Is sunscreen safe? What did people do before sunscreen?

Skin cancer is real and we have to be conscious of that fact. But is sunscreen safe? What did people do before sunscreen? What's the best protection?

Is sunscreen safe? If you’d asked me fifteen years ago I would have laughed. Of course, it is. I mean, everyone knows that sunscreen is your best bet to keep skin cancer at bay. Right?

That’s why I never thought I’d be writing a post encouraging you 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 leather for skin?)

And of course, the number one reason to use sunscreen is to avoid skin cancer. Right?

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,” 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?

And the big question: Is sunscreen safe?

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. In fact, that was during the days where chemists and chemicals reigned supreme.

And when you think about the fact that for centuries most people worked and lived in the sun (way more than we do today), it makes me wonder: Were they all dying of skin cancer?

My guess: probably not.

Has sunscreen really decreased skin cancer rates?

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!!

Skin cancer is real and we have to be conscious of that fact. But is sunscreen safe? What did people do before sunscreen? What's the best protection?

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

Of course, correlation does NOT equal causation, but still. Common sense has got to tell you that slathering on chemicals that have been shown to be dangerous is probably not good for your health.

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 both untreated (sunscreen free) and 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).

So, is sunscreen safe? In most instances, no.

Most commercial 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: So what did people do before sunscreen?

The truth is the sun can do a lot of damage.

Skin cancer is real. In our day and age, we have to be conscious of that fact. Being careless about our exposure to the sun is probably not a good idea… especially if you tend to live the majority of your life indoors (and eat a Standard American Diet).

So what people did before sunscreen?

Like diet, the approach to sun varied from people to people depending on culture and climate. But here are a few ideas that you can borrow from them to help protect your own skin:

Cover up.

This is the most effective, harmless way of protecting yourself from the sun. Light weight fabrics, hats, scarves… whatever helps keep your skin away from the sun’s rays. Remember to pay particular attention to your eyes as the skin around them is very delicate.

Get a tan.

The brown pigment melanin in the skin is a natural defense against UV radiation. When exposed to moderate levels of exposure (depending on skin type), a sun “tan” absorbs UV radiation through the melanin and dissipates the energy as harmless heat, blocking the UV from damaging skin tissue (17).

Of course with our sedentary and mostly-indoor lifestyle this can be a little tricky and takes some time to “build up a resistance.” You want to avoid a burn. But the great thing about this is that your body will also be able to synthesize the Vitamin D that is so essential for good health. In fact, I highly recommend checking out this article on how to gradually build up your exposure to maximize your Vitamin D. He covers some important points and gives some tips and precautions.

Eat real food.

Like so many aspects of our health, our diet affects how easily we burn. By eating real food you can help protect your skin. It’s all connected, folks. (Want to learn what kinds of food help? Read this or this.)

Choose your sunscreen carefully.

The truth is you might need sunscreen if you know you’re going to be out for a long time and covering up isn’t an option. The sun is not the enemy. You need sunlight to get adequate vitamin D and critical photoproducts. But for those times when you NEED a sunscreen, here is some food for thought on choosing the safest sun protection possible:

  • When looking for a sunscreen, you have two choices: Chemical sunscreens (the stuff I talk about above that is really bad for you) and physical zinc-based sunscreens, which are safer, but you need to choose carefully.
  • Most chemical-based sunscreens (look for “-benzone” in the ingredient list, like avobenzone and oxybenzone… avoid these!) use ingredients that can actually be more dangerous when they are exposed to UV light.
  • Physical (zinc-based) sunscreens are much safer if you choose the right kind. Avoid ones that have titanium dioxide which might also undergo changes during light exposure.
  • Sunscreen STICKS are the best option for sunscreen, and here’s why: With lotions, the zinc separates from the suspension ingredients. And because so many sunscreens today are trying to leave less white residue, it’s even harder to know if you actually have the sun-protecting ingredients where you want them.

Sunscreen Sticks Worth Checking Out:

1. Badger Balm, a favorite of mine for many years, makes excellent products across the board – their stick is no exception, and it’s excellent for kids and adults. Find out more here.

2. Babo Botanicals has a 20% zinc oxide concentration in their stick, and it’s great for kids and for sensitive skin. Find out more here.

The Environment Working Group provides so many valuable resources on many products to help consumers choose the least toxic stuff out there. Check out their 2015 guide to sunscreens. There’s also a recipe for toxic-free sunscreen in my book All Natural Living.

What do we do?

For my family, we try to get some sun each day. If we know we’re going to be out for a while we cover up. I also use a little coconut oil around my eyes and on the delicate skin on my face. We also eat lots of real food. If we know we’ll be out in the sun for more than an hour or two we use one of the sunscreens mentioned above. Nobody has had a burn in my family for years and we are spending more time in the sun than we used to.

Keep in mind that the sun is really powerful, but it’s also a resource that can help us in our quest for health. Understanding our relationship with the earth and sun can provide more energy, vitality, and joy. Who doesn’t enjoy feeling the warmth of the sun? Let’s soak in the goodness and keep the toxic stuff away.

So tell me… what are you thoughts on sunscreen? Do you use it? Are you reconsidering?




  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.2006.06.011. PMID 17015167.
  4. David Bradley (August 15). “Toxic sunscreen testing”.Http:// 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.82.4.614. PMC 1694089. PMID 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;2-3. PMID 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.2910610602. PMID 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:10.1097/00008390-199808000-00012. PMID 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.x. PMID 2297503.
  13. Experts explore the safety of sunscreen |
  14. CDC: Americans Carry Body Burden of Toxic Sunscreen Chemical | Environmental Working Group


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