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Sunscreen: To Use, or Not to Use?

admin April 25, 2010

Sunscreen.

Now that it’s getting warm outside (which is super awesome!), if you happen to find yourself in the middle of any given group of mothers, you’ll find them obsessively slathering their little ones with sunscreen before they go out to play.  After all…we wouldn’t want them to get any sunburns!

I would not be one of those mothers, however.

So far we’ve gone to the zoo three times and the park several and have spent several hours in a row outside many days in a row.  I’ve gotten a little color here and there.  But my kids?  Nothing.  No tans, no burns at all.  And that’s being outside in the middle of the day, full sun, whenever possible.  And NO sunscreen.

Why do people use sunscreen?  What’s in it?  Are there times that warrant it?  Are there times that don’t?  Let’s look at some major points that might answer some of these questions.

Worries About Sunburns and Skin Cancer

It’s true: these days, rates of skin cancer are through the roof.  Experts blame too much sun exposure and suggest using more sunscreen.  In fact, they point to tanning, repeated sunburns, and overall sun exposure as the primary causes of cancer.  Some suggest putting sunscreen on every single morning as part of your beauty routine, and to never even walk to the mailbox without it.

Then WHY are skin cancer rates much higher among people who work 40 hours a week in office jobs than in people who are lifeguards?  Why did people who worked 12-hour days in the fields 100 years ago not get skin cancer?  Why was sun exposure really not a problem — until now? 

Some say it’s the hole in the ozone layer, but that just doesn’t add up, considering it’s not located over the area in which most of us live.  According to the CDC, some of the states with highest skin cancer rates are Connecticut, Vermont, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon…some of the states with least sun exposure (based on seasonal temperature shifts).  Comparatively, Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Mississippi and others had relatively low rates of sun exposure, despite having moderate temperatures year around, allowing people more sun exposure.

Why would southern states have lower rates of skin cancer if sun exposure causes it?  It’s not as simple as that, but sun exposure does not equal skin cancer.  Death rates from skin cancer were also higher in northern states vs. southern states.  In fact, rates of other cancers show a similar pattern!  Lack of sun exposure seems to be correlated more highly with rates of cancer than does too much.

Vitamin D Deficiency Has Become Rampant

On the other hand, as we’ve used more and more sunscreen, vitamin D deficiency has increased sharply.  (So have cancer rates in general, by the way.)  Some children are actually getting Ricketts again, a disease in which bones are weak from a lack of vitamin D and actually begin to bend.

For this reason, the AAP increased the recommended vitamin D amount per day from 200 IU to 400 IU for children about a year ago.  Of course, the best source of vitamin D, and the safest, is the sun — not any supplement.  Most people in this country are vitamin D deficient now.  Ideal levels are around 60 – 80 ng/mL, but many people now are only in the 20 – 30 ng/mL range, some even lower.

Ricketts isn’t the only concern.  Osteoporosis, all forms of cancer, and generally lowered immune system (meaning more colds, flus, etc.) are also related to insufficient vitamin D.  Low levels of vitamin D are why people are sick more in the winter, when they are not exposed to sunlight very often.

It’s also interesting to note that even the AAP acknowledges that sunscreenprevents the formation of vitamin D in the skin.”  So if you are taking your children outside frequently but always using sunscreen, they are not getting any vitamin D!  (But ignore the part about sun causing cancer, they have no evidence of that, nor do they provide any links to studies!)

Toxic Sunscreen Ingredients

What’s in sunscreen, anyway?  Here is a list of ingredients in popular brands:

· Cinnamates
· OMC (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
· Ethylhexyl p-Methoxycinnamate
· Salicylates
· OCS (Octyl Salicytate)
· Homomenthyl Salicylate
· Triethanolamine
· PABA (Para Aminobenzoic Acid)
· Padimate O
· Padimate A
· Glyceryl Aminobenzoate
· Octyl Dimethyl Paba
· Octocrylene
· Zinc Oxide
· Titanium Oxide

 

The sunscreen ingredients that are used to absorb UVA radiation include:

 

· Benzoophenones
· Oxybenzone
· Dioxybenzone
· Avobenzone

So what’s the problem?  Many of these ingredients are known to cause cancer Your skin is a big sponge, and anything you put on it is going to be absorbed right into your body.  These chemicals have been shown to cause all forms of dysfunction in your cells.

Sunscreens have also been linked to increases in asthma, allergies, and ADHD.  The Environmental Working Group completed a study about sunscreen safety and found that many were absorbed into the skin, didn’t protect, contained harmful chemicals, or otherwise weren’t what they were supposed to be — 84% of them!

Long Sun Exposures

Sometimes, you will be outside all day, and there’s the possibility you will get burned just from sheer length of exposure.  The best idea is to stay outside only until you begin to turn light pink, then go inside.  However, what if you’re at a beach vacation or another special event?  In these cases, some sun protection is warranted.

Long, loose clothing and hats with wide brims are a good idea to protect against the sun without any chemicals.  Coconut oil, aloe vera, and certain essential oils or plant compounds have been shown to help protect your skin from the sun. A note of caution, a lot of essential oils increase photo sensitivity, or sun sensitivity, and can cause sunburn, so don’t use one without plenty of research and/or consulting a professional.  If you need a sunscreen, there are some better options.

Safer Sunscreens

The safest sunscreen brands are UV Natural #1 (according to EWG), and Badger (from my experience).  Although I have not used any sunscreen myself in several years nor ever on my children, I do own Badger brand.  Its active ingredient is only zinc oxide, which is completely safe, and its inactive ingredients are okay too.

Some say that titanium dioxide is also safe (Burt’s Bees brand contains both this and zinc oxide as active ingredients).  These creams produce a barrier against the sun and are thicker, greasier, and often show up as white on the skin, so they’re not as “attractive” to use, but they are much safer.

Do you use sunscreen?  Which brands?  Will this information change your sunscreen habits?

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39 Comments

  1. We are becoming more aware of Vitamin D deficiencies everyday. My father was diagnosed with severe VitD deficiency and is taking mongo supplement now. I’ve been reading on the net more and more about it, and we’ve switched our sunblock use to being out long-term. My family is very fair skinned and we don’t tan well – we burn. So for us, sunblock is for those days when we’re going to be exposed for long periods of time, and it’s sunburn prevention more than anything. Sunburns for us are painful..and we’d prefer not to have that pain. But if we’re out playing for the afternoon or gardening, we generally don’t use it unless we’re going to be in one position for a very long time (such as when we put a deck on our house last week, and we had our backs to the sun for hours as we were building. That would’ve left us with pretty bad burns that day. But we do expose for a while before we put on block.
    Did I ramble much there? I completely agree with your assessments.

    Reply

  2. Ahh, sunscreen…I hate it. When I was a kid, my mom just had us wear shirts in our pool because sunscreen clogs up the filter (well, the diatemaceous earth, but still, it’s a kind of filter). It worked fine and we were always popping under the water and back up again so we never got too bad of burns on our faces. Then I moved to the south.

    The sun is a TON more direct down here than in Ohio; three weeks ago I went to the zoo and was outside for a good two hours or so. I didn’t put on any sunscreen because I really just forgot about it. My arms from my sleeves down were very burned. Not to the point of blisters, but they took about two weeks for the burn to start peeling and they’re actually still peeling now. When we went to the beach last weekend I reapplied SPF 50 twice and didn’t get a burn.

    I think the thing I’ve realized is that if you expose yourself to sun regularly (even down in the south). I’m outside every afternoon for about an hour, doing all sorts of stuff for work. I’m wearing long sleeves and pants but my face is exposed. That sun exposure on my face is why at the zoo my face didn’t get burned like it usually would have. I’m focusing on getting out in the sun more regularly without sunscreen so that I’ll be a bit more immune to the burning effects of the sun. I doubt whether I’ll be able to do the beach without sunscreen at all (white sand beaches give you twice the burning effect than normal life, plus the water’s reflective also) but it would be cool. At least I hope that I can swim in the pool without sunscreen at some point. I hate putting it on because I know I end up eating some of it because it’s on my hands, and it’s just…ugh.

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  3. I completely agree with you on the Vitamin D deficiency being a HUGE problem. A Vitamin D expert in my department (Nutritional Sciences) recently told us at a seminar that he recommends vitamin D supplements over sun exposure. I was irate – this Vitamin D expert is ignoring a known fact – the best Vitamin D source is sun exposure!

    Reply

  4. We use sunscreen if we’re going to be out, on a hot and completely sunny day, for hours. A beach trip, for instance. If we go to the park or the zoo for a couple of hours in the morning, we don’t bother…we bring a baseball cap for Cam, in case his head gets hot. Afternoon play is a little different…if we’re out at 2pm, sitting in the sandbox for an hour or two, I might put it on him…but only after a half hour of being uncovered.

    We are pretty fair-skinned people, and definitely burn if we’re out too long in intense sun. BUT Cam’s pediatrician even said…if WE aren’t using sunscreen, he probably doesn’t need it, either. He also recommended letting him go uncovered at least a half hour before applying sunscreen.

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  5. Along with building up a tolerance to the rays of the sun, diet can affect how quickly you burn. If the fats in your skin are mostly polyunsaturated, you are much more likely to burn. Coconut oil taken internally can protect you against sunburn. Saturated fats in the skin are much less prone to sunburn. So eat your coconut oil, your butter and your grass fed beef. Like all matters dietary, it can take many months to replace the fats your skin is made of with those resistant to sunburn.

    For vitamin D, exposing 85% of your skin, until it is just pink is necessary to get optimum vitamin D. In colder climates in Winter, it may not be possible to get all your vitamin D from the sun and vitamin D rich foods should be eaten.

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  6. One other note: if I’m out long enough to get pink, I’ll be burned and peeling by the end of the night, even if I go inside out of the sun immediately at that moment. I’m sure I’m not the only one like that, either. I don’t mind getting a little sun-kissed, but the amount of burn I’ll have at that point would be hard to take.

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  7. Forgot one thing still…sorry. The more hydrated you are at the time of and after the burn, the less severe it will be. If you continually drink water (preferably) while out in the sun and afterwards, your burn will be nothing like if you drink alcohol or don’t drink anything at all.

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  8. I have never used sunscreen and have only burned twice in my life – both times on 12+ hours of early spring sun after long winters spent inside with no exposure. With my god-kids I use sunscreen if their parents request it. I will not use sunscreen on my children unless their are very fair skinned – then I will use aloe vera. Natural is better and we are meant to be in the sun. Thankfully we have surgeons to treat the few who are susceptible to melanoma.

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  9. You can take Vitamin D supplements. You die from melanoma.

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  10. Anon,

    Show me the data that says synthetic vit D supplements are as effective as sunlight, AND that the sun has been actually proven to cause melanoma (which, interestingly enough, occurs FAR more often in office workers than lifeguards…) and I'll consider your position.

    Reply

  11. I am one of those very fair skinned people who burn easily. It used to be I could take about an hour of sun exposure where I grew up in Oregon before I had to think about it. Since then I've moved to Colorado at altitude and it makes a huge difference. On a nice day even in the winter I burn in half an hour or less. So while I don't use sunscreen normally, if I know I am going to be out I put it on. I go for the zinc oxide sunscreens with the least nasty ingredients and then I always add a few drops of bergamot essential oil. I've found it extends the life of my sunscreen and the chances that I tan through the sunscreen rather than burn through it are much higher.

    Reply

  12. I can speak from experience on several levels. First, two of our three children have red hair, one also has blue eyes. She does not get a sunburn, she blisters – badly. She does use sunscreen, but first we had to find one that she could actually use because she had reactions to all that we had tried (rashes that lasted for days and even weeks afterward). Second, I am a melanoma survivor. 11 years this month! I use sunscreen along with my whole family, but we don't go overboard. I use a foundation on my face that has spf20, and I use a spray on my arms, neck, and other exposed areas, but only if I'm going to be in direct sunlight for about 30 minutes or more. Most of the time if I'm going to be in the sun for an extended time, like a water park or ball game, I will wear a long sleeve UPF shirt. We live in Texas, so it's not like we can tolerate a lot of direct sunlight anyway (triple digits today). When I was diagnosed with melanoma 11 years ago, our youngest son was 1. Thankfully, they caught it early enough that it was treatable, but it is scary when the specialist tells you that you have about 3 months to get everything completely taken care of or it will probably be too late. I believe there is a time to be safe, and you should wear UVA/UVB protective sunglasses, hat to protect your face, and sunscreen. I also believe the sun is our best source of vitamin D, and my doctor told me that I can get my dose in about 15 minutes of sunlight daily.

    Reply

  13. Sharing buttons on your blog would make it much easier for us to share your great post. 🙂

    Reply

    • Amanda, I do have sharing buttons. There are ones for Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and StumbleUpon at the bottom of each post. 🙂 Do they not work?

      Reply

  14. Do you have any posts on how a healthy diet can prevent sunburn?

    Reply

  15. Thanks for the post! This is such an important message and a great example of how we can’t always trust public information to give us the most accurate advice – we often need to delve a little deeper!

    I also wanted to share this on facebook as I’m on our school governing council where we just made hats optional for cooler weather due to vitamin D deficiency….and yet…the kids are taught to lather themselves with sunscreen first thing in the morning which the school supplies. We are really keen to get the message out to other mothers that sunscreen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be!

    Reply

  16. Lifeguards & people who live closer to the equator may have lower rates of skin cancer because they never get sunburn. If that is a true statistic, it doesn’t follow that sunburns don’t cause cancer. The skin is not a sponge, God actually designed it as a protective barrier. I’m not implying that no molecules get through the skin barrier but if it were a sponge, we would swell with excess water after showering or bathing.

    Reply

    • Rachel,

      The skin does, in fact, absorb everything and it does get into our bloodstream. We don’t swell with water because our bodies are already pretty saturated. But that wrinkling your skin does in the bath? That’s because the bath has drawn water OUT of your skin. The skin is definitely permeable! It’s a “barrier” in some ways, but not against lotions and creams, just against things like rocks or sticks. People who live closer to the equator don’t get skin cancer because their vitamin D levels optimized, not because they never get sunburns.

      Reply

  17. Earlier this summer, we picked up a sunscreen to use on my then 21 month old. It’s active ingredients were some variant of the Benzoophenones, Oxybenzone, Dioxybenzone, and Avobenzone that you mentioned in your post. Within 30 minutes of application and being outside, my sons cheeks, ears and bridge of his nose actually blistered. It took weeks to heal and even then he had two more secondary reactions after sun exposure before his face fully and completely healed. We at first thought it was an allergic reaction to something in the sunscreen. We eventually found a sunscreen that isn’t fully of those same chemicals that he didn’t react to. Seventh Generations Baby Sunscreen. We visited a dermatologist after the third breakout where he was diagnosed with a mild sun allergy. They completely dismissed any connection to the original sunscreen. I’ve since read about how some skin reactions are triggered by the skin’s exposure to a chemical and then sunlight – sunscreen can be one of these chemicals. I am convinced that the original sunscreen caused my son’s problems, but I can’t be completely sure of that until next spring when we can see if he reacts similarly again. I do use the seventh generation sunscreen on his face and he wears a hat to protect the previously damaged skin to give it ample time to completely heal, but I don’t use sunscreen on him anywhere else on a daily basis. I would use protective clothing over sunscreen if we were going to be out for a prolonged period of high sun. He is very fair and does pink easily, as am/do I (natural red head here.) Completely separate from an possible cancer occurrence, sunburns just aren’t fun.

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  18. While tedious, I now make my own sunscreen/sunblock. I’ve tried it all over the world with fantastic success and I have fair skin that burns easily. It’s also water repellant so it lasts a long time without the need to reapply every hour. I also live in Australia where the UVA & UVB indexes are VERY high (12-20 on an average day) without problems.

    My (copyrighted) recipe is here:

    Jules’ Sunscreen Recipe

    Ingredients

    -30ml Raspberry Seed Oil (SPF 30-50 when used as 12%)
    -30ml melted beeswax (adds waterproof properties)
    -30ml melted butter blend (i.e. Shea butter is best but can also use mango butter, or cocoa butter etc)
    -1 teaspoon vitamin E oil (natural preservative – choose “d-alpha Tocopherol” ONLY as any other wording is synthetic and won’t work as a preservative)
    -8g zinc oxide powder
    -1 small pinch of Xanthan Gum or Guar Gum (thickener)
    -30 drops essential oils or fragrance oils, optional, see below for the best ones in sunscreen

    Method
    1. Gather ingredients and kitchen tools. 
    2. In a double boiler, over low heat, melt the oils, beeswax, and butters. Alternatively use the microwave in small bursts until melted.
    3. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly prior to adding the vitamin E oil, zinc oxide powder, xanthan gum and essential oils. Note: Wear a mask when working with oxides. Although it has not been proven harmful when used topically, inhaling the substances can be dangerous.
    4. Stir until zinc oxide is dissolved.
    5. Pour into a push-up/roll-up dispenser or similar container. This recipe will produce a product similar to a lotion bar or sunscreen stick. You could also put it in a small sealed container and use it like a balm.
    6. Allow to cool and harden on the bench overnight and then you’re good to go! 

    During times of heavy sun and swim exposure be sure to reapply often for the best coverage.

    Notes
    -This recipe contains zinc oxide at 12% which gives it an approximate SPF of around 10-12. 20% would give SPF 30
    -Raspberry Seed Oil has an approximate SPF of 30-50 if applied properly and regularly.
    -Beneficial, sun protecting essential oils include lavender, myrrh, carrot seed oil, and peppermint. Be VERY careful about using other essential oils as some can actually be harmful to you in sunlight (like most citrus based oils). If in doubt, use Fragrance Oils instead like Coconut.
    -Don’t shun the sun completely! Our fear of the sun has precipitated a societal vitamin D deficiency that is unfortunately taking us by storm — potentially producing an increase rate of cancers, autism, asthma, heart disease, and mental illness, just to name a few. 
    -You could use 20ml Raspberry Seed Oil along with 10ml of Neem Oil to repel bugs, insects and other biting creatures as well as protecting you from harmful UVB rays.

    Reply

  19. Wearing sunscreen is not a question in my house, it is a must. I, as well as my daughter are natural redheads. I can get pink in as few as 15 minutes. As a child I had several bad burns from not using enough sunscreen. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. I think it is very bad advice to suggest that people do not use sunscreen. Tell them to be smart about it for sure (I only use Badger sunscreen), but do not suggest that they do not need it.

    Reply

    • I am also a natural redhead, and my kids are blonde and all very fair-skinned. I burned easily and badly as a child too, including having a few burns bad enough to blister. But I still don’t put sunscreen on my kids and no, they have never burned. I don’t consider it bad advice at all to suggest that people may not need sunscreen. Everyone is different, but think about it carefully. I don’t burn anymore either, since I changed my diet.

      Reply

  20. We use it only if at an outdoor pool or on the beach, and only if out between 9:30 am and 4 pm; if we go to the pool it is usually after 3:30 or 4pm, so then no sunscreen; we are all fair skinned and very susceptible to burning (My last vit D level was just above the normal range and I still burn pretty easily), especialy in and around water. For everyday play outside, sporting events, yard work, etc. we do not use sunscreen unless it there is absolutely no shade available for hours. Since we use it so infrequently, I use regular commercial sunscreen, usually an SPF 30, any higher than that I am not convinced it really makes any difference.

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  21. As a redhead and the mom of a redhead I find it a little irresponsible that you are telling people to not use sunscreen. I start to burn within 15 minutes of being outside. I wear hats and try to stay in the shade but I still need sunscreen. I don’t believe that using sunscreen is a one size fits all advice. Some need it more than others but the bottom line is that it is needed. Maybe more time should be spent educating people on safer sunscreens.

    Reply

    • I am also a redhead, and I used to burn badly — I don’t anymore. Everyone has a different situation but I don’t think it’s irresponsible to encourage people to think about whether or not they really need sunscreen. It is often related to diet. I believe a lot of people really don’t need it, in many situations!

      Reply

  22. We use zinc oxide on ears, nose and neck to prevent severe burns (we spend lots of time outdoors) but otherwise do not use sunscreen. If we don’t wish to tan or burn, we cover up. And always wear sunglasses. Simple as that. I now live in Washington State, but grew up in Arizona and southern California. We never used sunscreen, we put on a t-shirt and a hat. Common sense. I have sunburned only twice in my life I can remember. Once as a kid and once as a teen.

    Reply

  23. My ND told me that if we take our CLO on a daily basis, then the fat stores in our skin will protect us. I naturally tan also as do my kids. My husband burns but is stubborn and won’t listen to me.

    Reply

  24. Please write a post on diet and sunburns. I’m fascinated by the fact that your children don’t get sunburns. I’d love to learn more!!

    Reply

  25. I use The Honest Company sunscreen on my 10 month old.

    Reply

  26. I have fair skin and have been using jojoba and coconut oil as my sunscreen for years. I live in south Florida and my body craves the sun!

    Here’s another super healthy tool I’ve used: After I’d been indoors all winter and couldn’t even walk outside without burning, I started drinking a big glass of carrot juice every day. The orange color gives the skin a beta-carotene protection, not to mention the internal anti-oxidant protection. And no, your skin will not turn orange. Just be sure your juice comes from organic carrots, as carrots absorb a lot of pesticides from the soil.

    Also, btw, even though the zinc oxide may not be toxic for our bodies, it is toxic for the life in the oceans and lakes we swim in.

    Reply

  27. I forgot to mention: after 2-3 weeks of daily carrot juice I was able to walk outside without burning. Hurrah!

    Reply

  28. […] long. You can get up to 10,000 IU from the sun in 20 minutes. Just keep in mind that sunscreen is NOT  something you want to put on before hand. Your body cannot absorb the vitamin D with it […]

    Reply

  29. […] Do not use sunscreen!!  This is especially important if your time in the sun is limited.  (On an all-day trip, there are some safer alternatives to common sunscreens.)  SPF 8 reduces 95% of the UVB rays, and anything higher completely eliminates them.  You will not synthesize vitamin D if you are wearing sunscreen while outside.  Do not use it unless absolutely necessary (such as on a beach trip), and then only apply after a couple hours outside.  Loose, light clothing is a good alternative on such trips too. […]

    Reply

  30. […]  Getting some sun to get your vitamin D levels up (including sunning your stomach) and definitely skipping the sunscreen aren’t bad options, […]

    Reply

  31. […] the dangers of chemical sunscreen become more and more known, many of us are trying to cut back on our sunscreen use. Here are a few […]

    Reply

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I’m Kate, mama to 5 and wife to Ben.  I love meeting new people and hearing their stories.  I’m also a big fan of “fancy” drinks (anything but plain water counts as ‘fancy’ in my world!) and I can’t stop myself from DIY-ing everything.  I sure hope you’ll stick around so I can get to know you better!

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