Your Sunscreen May Actually Be Dangerous

Dr. Sears' Blog - The Dangers of Sunscreen

When summer approaches, one of the first things you do is hunt down your left-over sunscreen bottles. You might think that since you didn’t use it all up last year, it is still safe to use this season. Think again.

Sunscreens are made of reactive chemicals that don’t last forever.  Chemical ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone and octylmethocinnamate are the primary ingredients in sunscreens.  Besides being reactive chemicals that expire, they are also endocrine disruptors if they get into the blood.  In fact, oxybenzone is found in the blood of 96% of Americans.  It’s amazing to me that people who are so concerned by herbicides and pesticides are quite willing to slather endocrine disruptors on their skin every summer. Endocrine disruptors work against the body’s systems such as the thyroid and adrenals, leading to a host of negative symptoms and health problems.

Myth: You Must Always Wear Sunscreen

Aren’t we told that without these sunscreens we will all die from skin cancer?  Unfortunately for the sunscreen companies, data doesn’t support this great advertising line.  Two recent studies from Sweden indicate that those who had the lowest sun exposure had higher mortality rates than those with higher levels of sun exposure. Even with the looming danger of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, your best protection is not sunscreens, but old-fashioned sun protection methods like hats, long-sleeved shirts, and staying in the shade.

Science busts the sunscreen myth.  First, sunscreens block the formation of Vitamin D and there is an association of low levels of Vitamin D to mortality. Second, sunlight enhances mood through the release of endorphins, treating skin diseases such as helping to heal psoriasis, treating seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and orchestrating melatonin levels for better sleep.

Sunscreens can cause dangerous radiation from the sun to be absorbed into the skin. This can cause damage to the stem cells in the dermis making it difficult to regenerate skin cells.  Also, the chemicals in sunscreens are inflammatory and create photosensitivity in the skin.  The higher the SPF number of a sunscreen, the more photosensitivity it creates.  In fact, the SPF number is only relative to blocking UVB radiation, which is effectively stopped by the epidermis (the layer of dead skin cells that protect the living skin cells in the dermis).  Finally, while we are using more sunscreens than ever and avoiding the sun, skin cancer rates, especially melanoma, keep growing each year.

Truth: You Can Protect the Skin Naturally

Natural defenses in the living dermis are always more effective than sunscreens in protecting the skin.  The two primary dietary defenses are omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil, and polyphenols.  The omega-3 fatty acids (especially in high concentrations in the blood) generate hormones known as resolvins that stop the inflammation caused by excessive sun exposure.  The polyphenols activate gene transcription factors that cause the production of anti-oxidative enzymes that clean up any free radicals induced by excessive sun exposure.  Of course, if you don’t have adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols in the blood vessels circulating through the dermis, your skin literally becomes toast.

I am not advocating that you go out for a day in the sun without any protection. That could result in a severe sunburn and could lead to skin cancer in later years. Be smart about your sun exposure, and if you are spending an entire day outside, make sure you find some shade, bring an umbrella, have loose clothing that covers your arms and legs and a hat that will protect your head and face.

Make the Sun Your Health Ally Instead of Your Enemy

First, try to get 20 minutes of sun exposure every day.  Ideally, swimming outdoors is great way to get the maximum amount of skin exposure to the sun.  Sunbathing is another, but once your skin begins to turn a slight pink, it’s time to get out of the sun.  If you can’t get out of the sun, then wear a long-sleeved shirt and large-brimmed hat to protect the skin for the rest of the day.  Also make sure you never go to the pool or the beach without a large umbrella to sit under.  Finally make sure you are consuming a lot of omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols to provide the intrinsic sun protectors we are designed to use.

Sources:

  1. Yang L et al.  “Utraviolet exposure and mortality among women in Sweden.  Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 20:683-690 (2011).
  2. Berwik M. “Can UV exposure decrease mortality?’  Cancer Epidemiolo Biomarkers Prev 20:582-584 (2011).
  3. Linquvist PG et al. “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for all-cause mortality.”  J Intern Med 276:77-86 (2014).
  4. Lazovich D et al. “Melanoma risk in relation to use of sunscreen or other sun protection methods.”  Cancer Epidemiolo Biomarkers Prev 20:2583-2593 (2011).
  5. Ford ES, Zhao G, Tsai J, and Li C. “Vitamin D and all-cause mortality among adults in USA.” Int J Epidemiol  40:998-1005 (2011).

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About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 45 years to the study of lipids. He has published 40 scientific articles and holds 14 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 14 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". His books have sold more than 6 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

Comments

  1. microsatellite

    That is true. If the traffic signal transmission ratio of sun glasses is not qualified, it is easy to cause the driver can not distinguish traffic lights after wearing sunglasses, thereby bringing security risks.

    Reply
  2. donna

    Hello, I live in San Diego,,,I know and have often wondered about sunscreen as here we are in the sun quite a lot most of the year. I know that our skin does drink it in. I am careful not to use bad products for the most part, I use coconut oil for a lot of moisturizing but is there a natural substance we can use for the times when we are in the sun for a lot more time? Another question, if I am already tan, do I still have the same risk of sunburn than when I am not? Since the sunscreen is so bad for us, would it be better just to get some overexposure from the sun than using sunscreen??I do use a hat and cover-up when I feel like I am getting too much sun.
    Lastly, I notice as I get older (54) that I tan faster and keep my tan longer,,,I have always used sunscreen so I rarely ever get a sun burn. I do go in the ocean a lot in the summer and we go to Hawaii every year. What is the best course of action for those who are exposed to the sun regularly?

    Reply
  3. Manila Ciacci

    Due to prolongued use of omega 3 fish oil, i do not suffer more of sun erythema.

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      As you increase the levels of omega-3 fatty acids in the skin, you also increase the potential of the resolution response to reduce any inflammation induced by sun radiation.

      Reply
  4. Cynthia Laforty

    I tossed all my chemical sunscreens out and now will only wear a physical sunscreen if I’, cycling or walking in the sun over a hour. I also stopped exfoliating my face in my morning routine and save it for my evening routine. Funny I read about chemical sunscreens in a “health food” store ad but didn’t trust in information.

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      Intelligent skin care protection is sometimes is difficult. However, in my opinion, the steps you currently doing is well worth the effort.

      Reply
  5. Cynthia Laforty

    Wow, had to rethink about my sun exposure with my sports as I can be in the sun for up to 2-3 hours cycling. When I run I wear a hat and granny sunglasses. Since I cant run with long sleeves, I will put a physical sunscreen on ( I tossed out my chemical ones after reading this). Also I don’t exfoliate my face now in my morning routine, just evening. Its interesting but I did read about chemical sunscreens in a “health food’ ad but didn’t trust the information. I’m now very aware of the damage that woman are doing to their faces when they over exfoliate and than pile on a chemical sunscreen before venturing outside in the sun. Thank you for a very helpful article .

    Reply
  6. Mike Villalvazo

    Hello Dr. Sears, I’ve been a Zone Advocate for years with pretty good results (I think). I also like tue Sears Labs Omega Rx and Omega Rx Sport. Having said that, about sunblock, riding a bike 3-4 hours requires some kind of sunblock/screen and a hat or long sleeves sometimes is not possible, in those cases would you recommend some sort of sports sunblock? (I use one, otherwise I would be fried haha).
    ¡Saludos from Mexico!

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      I would definitely recommend sunblock for those three hour rides. Usually SPF 30 is adequate, but the best protection is increasing the levels of polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids in blood to reduce any inflammation induced by the long-term sun exposure.

      Reply
      • Mike Villalvazo

        Ok! Thanks for your prompt response and advice. I’m currently using the Omega Rx + PolyPhenol XT + sunblock combo.

        ¡Saludos!

        Reply
  7. Cathy

    Dr. Sears
    We are African American, my son works outdoors his hold shift unless it’s raining. We live in the south so it gets really hot. Too hot for long sleeves or long pants. What can he do?

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      Living in Florida, I understand the problem. However, as an African-American, your pigmentation will provide a substantial benefit in reducing the penetration of excess sun exposure into the dermis. Nonetheless, a large floppy hat would still be a great idea.

      Reply
  8. Clara

    Sorry, I forgot one question on my last comment. Is the altitude in Mexico City a strong factor that I should consider swimming indoors?

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      Swimming indoors would decrease much of sun exposure for nitric oxide formation, but it still a great form of exercise.

      Reply
  9. Clara

    Hello, I live in Mexico City and swim twice a week for one hour each time. Three years I did it after 10:00 with clothing protection on upper body and protected legs with sunscreen and face with zinc oxide. Someone told me the hour is important related to sun exposure so I recently started swimming before 10:00 and still do it for one hour twice a week. I believe I need some sun exposure in order to maintain relatively good bone health in the future. I intend to keep swimming this way. I would love your opinion. I am female, 48 years of age with osteopenia.
    Thank you very much

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      Rational sun exposure is critical for good health. Not such much for the Vitamin D, but probably because the radiation releases stored nitrates in the skin to be turn into nitric oxide that promotes better blood flow. I believe 20 minutes of exposure between 10 am and 2 pm is ideal. However, much more is not as it increases inflammation. As usual there is a zone.

      Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      The aerosol delivery of the pigment and/or sunscreen in spray-on tanning or sunscreen products is much more likely to enter into the lungs than by topical application. I would definitely advise against it.

      Reply
  10. kathu

    Is it fine to go out early in the day without protection? Does it depend upon the angle of the sun so maybe a sun damage would not be an issue before, say, 10am?

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      The lower intensity of the sunlight will also decrease the vitamin D formation and release of stored nitrates in the skin for improved production of nitric oxide. 20 minutes in the noon sun would be equivalent of a longer exposure in the morning or late afternoon to get the same stimulus. Just be careful never to overexposure the skin to sunlight. If the skin is pink, get out of the sun.

      Reply
  11. Dr. Damian Dhar

    Dr. Sears, please mention the use of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for those persons at high risk for melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. These ingredients are inert and act as a physical block to ultraviolet A and B, much like the use of clothing you mentioned. They are a safe alternative to the chemical based products. I suspect they are not as well accepted by the public because they generally are not as cosmetically well tolerated by some and they usually lack fragrance which many people like. These sunblock products are available commercially, but as you mention, persons need to read the ingredients prior to making purchase decisions and select those products that only contain zinc and titanium if they have concerns about the use of potentially endocrine disrupting chemical products.

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      Your point is well taken. Nanotechology for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide may cause more problems because of the potential of these microencapslated sun blockers to enter into the blood stream. That’s why I like the idea of floppy hats and sun-blocking clothes.

      Reply
  12. gordon james wanless

    Did you know it takes DAYS for the skin to produce vitamin D from sunlight? and that during that time soap and water will remove it ?

    Reply
    • Dr. Sears

      New skin cells in the dermis are made every 14 days. However, the epidermis consists of tightly packed dead cells as a formidable barrier to prevent microbial entry. The vitamin D will only be in the dermis, not the epidermis, so washing your hands and skins remains a good idea to reduce the microbial load on the epidermis. The real benefits of sunlight might not be in Vitamin D production, but the release of stored nitrates in the dermis to that can be converted NO to improve blood flow throughout the body.

      Reply

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