First of all, let me just say that what I write here is not advice to you or to anyone else. I am not a dermatologist, and the choices I make are for my own body, so I respect what other people do with theirs. With that out of the way, I will share with you why I don't use sunscreen — and how there's plenty of real scientific evidence to back up my decision.
Check out the Environmental Working Group's 2012 report, which just came out. Plenty of the evidence that group has compiled shows that sunscreen might not protect us as well as we think, and in some cases might even be harmful. I've broken some of the info down here, and will then explain what I do to avoid burns and skin cancer. (The quotes below are all according to the report.)
Sunscreen prevents burns but may not prevent cancer: "... a wide range of public health agencies — including the FDA — have found very little evidence that sunscreen prevents most types of skin cancer." In reviewing the evidence, the FDA said that the available clinical studies “do not demonstrate that even [broad spectrum products with SPF greater than 15] alone reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.”
Sunscreen use has been linked to more malignant skin cancers: "Some researchers have detected an increased risk of melanoma among sunscreen users. No one knows the cause, but scientists speculate that sunscreen users stay out in the sun longer and absorb more radiation overall, or that free radicals released as sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight may play a role." How many people do you know who say they're "fine in the sun" since they put on SPF 75?
High SPF numbers don't mean what we think they do: More is not always better when it comes to SPF. "The FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values higher than “50+.” The agency has written that values higher than 50 would be “misleading to the consumer,” given that there is an “absence of data demonstrating additional clinical benefit” (FDA 2011), and that “there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful…” (FDA 2007)."
I have been hearing some of this information for years (as well as concerns from the natural health community about how nanoparticles and chemical sunblocks, which contain hormone disrupters, can affect the skin and other systems), and have opted out of using sunblock altogether.
If you still think I'm crazy, keep reading and I'll show you why I'm not.
A little background: I am a white person of mixed Caucasian ancestry: German, Armenian, English, Scottish, Lebanese. I'm not milky-skinned, but I do burn fairly quickly, so I must protect my skin from the sun. But I don't do it with chemical lotions; I do it with common sense (also cheaper than sunblock!). Maybe you're thinking I never go outside! No.
I have never, and will never "lay out" to tan, but I love to swim and to be outside during the spring, summer, autumn and even winter when I can. I have lived and spent real time in tropical locations, including the Caribbean, the Big Island of Hawaii and Australia, and have found that these rules apply everywhere.
Stay out of midday sun: I generally plan my activities for after 3 or 4 p.m., when sun is less strong. If I have to be out in midday sun for some reason....
Seek shade: There are few places I've found (besides graduation ceremonies, which are always in the sun, dammit!) that you can't find a patch of shade. If I'm concerned about it, I bring an umbrella — men and women throughout the Caribbean use umbrellas as much for portable shade as to keep tropical rains off their heads. So sensible, and you can even coordinate with your ensemble if you're that kind of person (and I am.) Bring back the parasol!
Cover with hats and clothes: If I can't find shade, I cover up. I wear long-sleeved, lightweight cotton and hemp shirts and long pants or skirts. I love wide-brimmed floppy hats, visors, big sunglasses, fedoras — you name it, I wear it. If this all sounds too hot to you, you'd be surprised. Look at the people who live in the hottest, sunniest places. Most of them are covered up. (The folks on the planet who run around half-naked — lucky them! — are generally found in hot, forested places — meaing where it's hot, but not sunny.)
When I showed up to tour Egypt a few years ago, my guide Muhammed told me Americans were always the worst dressers — and not style-wise. "Exposing skin will get you burnt, and you'll be hotter" he told me when I showed up in a tank top and shorts to check out the pyramids. "Sunblock, bah!" was his response when I whipped out my SPF 65. I changed, and Muhammed was right. Wearing long-sleeved, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing was much more comfortable and even cooler since the sun wasn't hitting my skin.
That's it! Stay out of the harsh sun, seek shade, and cover up when you can't. You won't expose yourself to ingredients that companies will later say they "thought were safe at the time" and it is the only proven way to cut your chances for skin cancer. And don't forget, a little sun every day helps the body make vitamin D — which most of us have deficiencies of. About 10-15 minutes of non-midday sun a day is good for you!
The Aussies' SunSmart campaign has it right: Their motto is "Slip, Slap, Slop, Seek, Slide": Slip on a long-sleeved shirt, slap on a hat, slop on sunscreen, seek shade and slide on your sunnies (sunglasses to us Yanks). You'll notice that only one part of that is sunscreen-associated. The rest is reducing exposure. And if anyone knows sun protection, it's the Australians!
- Here's what you don't know about sunscreen
- Popular sunscreen recalled after 5 people catch on fire (Seriously)
- Compare: The Environmental Working Group's 2011 sunscreen list