Do Sunscreens Prevent Skin Cancer? Or Do They Cause It?

Against the advice of every dermatologist everywhere, I don’t use sunscreen on my body.

And I’m not sure you should either.

(Any dermatologists out there? Are you still with us?)

I only ever use sunscreen on my face and chest if I don’t have my big floppy hat available, and mainly to prevent cosmetic effects like wrinkling and sunspots. I try as much as possible not to use it on my body if I really don’t have to.

Why am I going against one of the most ingrained, established pieces of health advice out there? Because frankly, I’m not so sure this isn’t another instance of a “health truth” that has been thoroughly proven wrong. (You know, like that thoroughly debunked “eating fat and cholesterol causes heart disease.”)

The fact is skin cancer is on the rise. And so is the amount of time people are spending in the sun. And so is sunscreen use.

So we can say spending time in the sun and sunscreen use together are correlated with an increase in skin cancer.

Contradictory? Maybe not. But first let’s take a look at the facts on the deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma.

Here’s what we know:

People who work outdoors have lower rates of melanoma than people who work indoors.

Melanomas do not always appear on parts of the body that get daily sun exposure. (1)

Melanoma rates are higher among northern countries that get less year-round UV intensity.

Scientists do not conclusively know whether sunscreen can help prevent melanoma.

There have been a few studies suggesting sunscreen use does reduce the risk, and just as many, if not more, studies showing there’s no reduction in risk. (2)

And in fact, some researchers suggest that sunscreen use could actually increase the risk for melanoma.

Here’s how:

There are two types of rays from the sun that we know have damaging effects on the body: UVA and UVB rays. (UVC rays are also damaging, but the ozone layer blocks most of them.)

UVB rays affect the upper layers of skin and cause sunburn. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and cause damage to DNA, which can lead to melanoma.

The problem is typical sunscreens are great at protecting against UVB rays but not so great at blocking UVA rays. To make matters worse, sunscreen blocks the UVB rays that spur our body to produce vitamin D, which can actually help protect against skin cancer.

So sunscreens are great at protecting against sunburns but also can reduce vitamin D production. And if you don’t get the “sunburn warning” that it’s time to move out of the sun, you keep getting pummeled with cancer-causing UVA rays.

So you can see how the correlation between the increases in skin cancer, time spent outdoors, and sunscreen use starts to make sense.

In fact, the FDA, National Cancer Institute, and International Agency for Research on Cancer have concluded that the available data do not support the claim that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of skin cancer. The data just aren’t there.

(Now, I know how we all feel about the FDA being a bunch of idiots, but I do think on this issue they have the right idea.)

In order to help prevent skin cancer, you really need to spend time in the sun to get vitamin D but then cover up when your skin starts to burn.

OK, but say you have to be outside all day in a bathing suit. You paid for that beach vacation, and there’s no way you’re going to put on long pants on a hot July day. And the kids or grandkids? Forget it. You need to use sunscreen to prevent the burn and be able to enjoy some time outdoors.

So which do you choose?

Right off the bat, you want to avoid chemical sunscreens whenever possible. These suckers are readily absorbed into your body, and animal studies suggest they may cause endocrine and reproductive harm.

In addition, these UV filters aren’t very photo-stable, meaning that when they are hit by the sun’s rays, they actually break down and can become free radicals. One UVB filter, PBSA, has been shown to cause DNA damage, which could lead to skin cancer. (3)

Your next option appears to be slightly better — the mineral sunscreens zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These products do not seem to be absorbed systemically and act more as a surface protectant against UV rays.

However, whether or not they are absorbed isn’t conclusive, and many times they are in products with other ingredients that enhance absorption. And they may still react with sunlight and become free radicals.

But between the chemical or mineral options, so far, mineral sunscreens appear to be safer. I currently keep the Alba Botanica product on hand for when I really need to use a sunscreen. It works pretty well and doesn’t cause as bad a whitish cast as compared with other mineral sunscreens I’ve tried.

The Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreens is an excellent source to see how potentially toxic your sunscreen is. Just type in the name of the product you have and see how it ranks.

As far as what SPF to use – SPF 30 is really all you need. It will block 97 percent of rays. SPF 50 blocks only 1 percent more, and after that the difference is less than a percent. Anything labelled over SPF 50 is just a marketing ploy. What’s more important than the SPF is that you apply enough sunscreen, and apply it often.

And again, this is only when you really can’t cover up, must be in the sun and need to prevent a sunburn. Otherwise, you’re better off without.

Other Natural Options

Coconut oil makes a great natural sunscreen. Both it and olive oil have a SPF of about 8. (It’s also a great barrier to protect against drying chlorine and salt water.) (4)

You may also be able to help prevent sunscreen by eating certain foods, specifically foods rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. One study showed that eating 55 grams of tomato paste with olive oil for 12 weeks increased the amount of time it took to develop a sunburn and also reduced other markers of photodamage. The researchers believe it’s the lycopene that helps protect against the burn. (5)

In another study, 2 grams of vitamin C combined with 1,000 IU vitamin E for eight days reduced sunburn reaction. It’s hard to get that much vitamin E from foods alone, though. If you do decide to supplement, be sure to use a mixed tocopherol product. (6)

Though research doesn’t say whether it will prevent a sunburn, drinking green tea may actually be able to prevent skin cancer by repairing the DNA damage caused by UVA rays. (7)

And if you do suffer a sunburn, tea can help you heal faster. Black tea, specifically. You don’t drink it, though. You apply it topically. Tossing a cup or two into a cool bath can help as well. Same goes for apple cider vinegar.

You already know aloe can help you heal, but make sure you look for a 100 percent aloe juice or gel product. I’ve seen many products that combine aloe with other chemicals and artificial colors.

Lastly, one product I swear by is called Solar Recover Save Your Skin. It’s a mixture of water, vitamin E, and herbal extracts and oils. I’ve been burned pretty badly in the past and spraying this magic on my skin a few times a day helped it heal quickly, turn to a beautiful tan, and avoid peeling. Look for it at your local health food store, or check it out at solarrecover.com.

To living well,

Jasmine LeMaster

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