Sunscreen: I never thought….

Sunscreen: I never thought….

I’m sure everyone has experienced it one way or another. You know, mumbling those famous words:  “I never thought…” The words that come when you look at your life and see how your life is different than you imagined it would be. I feel this way often, especially when I look at my approach to food, health, and parenting:

I never thought I’d spend so much time in the kitchen cooking.

I never thought I’d be making my own shampoo, laundry detergent, or toothpaste.

I never thought I’d want a home birth (or a natural birth, for that matter).

And I never thought I’d be writing a post about why you may want to reconsider your sunscreen.

Nope, never thought it.

The thing is I grew up fearing the sun. As a very (very) fair-skinned individual I’ve always been very (very) cautious about the sun’s rays. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time outdoors and was religious about sunscreen.

I mean, why wouldn’t I be?

Every health practitioner will tell you to use it. Heck, even the beauty world tells you it should be your #1 go-to product. After all, sunscreen will save us from sun damage… you know, the stuff that causes wrinkles and premature aging. (I mean, who wants skin like leather?) And of course, the number one reason to use sunscreen is to avoid skin cancer.

I sure don’t want skin cancer.

But like so many things in life that slowly move us to a place we “never thought we’d be in,” I started wondering about this societal ritual of slathering on a chemically-saturated cream. And for the past few years some nagging questions have been circling around in my mind:

How long has sunscreen been around?

Has sunscreen decreased skin cancer rates?

What did people do before sunscreen?

These questions pushed me into research mode and I found some answers that were really surprising:

How long has sunscreen been around?

The first effective sunscreen may have been developed by chemist Franz Greiter in 1938. The first widely used sunscreen was produced by Benjamin Green, an airman and later a pharmacist, in 1944. (1)

1938? 1944? Uh… that wasn’t that long ago.

And when you think about the fact that for centuries most people worked and lived in the sun (way more than we do), it makes me wonder: Were they all dying of skin cancer? My guess: probably not.

Has sunscreen really decreased skin cancer rates?

Turns out my guess was right. In fact, skin cancer is at an all time high. So is sunscreen use. The AMA once quietly (but definitively) admitted that an increased use of sunscreen is correlated with an increased incidence of skin Cancer.

Did you catch that? Let me repeat:

The American Medical Association admitted that an increased use of sunscreen is correlated with an increased incidence of skin cancer!!

In fact, several epidemiological studies indicate an increased risk of malignant melanoma for the sunscreen user (5 – 12).

Of course, the AMA weaseled their way around the controversy by trying to convince people that it was due to the fact that those who use sunscreen spend more time in the sun. (Uh huh, sure.) So what is their recommendation? Wear more cancer causing sunscreen (2).

Consider the following:

  • Sunscreen chemicals cannot adapt to the rays of the sun the way your skin can (through melanin). Therefore, the penetration of sunscreen ingredients into the lower layers of the skin increases the amount of free radicals and reactive oxygen species (3). Remember how I talked about free radicals before? Not good.
  • In a 2006 study, the amount of harmful reactive oxygen species (ROS) was measured in untreated (sunscreen free) and in sunscreen-treated skin. The first 20 minutes the sunscreen skin seemed to have a protective effect and the number of ROS species was smaller. But after 60 minutes so much sunscreen had been absorbed into the skin that the amount of ROS was higher in the sunscreen-treated skin verses the untreated skin (3).
  • An analysis carried about by George Zachariadis and E Sahanidou of Aristotle University found that their tests consistently revealed the presences of elements not cited in the product’s ingredient list a list that already contains toxic elements (4).
  • Adverse health effects may be associated with some synthetic compounds in sunscreens. In 2007 two studies by the CDC highlighted concerns about the sunscreen chemical oxybenzone (benzophenone-3). They first detected the chemicals in greater than 95% of 2000 Americans tested, while the second found that mothers with high levels of oxybenzone in their bodies were more likely to give birth to underweight baby girls (13, 14).

Wait! That’s not all!

Artificial sunscreen has another major problem: it decreases vitamin D synthesis (15). Why is this a problem? Well, consider what vitamin D does:

  • Vitamin D is important in regulating the levels of minerals such as phosphorous and calcium.
  • It is can help prevent and treat rickets
  • It’s used for treating weak bones, bone pain, and bone loss
  • Vitamin D is used for conditions of the heart and blood vessels, including high blood pressure
  • It is also used to help diabetes, obesity, muscle weakness, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, bronchitis, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), and tooth and gum disease
  • Some people use vitamin D for skin conditions like, psoriasis and lupus vulgaris.
  • It is also used for boosting the immune system, preventing autoimmune diseases, and preventing cancer (16).

In other words:

Sunscreen has been correlated with an increase of cancer while at the same time acting as a barrier for the natural absorption of Vitamin D (from the sun) which has been shown to help prevent cancer.

So that leads me to my final question: What did people do before sunscreen? Here’s my follow-up post for ideas on how to have a healthy relationship with the sun without spending money on cancer-causing toxins.

 

Sources:

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunscreen
  2. http://180degreehealth.com/2007/10/derma-dharma
  3. Hanson, KM; Gratton, E; Bardeen, CJ (2006). “Sunscreen enhancement of UV-induced reactive oxygen species in the skin”.Free Radical Biology and Medicine 41 (8): 1205–12.doi:10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2006.06.011PMID 17015167.
  4. David Bradley (August 15). “Toxic sunscreen testing”.Http://www.spectroscopynow.com/coi/cda/detail.cda?id=22103&type=Feature&chId=1&page=1 year=2009.
  5. Garland C, Garland F, Gorham E (04/01/1992). “Could sunscreens increase melanoma risk?”. Am J Public Health 82 (4): 614–5.doi:10.2105/AJPH.82.4.614PMC 1694089PMID 1546792.
  6. Westerdahl, J.; Ingvar, C.; Masback, A.; Olsson, H. (2000). “Sunscreen use and malignant melanoma”. International journal of cancer. Journal international du cancer 87 (1): 145–50.doi:10.1002/1097-0215(20000701)87:1<145::AID-IJC22>3.0.CO;2-3PMID 10861466.
  7.  Autier, P.; Dore, J. F.; Schifflers, E.; Al, et; Bollaerts, A; Koelmel, KF; Gefeller, O; Liabeuf, A et al (1995). “Melanoma and use of sunscreens: An EORTC case control study in Germany, Belgium and France”. Int. J. Cancer 61 (6): 749–755.doi:10.1002/ijc.2910610602PMID 7790106.
  8. Weinstock, M. A. (1999). “Do sunscreens increase or decrease melanoma risk: An epidemiologic evaluation”. Journal of Investigative Dermatology Symposium Proceedings 4 (1): 97–100.PMID 10537017.
  9.  Vainio, H., Bianchini, F. (2000). “Cancer-preventive effects of sunscreens are uncertain”. Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment and Health 26: 529–31.
  10.  Wolf P, Quehenberger F, Müllegger R, Stranz B, Kerl H. (1998). “Phenotypic markers, sunlight-related factors and sunscreen use in patients with cutaneous melanoma: an Austrian case-control study”.Melanoma Res. 8 (4): 370–378. doi:10.1097/00008390-199808000-00012PMID 9764814.
  11. Graham S, Marshall J, Haughey B, Stoll H, Zielezny M, Brasure J, West D. (1985). “An inquiry into the epidemiology of melanoma”.Am J Epidemiol. 122 (4): 606–619. PMID 4025303.
  12. Beitner H, Norell SE, Ringborg U, Wennersten G, Mattson B. (1990). “Malignant melanoma: aetiological importance of individual pigmentation and sun exposure”. Br J Dermatol. 122 (1): 43–51.doi:10.1111/j.1365-2133.1990.tb08238.xPMID 2297503.
  13. Experts explore the safety of sunscreen | Straight.com
  14.  CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical | Environmental Working Group
  15.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56078/
  16. http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-929-VITAMIN%20D.aspx?activeIngredientId=929&activeIngredientName=VITAMIN%20D

 

This post is part of Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways.

NOTE: Due to an never-ending cesspool of spam, I have made the tough decision to close comments 14 days after the original posting of all posts. If you have a burning question or are looking for support in your journey to healthy living, please join the Thank Your Body Friends facebook page here.


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About the author

Hi! I'm and I’m passionate about healthy living: feeling nourished, having energy, getting good sleep, and feeling strong. I believe healthy living does not have to be complicated or stressful. I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist (RSMT) and a Certified Laban/Bartenieff Movement Analyst (CLMA). I’m also an avid researcher and love to read about nutrition, the body, and toxic-free living. Learn more.

View all articles by Robin Konie

63 comments

  1. Rachel Kitto

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic as the weather is getting nicer. I saw something about the cancer causing chemicals in sunscreen on a “The Doctors” show and I’ve thought about it every time I slather it on myself and my baby. My grandmother often says, “make sure you use your sunscreen!” But growing up she never used it, and she looks amazing, and she doesn’t have skin cancer.

    I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s post, as I am also a very, very, fair-skinned person. One afternoon in the sun and I’ll have a horrible sunburn!


    1. Post author
      robin

      Isn’t it amazing how quickly we become indoctrinated? My grandma used to tell me about the evils of butter despite the fact that she grew up eating butter and was fine.

      The sunscreen belief is so hardcore, for sure.

  2. Chandra

    I recently learned that many of my health problems have links to a vitamin D deficiency (surprise!). I am also very fair-skinned and have feared sun much of my adult life (although I tanned well before the SPF 100 craze started).

    My current compromise position is to spend increasing amounts of time outdoors daily and gradually build up a base tan on my arms and legs (I do wear a hat). If I am going to be outside long enough that I am concerned about burning I will put on a mineral sunscreen without nanoparticles. I’m going to Haiti in June, I plan to rely largely on protective clothing instead of chemicals to prevent burning there.


    1. Post author
      robin

      Yeah, I think a lot of us have Vitamin D deficiency issues. I know I do. Truthfully, I’m not one to spend a lot of time outdoors (some day when I have a garden I plan on changing this). Now with a kid who LOVES being outside I find myself spending more time in the sun than ever before. It’s great.

      Sounds like you have a pretty good system going on with how to handle the sun. :)

  3. Kendahl @ Our Nourishing Roots

    Can I just say how much I LOVE to read a post like this with such lovely footnotes. I go a little bonkers when people roll their eyes at things like this when it’s so clearly documented. So now I can share this post and say “See?!” :)

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  7. Jennifer S

    Hi there! I’m new to your blog (and loving it, btw!) and I love this post! I’ve always been a sun-aholic, for as far back as I can remember. I pretty much always have a tan, and always have, even as a small child. A few years back I started catching grief from family because I never used sunblock, they didn’t want me to get cancer, or get leathery and wrinkled, blah blah (they watch too much tv in my opinion). So I got some sunscreen, actually remembered to apply it before hitting the beach and during the day. And I burned. And I mean FRIED looked-like-a-lobster-hurt-to-breathe fried. I never remember having a sunburn in my life, much less one like that. But not one to be a quitter, I tried it again one more time after that with pretty much the same result. Needless to say, I pass on it now. My hubby and I spend a lot of time outside (we kayak, fish, and go to the beach a lot) and we never wear sunscreen. We also don’t get burnt. If I know we are going to be having a sunrise to sunset day in the sun, I’ll make sure I take a shirt with sleeves just in case, and I always wear big sunglasses to keep my eyes protected. (of course, that means I spend most of the year with raccoon eyes!) But that’s all the protection I use and burns don’t happen. I feel like sunscreen was maybe created with good intentions but like most other things now, its just another way for big companies to scare people in to spending more money on useless products. I would rather have to deal with some sun damage one day than chemicals leaching in to my body to wreak god knows what kind of havoc.

    1. robin

      Thanks for stopping by, Jennifer!

      I keep hearing more and more stories like yours. That’s crazy! I agree, I just don’t like to think about the chemicals soaking in my body. No thank you! :)

    2. Rachel Blackett

      This year is the first year I haven’t put sunscreen on myself and kids at all, We all got slightly burnt once… Thats it!! And we are all getting a tan for the first time ever. I feel better not using it and for the first summer ever I haven’t gotten sick (Must be all that vit d hehe)

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  11. Mignonne

    YES!! I have been asking this for a couple of years now. Thinking that smoking cessation patches, pain relief patches, etc. Are all absorbed through where do we think the chemicals in sunscreen are going?!

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    1. Coco Noel

      Here are three correlations cited in this post:

      1. Sunscreen use is correlated with skin cancer.

      2. Sunscreen use is correlated with longer time spent in the sun.

      3. Prolonged sun exposure is correlated with skin cancer.

      From these, we can (use bad science) to draw two conclusions:

      1. Sunscreen use CAUSES skin cancer

      2. Sun exposure CAUSES skin cancer.

      This post simply had an agenda (“Sunscreen is bad!”) and picked the correlation that best supported that.


      1. Post author
        Robin Konie

        Actually, that was NOT my intent at all. I don’t think correlation equals causation. My post was to question chemicals in sunscreen, look at what traditional societies did to protect themselves from sun exposure since sunscreen did not exist (and they spent more time in the sun), and provide some safer alternatives to dealing with the sun: Diet, Covering up, and (when needed) safer sunscreen options. Please do not accuse me of having an agenda when I provide much more than your simplified accusations posted here.

  13. Debi

    I’ve developed an allergy to sunscreen. When I use anything that has “SPF” in it I get a burning red itchy outbreak all over my face and chest. I read articles like this looking for evidence that I’m not the only one with this problem. I really appreciate that you went to all the trouble to write and document this so well. Thanks!

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  15. Kira

    I’ve been saying this for years and always got the stinkeye from those around me, especially when I said I don’t use sunscreen on my kids. Thanks for writing such a well-researched and informative post. I hope a lot of people read this.

  16. krystal

    I’m 27 and stopped using sunscreen when I was 13. I HATE sunscreen with a fiery passion! It is complete bogus, as well as chapstick and flu shots!

  17. Sarah

    Is there a correlation between the depletion of ozone and skin cancer? I recall being able to not wear it as a child and getting only a handful of painful burns. That was the late 70′s-early 80′s. Now, I get a rash whenever I drive with my arm in the sun. Seems to me that there may be another factor – the climate.

    1. Katie

      Yes, I think this is the problem. We can’t compare the strength of the sun we are exposed to now to that of the days before sunscreen, or even 30 years ago. I rarely wore it as a child and didn’t burn much, but now if I’m out at the beach for a couple hours I do! Dangers of sunscreen are true, but so are dangers of bad burns. We live on a lake and are put all summer, so its not an option to skip it. We only apply it of we will be out for an hour or more, and skip it if its cloudy. We use when I consider to be the best options, 3rd rock sunblock, badger, California baby. I might try making some.

    2. Coco Noel

      Another problem is that, in the past, a “tan” was not a desirable thing. In recent years, however, tanned skin has been associated with beauty. You might also consider looking at how the increase in cancer rates correlates with the prevalence of sun worshipers.

  18. Sarah

    Before we all jump off of the sunscreen bandwagon, please consider that the environment is severely different than it was when sunscreen was first invented. We burn quicker and nastier. I’m fair and have had sun-poisoning countless times – sometimes in the form of huge welts and chills, but usually rashes on my arms. This first happened in the early 90′s (I’m 36). It is highly possible that people forget to reapply and are thus exposed to harmful rays more often now that the ozone is depleted.

    I wear a facial moisturizer with spf every day. I researched it a bit and became afraid and tried more “natural” products – mostly featuring zinc oxide. This lead to more burns due to the weakness of these products. We simply need to stay out of the sun at peak hours, wear hats, and if we apply sunscreen, remember to reapply it very often.


    1. Post author
      robin

      I totally agree that we need to take the sun seriously. I still think our best defense is proper nutrition… as a very pale person who has been prone to burn in the past, I haven’t had a single problem since changing my diet and I spend more time in the sun. I still am sure to cover up with hats, shirts, and the occasional sun screen if I’ll be out really long, but I definitely would check with the EWG’s guide and choose a good sunscreen. Far too many people think slathering up is the key. Not only does it not provide adequate protection, but the cancer-causing chemicals seems so counter-productive. :)

    2. Lin

      I lived in south florida for 16 years. you’d be crazy not to wear sunscreen . my mother and mother in law both got 2nd degree burns just sitting on a screened in patio for 30 min in april! my diet is supposed to help me from frying my skin when it’s 104 out?


      1. Post author
        robin

        I’m not suggesting you don’t take the sun seriously. I’d just personally chose other options like sun hats, clothing, or at least check out the safest sunscreens possible.

        And diet obviously can only do so much, but yes… it can help. Again, sunscreen didn’t exist 100 years ago and people still lived in hot places.

  19. Heidi

    ok, but now I have stress because of all the sunscreen I have put on my children! I am trying to just slowly make changes and know that I am doing my best, but then I just start freaking out a bit. but I still appreciate the information and now will try to decide how to balance the best I can, and be the best mommy I can be. thanks


    1. Post author
      robin

      Please don’t freak out! That’s definitely NOT my intention. Your kids are young. Slow changes will make huge strides. You are doing awesome, mama. Remind yourself that daily. :)

  20. Rachel Blackett

    THIS is something my hubby and I have been reasearching this year. I did not realize how bad sunscreen was! Forr the first time ever I didn’t wear sunscreen at all this summer… And I burnt once and that was it. I usually burn 6-8 times and never tan… This year I am BROWN!! haha.

    Also be cautious of sunscreens that say they are natural… They still contain something (Can’t remember the name now) That is the biggest cause in cancer. We just stay out of the sun in the hottest hours of the day (The time I got burnt was cause I was out all day, on one of our hottest days in summer) and we have been fine. My vit d is still low as its trying to catch up, but I am hoping by next summer I will be ok :)

    ALSO sunscreen blocks out UVA rays which HELPS HEAL CANCER. Its UVB rays that cause cancer but there is nothing that can stop them. So they are blocking the rays help heal the damage that the rays they are letting through do. So stupid!

  21. carol

    my 92 year old mother never wore sunscreen in her life and she has always been an avid golfer and gardener. she also has beautiful skin, even at her age now. she always wore complete makeup before golfing and a HAT… my father was also a golfer and had to wear a hat and longsleeved shirts because of skin cancer. the 4 daughters simply stay out of the sun as much as possible.. people laugh because i stay in the shade and wear big hats to the pool or to the beach. my daughter slathers on the which i have never liked… and now i will show her this article… thanks.

  22. Mona

    This is all fine, but what about “safer” physically-acting sunscreen (e.g. zinc oxide/titanium dioxide).


    1. Post author
      robin

      Yes, if you really need sunscreen I’d definitely do my research. I provided the link the EWG’s sunscreen guide in the post to help pick the least toxic commercial stuff. There’s also a homemade recipe in my book toxic free.

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  24. Tara

    This article is complete bogus. Skin cancer was discovered in 1804. However the life expectancy of that time was about 35-40. So no most of them didn’t die of skin cancer, more likely disease, hunger, or hey even undiscovered cancer somewhere else in the body. Also not until the 40′s did healthcare readily become available to more than the wealthy. So yea cases of skin cancer probably have increased solely because more people can afford to go to the doctor and have that funny looking mole looked at. Blogs like these baffle me. Not everyone is out to get you. Get over yourself.

    1. Coco Noel

      Agree.

      I don’t think the sun is inherently bad (and actually feel that most sunscreens – notably, Neutrogena) are horrible. But this post is inherently flawed.

      Sunscreen can give us a false sense of security – put on an SPF 100 and people feel like they can stay out in the sun all day as opposed to in the past, when individuals would either cover up or NOT be in the sun more than a few minutes. OF COURSE people who wear sunscreen spend more time in the sun – and of course people who spend more time in the sun are more likely to get skin cancer than those who don’t.

      I’m not arguing that sun exposure isn’t good for you (and it extends further than just vitamin D production). But this post is just bad science at its finest.

      Further we don’t “absorb vitamin D from the sun,” as this post states. Rather, the sun’s rays react with the cholesterol in our body to produce vitamin D.

      I applaud this writer for trying to dig deeper, really I do. I’m all for finding out the facts and questioning Western Medicine – just do it in a factual way and in articles whose conclusions don’t rely largely on the author’s “hunches” and “guesses.”


      1. Post author
        Robin Konie

        Please keep in mind that this is a personal blog, not a scientific journal. My goal is to put together the information I find in a way that is hopefully useful for others to dig deeper and find what works for them. I’ve never claimed to be a scientist. So when I use phrases like “absorb vitamin D from the sun” it’s a simplified way of speaking to the fact that sun exposure does increase our vitamin D levels.

        Also, the main focus of this series started with a question, NOT scientific studies. While I completely agree with you that people get a false sense of security from sunblock and MAYBE spend more time in the sun which MAYBE is why they have more skin cancer, it doesn’t speak to my original question that spawned this two part series: If sunscreen has ONLY been around for a short period of time and our ancestors used to spend a whole lot more time in the sun… did they all get skin cancer? Nope. I’m not sure what else you think is flawed about my article. For the most part you’ve just criticized my “hunches” and “guesses” without looking at my references OR using common sense which shows that something doesn’t add up when you just stop and look and history.

  25. DEBRA NEILSON

    Always felt yucky when I use sunscreen you can’t sweat, gets in eyes, hate it. As a child we put on a shirt to stay in the sun when mom thought we had had enough and she slathered our noses with zinc oxide. I have had a few bouts w/basal cell carcinoma now that I am in my 50′s from sunburns in my youth I am redhaired and blue eyed and remember sun burns w/ blisters!

  26. Cindy

    Can you provide documentation on the AMA admitting there is a correlation between skin cancer and sunscreen use? I don’t doubt it, but it would be good to have some documentation to share with those who do. Thanks!

    1. Kim

      Hi there!

      I’ve enjoyed discovering this site and reading about different health issues. Thanks to all for some good info and replies.

      I do have make note here, though, that a CORRELATION is definitely not the same as CAUSATION. This is basic scientific knowledge. Just because one thing happens at the same time as another thing, that is not proof that they CAUSE each other. For example, let’s say as sun comes out during the day, more toddlers cry. Does that mean that the sun causes toddlers to cry? No, of course not, but they have a common variable, and that’s daytime. Toddlers are more likely to be awake during the day (and therefore crying more than at night), and the sun comes out during the day. This is a very simple example, but hopefully you get the idea.

      I am definitely not an advocate for sunscreen, however. I just feel there needs to be more CAUSATION evidence as opposed to a simple correlation. Take a look and see what other variables may exist here and you may find that the causation is not as accusatory as you might like it to be.

      With all that said, if you find more research pointing toward a cause than a correlation, I’m all ears. :) I wouldn’t doubt there are a lot of harmful things in the sunscreens we use.

      Thanks again for a great website!

      1. Kim

        Take a look and see what other variables may exist here and you may find that the **correlation** is not as accusatory as you might like it to be.

        Sorry about that.


      2. Post author
        Robin Konie

        I totally agree. Correlation can be a sign to look deeper, but it should never be considered “the cause” of anything. Good reminder.

  27. Pauline

    Interesting! As a vegan, what alternatives to cod oil are best? Also, in reading your other links and the many comments, it sounds like the recommendation is to avoid getting too much exposure (beyond a pink in the case of lighter-skinned people), yes? If I’m expecting to be out for a long time and long-sleeves/covering up isn’t an option, is sunscreen better than nothing (and are the zinc oxides better than the other types)? Lots of questions, I know, but I’m eager to learn more. :)


    1. Post author
      robin

      Honestly, I’m not sure what a good alternative is that isn’t animal based. I’d made sure you get lots of quality fats in your diet from avocados, etc. If you know you’re going to be out for a long time (and have a tendency to burn or are really light skinned) I would definitely do something. I’d check out the EWG’s sunscreen guide to find the safest sunscreen to use in those instances. Or make your own. I have a sunscreen recipe in my Toxic Free ebook that works well.

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    1. Post author
      Robin Konie

      Check out the environmental working group’s recommended list. Just google EWG sunscreen list.

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