sun. My fair, red-headed husband and I have been avid gardeners for more than three decades. We avoid overexposure to the sun by using large beach umbrellas and by wearing broad-brimmed sunhats, long pants, and light-colored, cotton long-sleeved shirts.

If you do opt for a sunscreen, check out the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen recommendations to find products with the fewest potentially harmful ingredients. A few of the group’s many recommended options include Aubrey Organics, Blue Lizard, and Badger sunscreens.

Finally, if you must spend long hours outdoors in the summer with exposed skin, consider astaxanthin supplements. This naturally occurring red pigment, which is found in marine plants and animals, absorbs UV rays, is a powerful antioxidant, and reduces the pain and inflammation caused by sunburn.

— Ellen Sandbeck, author of Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet

Photo by Spectrum Photofile