Should You Wear Sunscreen? Know the Risks


Maybe you saw the recent story about a man who burst into flames after applying sunscreen. Yes, it really happened, and to more than just one person. Some spray-on sunscreens are flammable, so people who apply it before going out to the barbecue grill or other open flame are in danger of catching on fire. (Just enter the terms “sunscreen” and “flammable” in your favorite search engine to read more about this frightening occurrence.)

So if you’re one of the millions of Americans who wear sunscreen or sunblock every day, we need to talk. Even if you don’t go anywhere near an open flame or are careful to use only products without flammable ingredients, you still may be doing yourself more harm than good. Here are a few facts you should know about sunscreens:

  • Manufacturers are not required by law to do any safety testing of ingredients or finished products.
  • Labeling laws are so lax that ingredient lists may not include everything or may misstate certain elements.
  • Product claims are not subject to review, so manufacturers have no obligation to be accurate when they describe a product’s benefits.
  • Few restrictions limit which chemicals can be used in products like sunscreens. Combine this fact with no safety testing, and you can see how it’s a “buyer beware market” in sun and skin care products.

The Sun Is Not Your Enemy

No one wants to get sunburned or develop skin cancer, but there are better ways to achieve those goals than by covering yourself in questionable chemicals. I encourage my patients to rethink their long-held views of sun exposure and sunscreens.

Be Sun Smart

  • Sunscreens often contain toxic ingredients.
  • Your body produces vitamin D through sun exposure on bare skin that is free of sunscreens and lotions.
  • You can prepare your skin for sun exposure from the inside out.

The third point is especially important because here’s the elephant in the room that few doctors talk about: Skin cancer happens from the inside out. In other words, it’s not sun exposure that causes skin cancer but the body’s reaction to sunlight.

As you’ll see, just a few simple changes can make a big difference, as my patient Keith discovered.

Sunscreen Contributes to Vitamin D Deficiencies

During the past 30 years, if there is one health message that got through to the American public, it’s “sunshine kills.” What a pity! Here’s what has happened as a result: Instead of improving, skin cancer diagnoses are on the rise. Meanwhile, somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the country is deficient in vitamin D. As you may know, vitamin D, produced when bare skin is exposed to sunlight, is a vitally important nutrient for good health. Deficiencies of vitamin D have been linked to the following:

  • Certain types of cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Prediabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Depression
  • Tuberculosis
  • Dementia
  • Obesity and weight difficulties

Obviously, vitamin D is a crucial nutrient for anyone who wants to avoid serious, chronic diseases. So we know how important vitamin D is, and we also know that we need sunshine to manufacture vitamin D. Yet despite that, mainstream medicine continues to demonize the sun. Instead, these experts recommend we drench ourselves with untested, toxin-laden creams and lotions that can be absorbed by the skin, the body’s largest organ.

In the meantime, a number of studies show that eating certain foods and taking a couple of common supplements protect against sunburns and skin cancer without exposing you to the chemical soup in sunscreen. But do you ever hear that being publicized? I didn’t think so.

Clearly, you’re not getting the whole story, so let’s sort this out. As you’ll see, it’s really not that complicated, and the payoff is well worth it.

UVA, UVB, and Sun Safety

What happens when your skin is exposed to sun? The short answer is that it becomes inflamed and turns red as the immune system goes into high gear to repair damage to skin cells.

How long it takes for skin damage to occur depends on whether you are fair, medium, or dark skinned. (As a general rule, people with blue eyes are considered fair, even if they have dark hair.) A person with a fair complexion may start to turn pink in as little as five or ten minutes, while it usually takes longer for a person with a dark complexion to begin burning.

Although we are often warned about going outside during summer’s peak hours between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., we can sunburn any time of day, no matter what season. A cloudy day is not protective, although it may slow the burning process a bit. And bright sun on a snowy day can be just as damaging as it is in summer.

There are two types of radiation from sunlight — UVA (ultraviolet A) and UVB (ultraviolet B). UVA penetrates below the skin, so it contributes to wrinkles and aging, but it is less likely to create sunburn. UVB can burn your skin more readily, but it is involved in creating vitamin D. Both types of UV light contribute to premature aging and skin cancer.

If you’ve ever shopped for sun protection, you know how confusing it can be to wade through the various choices and manufacturers’ claims. As I often tell my patients, sunscreens are designed to absorb UVB light, but they are usually less effective at preventing UVA light from reaching your skin. Newer sunscreens, labeled as “wide spectrum,” are intended to protect against UVA. However, be aware that sunscreens are rated according to their SPF (sun protection factor), which measures the product’s ability to shield you from UVB radiation only.

Usually, sunscreens are more appealing than sunblocks because the heavier, opaque sunblocks are not only messy but usually sit on top of the skin, like a thick, white cream. Sunblocks deflect as much as 99 percent of various forms of light, however, so they can be very useful on areas that tend to burn quickly, such as the nose and ears.

A Look at Labels

Your first step in choosing a sunscreen should be to read the ingredient labels. You’ll want to avoid anything that’s potentially flammable. If you like spray-on products, check the label for warnings that say “flammable” or “inflammable” (both words mean the same thing). In addition, check the ingredients for potentially dangerous or cancer-causing substances, such as PABA, methoxycinnamate, and oxybenzone. These ingredients have been linked to various health issues, including hormone disruption. One new study, for example, found that women who had the highest levels of oxybenzone in their bodies had a 65 percent elevated risk of developing a painful, hormone-related condition known as endometriosis. Clearly, the chemicals in these skin care products are not staying on top of the skin, and they are not good things to have circulating throughout your body.

Instead, look for a product containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, the primary ingredients in what are sometimes called mineral sunscreens. I also recommend wide-spectrum sunscreens, which protect against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 30 or higher.

One caution: Just say no to any product — sunscreen, moisturizer, or cosmetic — containing nanoparticles. The safety of these microscopic-sized ingredients is questionable at best, even though they are used in skin care products of all kinds, including sunscreen.

Here’s just one example of possible damage from nanoparticles: A recent study found that fish exposed to nanoparticles of titanium oxide developed holes in their brains and experienced death of nerve cells in the brain as well. Previous studies have found similar types of damage from the tiny particles.

A Little Sun Goes a Long Way

Conventional wisdom says you should apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. I suggest my patients hold off, though, and get at least a few minutes of sun exposure on bare, clean skin — in other words, skin without lotions, creams, or cosmetics of any kind. Start with just a few minutes of sun exposure each day to avoid burning. Gradually increase the amount of time, but don’t go beyond 20 minutes.

After you’ve done a bit of sunbathing, if you plan to stay outside, you can retire to the shade and/or apply sunscreen. If you choose sunscreen and plan to stay outdoors, please remember to reapply it every couple of hours, as sunscreen can be removed by sweating, swimming, or even rubbing your skin. Or simply put on a hat; a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt or top; and pants or a skirt — and skip the sunscreen altogether. There are even lines of clothing available with built-in sun protection that I find work very well.

In addition, don’t forget to protect your eyes when you’re outside. I recommend sunglasses equipped with side panels to shield your eyes from UVA and UVB rays. Exposure to sunlight has been linked to cataracts.

Sun Protection from the Inside Out

Scientists have known for some time that healthy skin begins inside your body. A diet rich in antioxidants and related healthful compounds, as well as good fats found in omega-3s, is the key.

Food nutrients to reinforce the body’s own sun-protective mechanisms:

  • Carrots and other yellow-orange fruits contain beta-carotene, which helps reduce sun damage.
  • Salmon, shrimp, and algae contain astaxanthin, an antioxidant that reduces skin inflammation, boosts immunity, and helps protect against sagging, wrinkling, and skin cancer.
  • Tomatoes (especially when cooked in a small amount of oil), pink and red grapefruit, guava, and watermelon contain lycopene, which helps protect skin from sunburn damage.
  • Citrus fruits and most vegetables contain vitamin C, an antioxidant that can prevent the sort of free-radical damage linked to the development of skin cancer.
  • Sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach, milk, and eggs contain vitamin A, which research shows may reduce some forms of skin cancer, including melanoma.
  • Green leafy vegetables, raw nuts, and wheat germ contain vitamin E. When taken with vitamins A and C, this powerhouse antioxidant trio helps repair sun damage.
  • Fatty, coldwater fish, such as salmon, herring, and anchovies, contain the good fats (omega-3s) that help reinforce the body’s own sun-protective mechanisms and shield the skin from sun damage.

Supplementing with antioxidants and good fats provides these benefits, too. Often, these nutrients are combined in mixed antioxidant supplements, which can be good choices. You can also find combinations of various antioxidants in topical skin products. Research shows that applying antioxidants directly onto the skin provides substantial protection.

Dosage recommendations for individual supplements:

  • Astaxanthin: Try 4 to 6 mg one to three times daily.
  • Lycopene: A typical dose of lycopene runs anywhere from 10 to 30 mg daily.
  • Vitamin C: This water-soluble nutrient is not stored in the body, so supplies need to be replenished throughout the day. Try taking 500 to 1,000 mg three times daily. If you develop loose stools, decrease the dosage.
  • Vitamin E: Choose a product made from mixed tocopherols and the natural form of vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol), not the synthetic form (dl-alpha-tocopherol). I recommend 400 IUs daily.
  • Omega-3 essential fatty acids: I suggest 1,000 mg twice daily of a purified, stable product, such as Calamarine.

Keep in mind that food and supplements take about three months to maximize your body’s inner sun-protection resources, so they do not replace the instant protection of a good, nontoxic sunscreen. But don’t be disappointed by the time it takes for nutrients to kick in. Remember that while you’re taking them, they’re at work on various healing processes in your body.

Spending time outside in good weather can help fortify you with vitamin D while you enjoy the simple pleasures of nature. Don’t let concerns about sun exposure deprive you of these benefits. Just follow the steps I’ve outlined here, and you can have a healthy, nontoxic, sun-smart summer.


Last Updated: September 2, 2020
Originally Published: September 1, 2014