This is a very difficult discussion. I hear this question being asked more and more: does sunscreen cause cancer? What we know for certain is that the sun is a carcinogen. There is no debate about this statement anywhere in the world. We also know that repeated, unprotected UV light exposure causes skin cancer and premature aging of the skin. UV light also triggers other health problems such as macular degeneration of the eyes (which impairs vision). Being sun smart includes diligent use of sunscreen, wearing sunglasses, and sun protecting clothing.
Does Sunscreen Cause Cancer or Other Health Problems?
However, there is also research indicating that almost all sunscreen ingredients (including mineral sunscreen ingredients) are problematic when applied to skin or when the sunscreen ingredients get into our waterways. Plus, there are concerns about sunscreen blocking vitamin D.
As a result of all these pros and cons, confusing, scary articles are published encouraging readers to avoid sunscreens at all costs, but this is a dangerous reaction. The answer to this problem lies somewhere in the middle to take care of your skin, your risk of cancer, and vitamin D for your body.
Does Sunscreen Hurt the Environment?
Excess sunscreen ingredients in our oceans have been shown in some studies to destroy coral reefs. Think of how many millions of people slather their bodies in sunscreen and then go swimming, inadvertently polluting the water. However, how much of the deteriorating coral reefs and water pollution is attributable to sunscreen as opposed to the vast amounts of toxic industrial waste and garbage in the world’s water supply is guess work and not conclusive.
One of the sunscreen ingredients that gets a lot of negative attention is oxybenzone. For example, the State of Hawaii is not selling sunscreens that contain it because they consider it damaging to coral reefs. As responsible as that may seem, it’s a useless gesture given all sunscreen ingredients have issues of environmental safety. It ends up being a misleading focus.
In terms of your health, there is research concerning endocrine disruption and other health problems. But does sunscreen cause cancer? There is not a straight line to sunscreen. Most of the studies were done on animals and used a 100% concentration of the sunscreen ingredient. Even studies showing that sunscreen ingredients end up in the body doesn’t mean they are doing anything negative. Lots of ingredients end up in the body, from what you eat to what you inhale in the environment, or come into contact with, including plants in skin care products (for example, lavender is an endocrine disruptor). Perhaps those are the health-disrupting culprits and not the sunscreen ingredients. That’s what the research doesn’t tell us.
Ongoing research will undoubtedly reveal more pieces of this puzzle but making any conclusions at this point is getting ahead of what the research shows. In the meantime, what we know for certain is that unprotected sun exposure is bad for your health causing significant, lasting disruption to every part of your skin. Sunscreen use plus sun-protective clothing drastically minimizes this daily threat.
So, What Should I Do?
In truth, the most responsible way to take care of your skin, prevent skin cancer, and take care of the environment is to wear sun-protective clothing rated UPF 50 (UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor), both tops and leggings whether you’re at the beach or just out and about during the day. If you are going into the ocean, a lake or a river, UPF clothing is without question best for the environment. That’s because you will be putting on less sunscreen and therefore less sunscreen will get left behind in the water.
UPF clothing is also best for your skin. There’s another truth about sunscreen most people don’t realize. You can never adequately put on enough sunscreen and repeatedly reapply it as directed for long days in the sun. This is especially true when swimming if you’re wearing a bathing suit that doesn’t cover most of your body.
The amount of sunscreen you need to use when wearing a skimpy bathing suit is economically prohibitive for most people given the amount needed to apply and reapply. It is almost impossible to apply sunscreen liberally enough all over your body to get truly adequate protection. And that much sunscreen getting into our waterways is irresponsible for our planet. Sun-protective beach clothing and UPF-rated outdoor clothing is being sun smart and budget brilliant!To be clear, you still must apply sunscreen liberally on exposed parts of your body. But if you cover up more of most of your body with UPF clothing, you will be using far less sunscreen overall which is better for you and better for the world.
Having most of your skin exposed to the sun is bad for your skin (it’s nearly impossible to apply enough sunscreen to truly protect your skin). And applying excessive layer upon layer of sunscreen onto your skin and then going swimming is bad for the oceans:
Minimizing sun exposure by using sun protective clothing is good for your skin and the oceans: