Are Sunscreens Effective or Dangerous?

Sunscreens have a history of being greatly desired, on the one hand, and generally feared, on the other. This is because everyone has become convinced that sun exposure causes skin cancer and sunscreens are the only remedy for this while, at the same time, coming to the realization that sunscreens are made up of unnatural chemicals and additives that are suspected of toxicity. Very few of us remember this, but the very first sunscreen made for public use was made up of red vetinary petrolatum (yes, I said vetinary) and it was just a horrible, sticky goop that wasn’t proven to do much of anything. And, yet, it was the only product offered at the time. In contrast, today we have more than 500 choices for sunscreen, mostly because people have become terrified of sun exposure and this has carved out a an enormous wallet in the market.

But regardless of the fact that we have come to believe that sun exposure causes skin cancer and sun screens are somehow a miraculous barrier to that exposure, and thereby desired and, in some cases necessary, tools in the summer safety kit, the only thing that sunscreens are truly proven to do is prevent sunburn. In fact, according to the FDA’s 2007 draft sunscreen safety regulations, the “FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) agrees with this and, in fact, they recommend clothing, hats and shade as primary barriers to UV radiation. Their materials also say that “sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun. In other words, there is NO PROOF that sunscreen prevents skin cancer.

Remember this the next time you go to the store seeking some of this junk out, while ducking from the rays as you run from the car to the store. You may very well be buying something that you not only don’t need but is a total waste of money. And there is even more to think about on this matter. In fact, there’s some evidence that sunscreens might increase the risk of the deadliest form of skin cancer for some people! Research from the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) fourth annual Sunscreen Guide has revealed many disturbing facts about sunscreens, including the unknowns in regards to their efficacy and the probability of increased risks in certain people.

In fact, some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users as compared to non users. Many believe the reason for this is that sunscreen users feel safer in the sun so they stay out longer and get more exposure. However, I must beg to differ on this one, as I was a sun worshiper for many years, as were many of my friends, and we spent endless hours in the sun, with no sunscreen whatsoever. To this day, I have not had skin cancer, nor do I even have wrinkles… however, there is always tommorrow so I am not the last word. Another theory about this correlation between melanoma and sunscreen users is that free radicals are released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight and these free radicals may be the direct cause of the cancer. Again, I have get all logical in this argument and point out, if this is the case, then the sunscreen is the cause, afterall, as it takes the sunscreen to release the free radicals!

Another theory about the melanoma effect is that some inferior sunscreens with poor UVA protection are sold at a cheap prices and have therefor dominated the market for 30 years and it’s this poor quality product that has produced this surprising outcome. Once again, I get all logical on this and point out that, none the less, the culprit remains sunscreens. Cheap or not, overexposed or not, free radicals or not, this all happens when you rub the stuff on. And still, regardless of these facts, I must point out that all major public health agencies still advise using sunscreens, but they also stress the importance of shade, clothing and timing. And, in all instances, the bottom line is to use shade, clothing and timing; ie, go out in the evening in a full length dress and hat and stay out of direct light.

But here are some more facts to consider. There are more high SPF products than ever before on the market, some of the claims are 50SPF and up. There is still no proof, in the numbers of skin cancers every year, that these claims are true or, if they are, if those numbers are effective. In 2007 the FDA published draft regulations that would prohibit companies from labeling sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50+. They wrote that higher values were “inherently misleading,” given that “there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful.” And, again, researchers are worried that the higher SPF ratings encourage people to stay out in the sun longer and therefor, run the risk of too much exposure. Now, once again, I have to get a little funky here. As I said, I grew up on the beach, swimming and sunning since I was a child, sunscreen or not. I was a tanning freak and at one point was dark enough to enter a Miss Hawaiian Tropic tanning contest; I just wasn’t well enough endowed in other ways to win that one :-). But the thing I want to point out is, you stay in the sun as long as you can stand it and that’s all. There is no place where you say to yourself, “I’m burning up out here and sweating to death and I feel like a wrung out towel, but I’m gonna stay out another hour or two because I bought a fancy sunscreen”…. I apologize but this assumption is preposterous. Anyone who was worked in the sun, walked a distance in the sun, spent time tanning in the sun or doing anything at all in the sun for any period of time over an hour or two can tell you: when you’re done, you’re done. You don’t hang out in the blistering heat because of your sunscreen. So the idiots who postulate that theory haven’t spent time in the Sun. So now that I’ve made my point, I will move on to the rest of the post.

Currently, among all of the minions of sunscreens available on the market, the EWG only recommend 39 of them. This is mostly due to the exaggerated SPF claims that so many cheap producers make along with new disclosures about potentially hazardous ingredients, such as huge amounts of Vitamin A, which has been linked to skin tumors in the past. Recently available data from an FDA study indicate that a form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. This evidence is troubling because the sunscreen industry adds vitamin A to 41% of all sunscreens. Vitamin A is used in sunscreens because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging and this may be true for lotions and night creams used indoors, but a recent study by the Food and Drug Administration revealed vitamin A’s photocarcinogenic properties. This presents the probability that it results in cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight. Scientists have known for some time that vitamin A can spur excess skin growth (hyperplasia), and that in sunlight it can form free radicals that damage DNA.

At the same time, too little sun might be harmful, reducing the body’s vitamin D levels. Exposure to sunlight increases production of Vitamin D and sunscreens have been proven to inhibit this process. In ordinary life, the main source of vitamin D is sunshine, and the compound is enormously important to health. Vitamin D strengthens bones and the immune system, reduces the risk of various cancers (including breast, colon, kidney, and ovarian cancers) and regulates at least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body. Over the last two decades, vitamin D levels in the U.S. population have been shown to be decreasing. Is this due to the sunscreen frenzy? Possibly.

But you cannot count on the FDA or our government to get the regulations right. Many of the chemicals that have since been found to be destructive to our well being are still being manufactured and used in products on sale today. To wit, BPA, Dioxin, Arsenic, Benzyl Alcohol, Toluene, Benzaldehyde, Limolene, Methylene Chloride and a host of others, too many too list. No, I am not saying that all of these chemicals are in sunscreens, I am just using the list to make a point. They don’t protect us from this stuff, they are too worried about business and stockholders and money. So you have to take charge of your buying practices and choose what you use carefully. Do you want to consume nanomaterials or potential hormone disruptors? It is your body and your choice.

In an ideal world, the ideal sunscreen would block the UV rays that cause sunburn, immune suppression and damaging free radicals; remain effective on the skin for several hours and not form harmful ingredients when degraded by UV light; smell and feel pleasant so that people use it in the right amount and frequency. But there is, in truth, no such sunscreen for sale today. The real choices boil down to either “chemical” sunscreens, which have inferior stability, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body’s hormone systems, and “mineral” sunscreens (zinc and titanium), which often contain micronized-or nano-scale particles of those minerals. After reviewing the evidence, EWG determined that mineral sunscreens have the best safety profile of today’s choices. So remember that when you are shopping for sunscreen for the family. And remember that their guidelines are meaningless. This will be the 33rd year of sunscreen production in which there are no safety regulations. This is in tandem with they way they handle cosmetics. So be careful when you buy these products and use them as little as possible.

Believe it or not, there are alternatives. If you love the sun and the beach and want to be outdoors but have fears about skin cancer and aging, then you might want to consider some alternatives. I have some old fashioned recipes you might dare to try. You may want to try switching on and off, using sunscreens during the hottest part of the day but limiting that exposure by trying some alternative ideas. Remember to provide for yourself some way of shading, whether it’s a hat, an umbrella or a visor or other item you can cover yourself with when the sun gets too intense. Also remember to have a method of hyrdation so you don’t dehydrate, one of the biggest dangers when exposed to direct heat. Also always bring a cover up, whether it’s a t shirt and shorts you can slip into or a large towel you can wrap around yourself or a sarong, just bring it along for those times when your skin has just had enough. And, as always, use common sense and don’t overdo it. Moderation is always key. And then for those of you who like to try some other sun products you can make up yourself, then here are some old fashioned recipes to help with your sun experience.

Baby Oil and Iodine

The old timers swear by this and if you live in the deep south, facing days and days of hot sun, you will have heard of it often enough. Most of us young tan seekers would use it, to both get a better tan and to protect our skin. Iodine is known for antiseptic properties and can help keep the skin from getting damaged on exposure. I can testify to the darkness it lends to a tan as well as the skin protection; I rarely if ever got burned and I do not have lots of skin damage today. In fact, I do not have wrinkles. I never used sunscreens, I most often used home made recipes with rich emollient oils as a base. Mineral Oil or Baby Oil is one of the most popular oils used in tanning products. To make Baby Oil and Iodine, you use a small bottle of Baby Oil and several drops of Iodine. If you are sensitive to fragrances (like I am), you can used unscented Baby Oil or buy regular pure Mineral Oil and use it instead. Shake it up good so that you don’t actually see the Iodine in the mix. Do not use so much that you turn the oil brown or that you have lots of brown droplets suspended in the clear oil. And always shake it up until it’s foamy and blended. It should be clear and not brown. Use like you would any tanning oil.

Lavender Oil and Iodine

This is also often called “Lavender Sunburn Oil”. It will not only help prevent a burn, it is heaven on earth when you do get one. It is know for fast releif and quick clearing, getting you back to normal overnight. I have never used it, mainly because I have not burned since I was 12 years old, but I know people who have and they swear by it. It certainly can’t hurt to try it if you sometimes burn and want both prevention and relief.


6 tbsp Olive Oil
3 tbsp Cider Vinegar
1/2 tsp Iodine
10 drops Lavender Oil
Plastic Bottle with Screw Cap


Blend all the ingredients together and bottle. Apply very gently to sunburned skin or apply liberally prior to sun exposure to help prevent burning.

Sesame Suntan Lotion

This suntan lotion helps you get a tan but mostly it protects your skin. The lanolin is enriching and nourishing, protecting your skin from both wind and sun. The Sesame Oil is rich and emollient, full of natural anti oxidants. The Rosewater and Vinegar help thin it so you can smooth it on. BUT: Use no more than 2 drops of Oil of Bergamot. This flower oil is known for helping the skin darken quickly but it can also be damaging at higher levels. If you are worried about sun sensitivity and are not looking to tan too darkly, then use this recipe without the Bergamot. For those of you who simply want to get a dark tan and can use low SPF tanning oils safely, then add the Bergamot. Just remember to keep the amount limited to 2 drops.


1 tbsp Lanolin
4 tbsp Sesame Oil
6 tbsp Rosewater
1 tsp Cider Vinegar
2 drops Essential Oil of Bergamot (optional: for tanning only)
Plastic Bottle with stopper or screw cap
Glass Bowl


In the small Saucepan, melt the Lanolin over low heat. Warm the Oil in the Glass Bowl in the Microwave and then gradually add to the Lanolin. Stir in gently.

Add the Rosewater and Vinegar, beating vigorously to create a lotion. It should get creamy and silky. When the mixture is entirely cool, add the Oil of Bergamot. Bottle up and use in the Sun.

Vita Herb Sunscreen Oil

This is the most common herbal recipe you will find out; it is all over the web. It is, in fact, the best and most often used, recipe so I thought I would share it with you, even if you had seen it before. It comes highly recommended by herbalists and skin specialists and is said to protect the skin as well as any chemical product you can buy. I can’t attest to this, because I do not use sun screens. If any of you would like to try it, give it a go and then post on the blog your review. It would be helpful, I am sure, to all my readers.


3 tbsp. unrefined Sesame Oil
1 tbsp. unrefined Avocado Oil
1 tbsp. unrefined Jojoba Oil
1 tbsp. Walnut or Almond Oil
1 tbsp. Shea Butter
2 tbsp. Cocoa Butter
1 tsp. Beeswax
1 tsp. Liquid Soy-Lecithin
2 tbsp. AloeVera Gel (pure and simple; no other ingredients)
2 tbsp. Rose or Lavender water (organic, if possible)
1/2 tsp. Borax Powder (pure laundry product; do not use combination products)
20 drops Carrot-Seed essential oil (do not substitute Vitamin A or Retinol)
3-5 drops Coconut fragrance oil


Melt the first 4 oils, butters and beeswax in a double boiler over medium heat until just melted. Add the soy-lecithin, and stir to blend. Remove from heat.

In a small saucepan, gently warm the aloe vera gel and rose or lavender water, and stir in borax powder until dissolved. Remove from heat.

When the oil and water mixtures are still warm to the touch and about the same temperature, set the small saucepan into a bowl of ice. Drizzle in the oil mixture while mixing rapidly with a small whisk; a cream will quickly form.

Add carrot-seed essential oil and coconut fragrance oil, if desired; blend thoroughly.

NOTE: Do not experiment by adding citrus oils, such as bergamont, orange, lemon or lime. Although nicely scented and often praised for their abilities to amplify a tan, they may cause unpleasant skin reactions when used in the wrong amounts on skin that is exposed to the sun. They also reduce a sunscreen’s effectiveness and enhance your tendency to burn.

Another recommendation I have heard a lot about is colloidal oatmeal. I hate to admit it but I don’t know what this is. If you can find it, you should mix it with baking soda and buttermilk and rub it on before going out in the sun. This is supposed to be as good as any commercial product and far less toxic.

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  1. 1

    Bobbie Clemson said,

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    Kind regards

  2. 2

    […] of those ingredients and any known hazards presented by their use. You can read that post HERE . And, from that, you can decide whether sunscreens are for you and whether the benefits outweigh […]

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