There’s perhaps no piece of health (or life) advice more universally accepted than “wear sunscreen.” And yet, it’s actually a whole lot more complicated than those two simple words might imply. Sure, sunscreen helps shield you against skin cancer and other harmful effects of the sun, but the truth is that not all sunscreens are created equal — and some might be seriously harmful to your health. In this guide, we look at the dangers of certain products and how to choose a natural or at least more natural sunscreen for you and your loved ones.
Why Sunscreen Isn’t Always the Healthiest Choice
Here’s the deal: most sunscreens use chemical UV filters, which are rapidly absorbed by the skin, your body’s largest organ. Several appear to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they may interfere with your hormones, which then can then create all sorts of other chronic health issues and diseases. According to the World Health Organization, endocrine disruptors are suspected of being associated with:
altered reproductive function in males and females
increased incidence of breast cancer
abnormal growth patterns
neurodevelopmental delays in children
changes in immune function (compromising your immune system and ability to fight off infections)
The most widely used ingredient is oxybenzone, which has been linked to allergic skin reactions, endometriosis in women, and disruption of reproductive hormones — and the CDC has detected it in more than 96% of Americans. Yikes.
The FDA recently proposed new sunscreen regulations to better protect consumers, including requiring that all products with an SPF of 15 or above provide protection against UV/UVB rays. These changes are well and good, but they don’t do much about the dangers described above. One potentially positive effect is that the proposal would require that the active ingredient be listed on the front of the label, which would make it easier for savvy consumers to spot some of these dangerous chemicals.
While the regulations above are designed to ensure consumers have adequate sun protection, there’s also the reverse argument: that too much sunscreen is bad, because we need more sun exposure for our health. An increasing body of research supports the notion that we need a certain amount of sunlight, and that guidelines encouraging people to stay out of the sun as much as possible are actually dangerous. One striking study of 30,000 women over the course of 20 years showed that those who avoided the sun had a whole host of health issues, while others have shown that sun exposure can lower blood pressure and protect against cardiovascular disease. The evidence also suggests that taking vitamin D supplements isn’t enough to replace sun exposure.
How Sunscreen Harms the Environment
What’s more, these ingredients don’t just disrupt human hormones, they can act as endocrine disruptors that harm our environment as well. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), oxybenzone damages the DNA of coral larvae, leading to damage and deformation of the coral; it can also contribute to coral bleaching and coral death. The destruction caused is so serious that in May 2018, Hawaii passed a bill prohibiting the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are used in at least 70% of sunscreens today. Both Florida and California are considering similar bills.
Natural Sunscreen Alternatives
So for the sake of the environment and your health, should you skip sunscreen altogether? Not exactly — but the EWG does recommend that you think of it as a last resort. Rather than reaching for the sunscreen as soon as you head for the door, think about what other options you have to limit your sun exposure: Can you wear long sleeves and/or pants? Pack a hat? Carry an umbrella? Find some shade? Go out during times when the sun isn’t so strong? All of these can be major mitigating factors that protect you from the sun without putting unsafe ingredients into your body.
But what about those days at the beach or sunny park picnics, or when it’s just too darn hot to wear much of anything? First off, keep in mind that a bit of sun exposure may be good for your health. But if you’ll be in direct sun for a long time (say 30 minutes or more) and want to protect yourself, don’t worry — there are sunscreens that keep you safe inside and out. Specifically, look for mineral-based products with ingredients like:
Titanium dioxide (classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible carcinogen to humans, but more research is needed)
Because these mineral sunscreens don’t penetrate the skin — and therefore can’t mess with your hormones — some of them can leave you looking a bit like a ghost. We think it’s worth it, but if you’re not into that look, there’s hope: according to the Environmental Working Group executive summary, there has been a dramatic increase in mineral-only sunscreens since 2007, (more than doubling from 17% of products to 41%), which means there’s a much higher likelihood of finding one that rubs in completely.
One other important change to make, which EWG recommends, is to avoid buying spray sunscreen. This is because when you apply it, your body inhales any toxic chemicals that are in the spray. Your lungs are a faster highway to your bloodstream than your skin, so this can be more detrimental to your health than chemicals in sunscreen lotion. If you absolutely can’t