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 2017 report on sunscreen. 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: "Most scientists and public health agencies — including the Food and Drug Administration itself — 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: "A  study by U.S. government scientists suggests that retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight." 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. "Many studies have found that people are misled by the claims on high-SPF sunscreen bottles. They are more likely to use high-SPF products improperly and as a result may expose themselves to more harmful ultraviolet radiation than people relying on products with lower SPF values."
In their 2011 report, the EWG wrote, "In June 2011 the FDA, for the second time, published draft regulations that would prohibit companies from labeling sunscreens with an SPF sun protection factor higher than 'SPF 50+.' The agency wrote 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 more recently, there has been other news about the possible perils of sunscreen.
In a small 2019 pilot study published in JAMA, researchers found that some of the active ingredients in sunscreen are absorbed into the body and bloodstream. Avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule were found at levels high enough that the FDA says it's worth testing for possible cancer risk, Time reports.
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.
Saving my own skin
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, I ...
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!
This story was originally published in May 2012 and has been updated with new information.