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Is your sunscreen safe?

Sunscreen has been one of the scariest products for me to purchase since the birth of my children.  Over the last decades we have been bombarded with the "always wear sunscreen, all day, every day" message from dermatologists, public health, and the sunscreen industry.  But is that really healthy?

Notice how this photo doesn't suck?  It's because Ashley, my sister in law, took it.
Just three years ago I would have never dreamed about taking Izzy outside on a sunny day without sunscreen.  Before Stroller Strides the scene was always, even at 8:30 am, a line of moms bent over their strollers, slathering every inch of their child's exposed skin with white cream.  Because we are responsible parents, and all conventional wisdom has told us this is the responsible thing to do.

But in the last two years an alarming number of studies have come out saying that this is NOT the healthiest thing to do, for a variety of reasons.  A number of studies, some dating back to 1998 have actually linked use of sunscreen to a HIGHER incidence of skin cancer.  And even more alarming, one ingredient in particular has been shown to speed up the development of cancer cells once they appear (and it's not what you think...).  Vitamin A and it's derivatives, which are added to sunscreens to counter aging and moisturize and are not vital to sun protection have been shown to speed up cancer growth.  This has to do with the vitamin possibly reacting to the sun while on your skin (so don't worry, ingesting vitamin A is fine).

Also, as in the case of many diseases, skin cancer incidence has exploded only recently, while people have been exposed to the sun, oh, forever.  One could argue that more incidences of skin cancer are occurring because people live longer, but as each year progresses the number of young people affected increases as well.  And one could also argue that it is simply because we show more skin now, but bathing suits in the 20's and 30's were almost (I said almost) as skimpy as today's, yet skin cancer rates didn't start to rise until the late 50's and 60's.

What to do?  No one actually knows for sure what causes skin cancer. The sun may play a role, but I doubt it plays the significant role that everyone assumes.  Vitamin D, ironically enough, is supposed to be a preventative to skin cancer (sounds a little like God had it figured out and we messed with it...).  The more research is done, the more it begins to look like skin cancer is more strongly linked to something else.  But if you're like me and don't want to take a risk with your (extremely pale) children, but also believe the research that most sunscreen is far more dangerous than sun exposure, this is what you do (ie this is what I do):  Avoid burning, but only rely on sunscreen as a last resort.
  • Avoid going outside on hot, sunny days in the summer between 11am and 4pm.  
  • If you do go outside, stay in the shade.  
  • If you have to/choose to be in the sun wear as much protective clothing as you comfortably can. 
  • And then, if you still need protection, use a sunscreen that doesn't contain oxybenzone, nano particles of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (micronized is fine, nano is not) and that is recommended by the EWG
Going by the clock is actually a rather convenient approach for us in the summer- we go outside and play or work in the garden all morning, come inside at 11am to make and eat lunch, and then it is rest/nap time until around 4. 

In fact, I just had a thought- perhaps, coupled with more widespread vitamin D deficiency, the fact that we (in the US) don't take a "siesta" during the hottest part of the day is to blame.  So it's not the sun that causes cancer- it's air conditioning.  (the previous statement is totally something that just popped into my brain, I and no one else on the planet, that I am aware of, have any research to back it up.  It just occured to me while I was typing the bit about nap time).

Anyway, if you want to read a much better and more well researched blog post about sunscreen and sun exposure, check out Kitchen Stewardship's Sun Week Series from last summer- she puts SOOOO much work into her research, it just blows me away.

1 comment:

Nadia said...

I searched EWG before buying a sunscreen for my kids and still I don't really put it on them unless we're really in high sun for extended time.

Here's another blog with much research on the topic:

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