We are about to dive head first into summertime here in Texas which brings with it lazy, hot days, pool time fun and lathering gobs of sunscreen on ourselves and our children. No matter where you live one of the first things you probably do in the morning is lather on the sunscreen or apply moisturizer (with sunscreen as an ingredient). You may not realize it, but doing this seemingly healthy habit may be causing more harm than good.
One of the things I both love and hate about the nutrition and health world is that there is not always a definite answer. For example, ask two nutritionists whether “coffee”, “soy”, or “diet soda” are healthy and you will get two different answers. As a melanoma survivor, I find whether or not to use sunscreen the most perplexing question of them all. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US and accounts for half of all cancers diagnosed. Melanoma is the deadliest of all the skin cancers and it is the number one cancer of young women. Most doctors advise protecting yourself from the harmful sun rays by applying sunscreen whenever you plan to be outside. Then why do I hesitate?
What if the chemicals and other ingredients in the sunscreen you are using for protection are actually causing you harm? Could the rise in skin cancer be related to the increased sunscreen use and not an increase in exposure to the sun? The FDA set out to finalize sunscreen safety in 1978. It wasn’t until 2012 that the FDA released any standards; however, these standards mostly addressed the use of the terms “SPF” and “broad spectrum” on labels but not the safety and possible carcinogenic risk of the ingredients. As far as a link between sunscreen and skin cancer the only statement the FDA has issued is that it “is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer”. Some studies have found an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users, so should we all stop using sunscreen? Not so fast.
Adding to the confusion is the undisputed fact that the sun is the best source of vitamin D, which strengthens bones and the immune system, reduces the risk of various cancers (including breast, colon, kidney, and ovarian cancers) among other functions. Your body can only produce vitamin D when the sun’s ultraviolet rays stimulate your skin to synthesize. There are very few foods rich in vitamin D. The two best are wild salmon and egg yolks. Other sources are usually fortified with synthetic vitamin D such as cereal, orange juice and milk. Vitamin D deficiency is a serious issue recently. Over the past decade, studies have shown 7 out of 10 Americans have deficient vitamin D levels.
One of the most harmful ingredients most commercial sunscreens contain is vitamin A, otherwise known as retinyl palmitate. In fact, data from a 2009 FDA study confirmed that vitamin A may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. Another known harmful chemical commonly found in sunscreen is oxybenzone, which is a known hormone disruptor. If you have children, you will especially want to avoid sunscreens with these ingredients. Instead look for active ingredients zinc, titanium, avobenzone or Mexoryl SX.
What’s a concerned mother, melanoma survivor, and active woman to do? I definitely do not feel safe being exposed to the sunshine unprotected–however, my first approach is to avoid the sun especially at peak hours, seek out shade, and wear protective clothing. I allow myself to get minimal sun exposure for the vitamin D benefits when I exercise early in the morning before peak hours when UVA rays are most harmful. When it comes to my children it is a different story. While it has crossed my mind that I could keep them locked indoors all summer, I know that won’t go over well for all involved parties. I don’t feel comfortable putting no sunscreen on them when they are outside playing during peak sun hours (which in Austin feels like anytime the sun is out!), so I have spent a lot of time researching the best sunscreen options.
One of the best websites I have found, which objectively rates over 1,700 cosmetic products, is the Environmental Working Group. I encourage you to type in the current sunscreen you use to see how it measures up. In fact, look up the safety ratings on all beauty products you use. I promise you it will be an eye opening exercise.