For more than 30 years, we’ve been incessantly lectured by ‘official’ and ‘expert’ sources to cover every exposed inch of ourselves with sunscreen before any exposure to sun, lest dire things happen.
Although there is no doubt that sun exposure can contribute to skin cancers – including basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and the precancerous ‘actinic keratoses’ – there are a few important points that need to be made.
- You can greatly reduce the risk of skin cancer with an excellent diet, and even more by an excellent diet and specific supplementation.
- Not getting enough sun exposure, whether because of sunscreen use or because of living in cloud-covered areas of the world, contributes to vitamin D deficiency.
- Sunscreens themselves can be toxic, and some of them can lead to numerous health issues.
The #1 danger of sunscreens
The use of sunscreens for protection is not new. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks both used botanicals and minerals to prevent damage from the sun. What is new is the environmental and physical risk that 20th and 21st century versions of broad-spectrum sunscreens present, along with the very false sense of security that sunscreen use may give.
First, use of sunscreens encourages people to stay outside longer. Increased exposure ultimately leads to more sun damage. Remember, sunscreens can’t block everything – and some rays inevitably leak through and cause oxidative damage. But without the feedback of redness on the skin, it is hard to judge when you have received the amount of exposure that your body’s antioxidant level can handle.
Secondly, sun-blocks can and do lead to vitamin D deficiency. (See www.vitamindcouncil. org for further information and documentation.)
Insufficient vitamin D is no longer something associated mostly with poor diet, education, or low income. One recent study found that about a third of those being screened for annual physicals were deficient in vitamin D3, a fact that may suggest widespread deficiency. The situation is likely even worse than that, since the study’s definition of ‘normal’ was well below what doctors skilled and knowledgeable in Natural Medicine consider ‘optimal’, which is based on the blood levels of individuals living in tropical regions (the ‘tropical optimal’).
According to one researcher bold enough to state the facts: “The important take-home message for dermatologists and other clinicians is that health campaigns promoting strict sun protection procedures to prevent skin cancer may induce vitamin D-deficiency.”
Would you rub hazardous waste all over your body?
But the dangers of sunscreens extend much further than vitamin D deficiency. In the book, Sunscreens & Biohazard: Treat as Hazardous Waste, author Dr. Elizabeth Plourde, extensively documents the “other-than-vitamin-D-deficiency” hazards of sunscreens. These hazards affect not only humans, but also other forms of life on Earth.
The problem is that, as with most other chemicals, much too little testing for toxicity appears to have been done before sending sunscreen products to market. In addition to concerns about toxicity, there are also concerns about effectiveness. At the rate sunscreens are being used, if they’re as effective as we’re told, we’d expect to see dramatic decreases in skin cancer rates at the same time we’ve dramatically increased our use of sunscreens. And while basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers appear to have dropped in the last 20 years, they’re still well above their occurrence rate in the 1920s, when sunscreen use first started. And data suggests that melanoma rates have actually increased.
The first identifiable use of sunscreens in the United States was in 1928, when paraaminobenzoic acid (PABA) was used in topical products to filter out ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. But since PABA has been associated with causing topical irritation and allergies, manufacturers altered ‘plain’ PABA into related molecules called ‘PABA esters’ to make products less allergenic. However, since then evidence has been uncovered in studies linking PABA to increased genetic damage when used in sunscreen.
Further research into the potentially damaging effects of the sun found that in addition to UVB rays, ultraviolet A radiation can also cause skin damage and at a greater skin depth. (UVA rays have shorter wavelengths than UVB.) UVA radiation is most associated with signs of ‘photo-ageing’, such as increased wrinkling and loss of collagen and elastin. Once that discovery was made, manufacturers began to add to sunscreens various chemical ingredients that filter UVA, in addition to the UVB filtering chemicals already in them. There is no one single compound that completely and simultaneously filters potentially harmful UVA and UVB radiation, hence the complexity of compounds used in these products.
Both the FDA and CDC websites offer recommendations for using sunscreens to protect against both UVA and UVB wavelengths of the sun. These ‘authorities’ recommend that sunscreens should offer a sun protective factor (SPF) of at least 15 or greater, which gives an indication of how long someone can be in the sun without burning. An SPF of 15, for example, means that you can be in the sun for 15 times the length of time it takes you to burn without sunscreen and protects you from up to 93 per cent of UVB radiation. If you use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30, your protection from UVB radiation increases to 97 per cent but allows you to be in the sun up to 30 times longer than it takes you to burn without sunscreen. This means, then, that many people feel ‘safe’ being out in the sun much longer than they might otherwise have been without sunscreen.
And although they might be somewhat safe from sunburn, there’s absolutely nothing safe about sunscreen.
The SPF tells you how long before you might start to sunburn (which is mostly a UVB problem), but this does little if anything to block UVA radiation. Because of that, as noted above, sunscreen manufacturers now add in additional ‘broad-spectrum’ chemicals designed to limit exposure and damage to the skin from UVA.
Don’t be fooled by the ‘natural’ ingredients
Possibly the safest ingredients in sunscreen are mineral complexes in their original forms. Mineral complexes are also known as ‘physical filters’ when used in sunscreens as they work to physically block UVA and some UVB radiation by absorbing it themselves. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are two major mineral complexes. In their original forms, mineral complexes such as these are also less likely to cause allergic skin reactions and have virtually no risk of increasing cancer risk.
There’s very little downside to the metal complexes in their original forms.
A relatively minor effect is a harmless but still visible white residue left on the skin. Unfortunately, many object to that, so sunscreen manufacturers have switched the focus away from the relatively harmless original forms of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and have reduced the size of the metal particles to ‘nano’-size particles between 10 and 50 nanometres. To put 10 to 50 nanometre size into perspective, there are 100,000,000 nanometres in just one centimetre; a centimetre is .390 inches. At that size, trouble starts, even though these nanoparticles are made from entirely natural mineral complexes.
Particles of metals this tiny have never ever been in contact with human skin in the enormous numbers present in sunscreen.
One group of researchers wrote: “The present study indicates that nanosize TiO2 [titanium dioxide] may pose a health risk to humans after dermal [skin] exposure over a relative long time period.”
Researchers at UCLA went further, writing: “It is probably wise to regard NM [nanomaterial] as potentially hazardous waste until proven otherwise.”
Studies in cell cultures using colon cells showed that zinc oxide nanoparticles appeared to be twice as toxic to cells of the colon as conventionally prepared zinc oxide. In a 2010 study, human skin cells in culture (‘in vitro’) were deeply penetrated by TiO2 nanoparticles, not just into the cytoplasm (the area outside the nucleus of the cell) but all the way into the cells’ nucleus.
US medical authorities – who are busy ‘protecting’ us against walnuts, tart cherries, and raw cow’s milk (see the February 2012 issue of Nutrition & Healing) – have allowed nanoparticles to be used in sunscreens since 1999 without any requirements at all to even disclose them on the label. Unfortunately, sunscreens using nanoparticles are now available worldwide.
Ultimately, sunscreens that contain nanoparticle zinc and titanium are health hazards – and the jury is still out about titanium dioxide, even in ‘normal’ particle sizes, which is widely used in cosmetics. Titanium is not known to be essential to the functioning of human or animal bodies. But zinc is an essential nutrient, and likely safe except in huge overdoses.
The same can’t be written at all about unnatural patented or formerly patented chemicals commonly found in sunscreens and approved by medical authorities. (For the technically inclined, these include avobenzone, terephthalylidene dicamphor sulfonic acid, and drometrizole trisiloxane, and other chemicals including benzophenones such as oxybenzone and sulisobenzone.)
The patent chemicals above block UVA, and are added to natural and naturally-derived patentable categories of chemicals including camphors, cinnamates, salicylates, as well as the original PABA and its derivatives.
With such an expansive chemical cocktail, it should come as no surprise that there are some deep downsides when you rub these unnatural, patented, synthetic chemicals into your skin. Here’s just a few of the more serious ones…
Sunscreen plus sunshine causes greater skin damage than sunshine alone!
Another significant study showed that the longer certain sunscreen compounds remained on the skin, the greater the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). (These included octocrylene, octylmethoxycinnamate, and benzophenone-3.) Reactive oxygen species are damaging and even sometimes lethal to many components of living cells.
When these sunscreen compounds penetrated the skin, they raised the ROS above that which would have occurred with sun illumination alone on bare skin. For sunscreen devotees, that needs repeating: sunscreen use plus sun exposure causes greater oxidative damage to skin than sun alone!
During the study, researchers measured the levels of ROS in both treated and untreated skin. While there was a protective effect observed during the first 20 minutes following the application of the sunscreen, the number of reactive oxygen species increased significantly after just one hour in the treated skin.
Sunscreen wreaks havoc on your hormones
If oxidative damage and accelerated skin ageing associated with sunscreens weren’t bad enough, here’s another one for you: many sunscreen chemicals – particularly the benzophenones – have also been associated with disruption of endocrine (hormone) signals. Studies in fish have found that these ingredients are oestrogenic and affect minnows when they are exposed to them for as little as 14 days. Questions about the impact on human reproductive cycles, sperm production, and fertility have been raised based upon the results of these studies.
If you’re a man using sunscreens, you might want to know that some of them – specifically benzophenone ‘BP1’ and the camphors 3-BC and 4-MBC – inhibit your body’s production of testosterone by inhibiting the enzyme that converts its precursor androstenedione into testosterone. Even worse, the testosterone that does escape this inhibition is then blocked from activating its receptor by the same chemicals!
Sunscreen causes cancer cells to spread
If you’re a woman using sunscreens, you’d best hope you don’t have any beginnings of breast cancer. Researchers have found that eight of nine widely used sunscreen chemicals tested significantly increased the division of breast cancer cells. (These chemicals included benzophenones BP1, BP2 and BP3, salicylate homosalate HMS, camphors 3-BC and 4-MBC, cinnamate OMC, the PABA derivative OO-PABA, but not avobenzanone.) Another study showed that this effect was even stronger than the effect of the most potent human oestrogen, oestradiol!
Sunscreen disrupts thyroid hormone production
Let’s see… messed up testosterone for men, abnormal oestrogen signalling for women… why not disrupted thyroid function for both sexes? That’s been found too. Yet another benzophenone – this time BP2 – inhibits the thyroid enzyme thyroid peroxidase (TPO), which is necessary for the formation of the most active thyroid hormone, tri-iodothyronine (T3) and its precursor, the mostly storage-and-transportation form, thyroxine (T4).
Accelerated skin ageing (photo-ageing), infertility, the combination of low and blocked testosterone, increased division in breast cancer cells, and disrupted thyroid hormone production should be enough to keep you away from the stuff.
What alternatives are there to sunscreens?
Now that you are rethinking your commitment (if you had one) to using sunscreens, that doesn’t mean you can stay out in the sun for hours without the proper protection – and without suffering the consequences of skin damage. Fortunately, there are many alternatives to sunscreens that are extremely safe and effective.
One method used for thousands of years, if not longer, still works well. The results of the NHANES study found that shade and protective clothing reduced sunburn more effectively than sunscreens.
In addition to that, there are numerous ways to get the most from the sun – while also staying protected from it. Take a look:
- You can protect your skin from sun damage with a safe and effective topical treatment. Read more about it on page 4.
- If you do develop skin cancer, there is a natural, nonsurgical breakthrough. Read all the details on page 5.
- Just because you’re spending time outside doesn’t mean you’re getting enough vitamin D. Read about the ‘EZ’ guide to optimal vitamin D intake on page 8.
Dr. Jonathan V. Wright
Nutrition & Healing
Volume 6, Issue 04 – April 2012
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.