Do sunscreens do more harm than good?
On May 1, Amanda Kelly – creator of travel blog and YouTube channel Amanda Round the Globe – posted a YouTube video titled: “Why I Don’t Wear Sunscreen”.
In the video, which had 3,861 views, she says she does not believe it is safe to wear sunscreen, because it is “full of toxic chemicals”.
She points out that her parents never wore sunscreen and there have been no studies into the long-term effects of using it. “When you wear sunscreen, you’re putting all these chemicals on your body, and you’re going into the sun, baking the chemicals into the skin and there have actually been studies showing that sunscreen is not good for you,” she says.
The backlash was swift and firm, with commenters branding Kelly irresponsible for suggesting that sunscreen does more harm than good.
“Even if you don’t care about premature ageing, cancer is not something to brush off,” noted one disgruntled fan.
Yet Kelly is not alone in her concerns about chemicals and toxins in traditional sunscreens. She was inspired by Ellen Fisher, a vegan blogger who has also gone by the name “Mango Island Momma”. She lives in Hawaii and made a YouTube video about how she shuns sunscreen for herself and her two children.
Wellness Mama, another popular health blogger, recently updated a post called “Why (Most) Sunscreen is Harmful”.
“Chemical sunscreens use one or more chemicals, including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate,” she wrote. “If you’ve been around my blog before, you’ve probably seen my stance that if you can’t eat it, you shouldn’t put it on your skin, but these sunscreen chemicals raise some special concerns because many are able to cross into skin and other tissue.”
While the risks of sun overexposure are well-documented and well-known – burns, skin cancer and skin ageing, among others – the growing backlash against sunscreen can largely be lumped into two categories: concerns about the “toxins” or chemicals in sunscreen, and concerns about getting adequate vitamin D.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s controversial website Goop.com recently posted an article on the latter topic – The Importance of Vitamin D – in which Frank Lipman, the founder of Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City and author or several bestselling health books, prescribes several 15- to 30-minute sessions a week of unprotected sun exposure.
“We’ve demonised the sun and been brainwashed into believing that even small amounts will harm us,” writes Lipman. “We are told to slather on sunscreen whenever we are in the sun, which blocks vitamin D production and exacerbates the vitamin D deficiency induced by our modern, indoor lives.”
Alongside her YouTube video about her personal sun habits, Kelly suggested that viewers visit the website of Josh Axe (www. draxe.com) for more information.
Axe, a certified doctor of natural medicine, and doctor of chiropractic and clinical nutritionist in Nashville, believes people should be wary of sunscreen. He cites the Environmental Working Group’s 2014 Guide to Safe Sunscreens, which reported that more than 75 per cent of over 2,000 sunscreens tested contained chemicals linked to an increased risk of cancer and other serious health conditions. In particular, he recommends avoiding oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
“People tend to feel that they’re being healthier by applying sunscreen, especially regarding skin-cancer concerns,” says Axe. “But studies have actually shown that there is a directly proportional relationship between high sunscreen use and skin-cancer risk.”
There are other concerns, too, in particular that the chemicals used in sunscreen can serve as endocrine disruptors and affect fertility.
Last year, for example, a study by the University of Copenhagen tested 29 of 31 UV filters approved for use in the European Union and the United States, and found that half caused healthy sperm to stop functioning.
But many medical doctors are not convinced that the risks outweigh the benefits, including Amy Wechsler, who has a practice in New York City and is board-certified in dermatology and psychiatry.
She says that the claims about sunscreen toxins and sunlight-derived vitamin D are not supported by science.
“I think it’s overblown,” she says. “These molecules are not penetrating the skin and making it into the bloodstream. There are giant pharmaceutical companies that been trying to develop patchbased vaccines for years, and it’s really hard because the skin is an excellent barrier.”
While vitamin D deficiencies are a legitimate concern, Wechsler recommends supplements over increased sun exposure.
There is also an increasing variety of non-toxic sunscreen options that incorporate minerals instead of chemicals.
And while concerns about physical wellness and the toxins in our environment are understandable, Wechsler recommends getting information from reliable sources.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there as if it’s fact,” she says. “Just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean that it’s based on data.
“You might not want to eat some of these molecules, or even inhale them, but rubbing them on your skin is not going to give you cancer.”
There are growing fears that the chemicals in sunscreens pose a health risk.