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Don’t Get Burned By Your Sunscreen

Don’t Get Burned By Your Sunscreen

I am increasingly concerned by the degree to which the medical establishment endorses the use of sunscreen. I am also disturbed by the extent to which people who are otherwise concerned about what goes into their body (e.g. they eat organic food) seem quite willing to slather a chemically laden ointment onto their body. The premise behind the use of sunscreen lies in its ability to first, prevent sunburns and second, prevent skin cancer later in life. While the former attribute is undeniable, the second, it should be known, is currently being called into question.

Sunscreen may increase the risk of cancer due to several factors. First, it is replete with chemicals. Many of these chemicals, along with the preservatives, fragrances and stabilizers added to the formula carry undisclosed biologic effects. For example, some common active ingredients (such as benzophenone-3 and octyl methoxycinnamate) are classified as endocrine disrupters. These compounds can interfere with the female cycle, lower sperm count and cause cancer. Their effects upon children have not been studied, and they have been banned in certain countries. Other chemicals create free radical species in the skin. The sun itself will bake these chemicals, turning them into byproducts not listed on the label that are even more toxic than the parent compound. And of course, the skin being the largest organ on the body, absorbs this soup and transfers everything into the bloodstream.

The sun burns skin due to the presence of a particular form of ultraviolet light, UVB. However, both UVB and UVA cause cancer. Most sunscreens only block UVB but not UVA (and those that do block UVA require additional chemicals). Because the application of sunscreen will prevent burning, it may actually encourage people to stay out in the sun longer. However, the unopposed UVA light may very well increase the likelihood of skin cancer.

Of even greater concern is the ability of sunlight to prevent the synthesis of vitamin D, which is formed in the presence of ultraviolet light. The blocking of UV light therefore, may lower the ability of the body to produce this vitamin. The role of vitamin D in the prevention of cancer cannot be understated. William Grant, a major vitamin D researcher, estimates that vitamin D deficiency allows 100,000 people to develop cancer each year who wouldn’t have if they had adequate levels to provide protection.

There are studies that substantiate my position that suntan lotion is of limited value. A 2007 study in the Annals of Epidemiology analyzed 17 different papers on sunscreen based on the latitude at which they were conducted. Of these, 10 studies were conducted at latitudes >40 degrees from the equator and 7 at < 40 degrees. When all the data were combined together no protective effect was seen against skin cancer. However, in studies conducted at latitudes > 40 degrees from the equator, sunscreen use increased risk. People in these regions were about one and a half times as likely to get cancer. Below 40 degrees latitude, sunscreen use lowered skin cancer risk ratio slightly. Medford, Oregon lies at 42.3265º North Latitude.

Should we all avoid sunscreen? I do not believe these creams should be a first line defense. The key here is to prevent sunburns. Being in the sun after a long winter is like working out for the first time: You must build tolerance. Start by staying in the sun for ten minutes (lotion-free) and steadily build tolerance, perhaps by 15 minutes per week until you can remain in the sun for an hour, depending on your skin type. Wide brim hats, long but light clothing and prudent use of shade will all help to prevent burns.

If you do use sunscreen, I recommend only using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Avoid creams that contain nanoparticles. I urge you to add antioxidants to the lotion. To 100 ml of lotion (about 3-4 ounces) add the 20 grams of Vitamin C and 2000-4000 IU of Vitamin E (mixed tocopherols). About four hours before heading into the sun, take orally vitamin D (5000 IU), selenium (300 mcg), vitamin A (take 50,000 IU but none if you are pregnant) and fish oil. Herbs such as curcumin, green tea and gotu kola are all herbs that can be used both topically and orally and will provide excellent antioxidant support.

Is it possible to enjoy the sun, have fun, get a light tan and diminish your toxic load all at the same time? I am answering “Yes” emphatically!

Dr. Daniel Smith practices at Bear Creek Naturopathic Clinic. His office is on 2612 Barnett Ave. He specializes in naturopathic oncology, but still maintains a strong family practice, treating all manner of conditions. He can be reached at 541-770-5563 or at If you would like to schedule an appointment, please ask specifically for Dr. Dan.


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