Sunscreen: Risks, Benefits, and What to Look for on a Label

Sunscreen: Risks, Benefits, and What to Look for on a Label

In This Article

UVA Rays Are More Harmful Than UVB Rays

According to the Environmental Working Group, only 2 out of 10 commercial sunscreens are considered safe, and only 1 out of 10 of the 1700 sunscreens tested fully protect your skin from the sun. (1)

There are two main UV rays that are potentially harmful to the skin. They are UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are more abundant and penetrate deeper into the skin, making them more harmful than the UVB rays. Though UVB rays are essential for good health in short doses, they are responsible for sunburns because they tend to stay on the skin’s surface. As a result, UVB rays are blamed for causing skin cancers. The SPF (skin protection factor) rating system measures the ability for a sunscreen to block UVB rays – not the more harmful UVA rays. In other words, a sunscreen with an SPF of 50 will block out all UVB rays but may not block any UVA rays.

(SPF = the amount of time it takes for average skin to burn, which is 30 minutes x the SPF factor.) New research shows that all sunscreens, no matter how high the SPF, should be reapplied every 60-90 minutes, as they do break down. Studies show this to be true even with sunscreens with an SPF of 50. (2) I recommend using a natural sunscreen with a lower SPF and simply applying it more frequently.

Skin Cancer Rates Have Exploded Though Use of Sunscreen Has Increased

We now know that the UVB rays are not the main cause of skin cancer – it is the UVA rays that are more damaging. Commercially, 4 out of 5 sunscreens do not adequately protect us against skin cancer-causing UVA rays. (1) What’s worse is that for 30 years, sunscreens have been blocking the good UVB rays while letting in the harmful UVA rays.

While sunscreen use has increased, so has the incidence of skin cancer. Between the years of 2007-2011, skin cancer rates soared to nearly 5 million people per year being treated for skin cancer in the United States, costing an average of $8.1 billion each year. (3) 2009 is the first year we saw sunscreens claiming protection against both UVA and UVB rays. But remember, the SPF on the label only guarantees protection from UVB, which are the “good rays”.

UVB Rays Make Vitamin D

Most importantly, the UVB rays make vitamin D, which protects the skin from the sun as well as the bones from osteoporosis. (4) Low vitamin D levels have also been linked to a host of different health imbalances including skin cancer, autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, poor cognitive function, dementia and predisposition to genetic or familial diseases. (4-10)

Sunscreens, because they block UVB, have been reported to reduce vitamin D levels in the blood by 97-99%, putting us all at great risk. (11-13)

In 1978, the FDA promised to make a ruling on sunscreens, to inform and protect us – but we are still waiting for that ruling. So we, the consumer, must guess which sunscreen is safe and will effectively block both UVA and UVB rays.

Lack of Sun Exposure is Dangerous

While excessive exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer, the research shows that the greater risk is lack of sun exposure, which leads to low levels of vitamin D. (4-13) The extreme thinking that any sun exposure is harmful is being rethought. To naturally produce vitamin D, you need 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunlight on your skin (without sunscreen) every day. After 10 to 15 minutes, when the skin starts to turn pink, continued UV exposure may cause damage. The exact amount of time needed to be safe and produce vitamin D will depend on the skin type, healthy function, and the amount of natural pigment in the skin. (Check out my newsletter on what you need to know about vitamin D and how to get it, here).

Only a Few Sunscreen Ingredients are Safe

There are only a few active sunscreen ingredients that effectively block both UVA and UVB rays. The only ones that are both safe and effective for UVA and UVB protection are zinc oxide and avobenzone, (14) which do not penetrate the skin. They block or reflect the sun.

Avoid sunscreens with Octinoxate, Octisalate, Oxybenzone or Homosalate. These chemicals are toxic and have high absorption rates through the skin. They act as either irritants, allergens, hormone disruptors, or carcinogens. (15)

How to Find the Best Sunscreens

Zinc oxide and avobenzone are the only sun blocks you should be using during extreme sun exposure. They may be combined with other natural moisturizers but no other sun blocking agents are both safe and totally effective.

When you know you are going to be in the sun for extended periods, apply a sunblock that has 6-25% zinc oxide or avobenzone. Nano-technology has helped these blend into the skin better and don’t leave your skin that tell-tale zinc oxide white color. Nano-technology, or micronization, is where the zinc oxide is reduced in size down to a billionth of a meter.

You can buy good quality zinc oxide at your local grocery store in the baby care section. Diaper rash creams are usually pure zinc oxide, and can be bought at a fraction of the price of the zinc oxide in the sunscreen section. This zinc oxide cream can also be mixed with your favorite lotion or LifeSpa’s Body Butter for a homemade safe and effective sunscreen.

Healthy Skin Function is the Best Sunscreen

In Ayurveda, as is true in many tropical cultures, the goal is not just to block the sun’s rays but to also help the skin function better as an organ, so the skin can better protect itself. No doubt, skin under an intense sun will need a block of some kind.

LifeSpa Body Butter

In 1996, I started developing a natural and non-preserved skin care line with a natural pharmacist. My goal was to help restore the function of the skin as an effective organ of elimination, which is required for optimal health. Body Butter is a natural moisturizer that supports the healthy function of the skin. It combines shea butter, avocado butter, mango butter and herbs that are cooked into these butters.

What are your favorite methods of healthy sun exposure and natural protection from too much sun?



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Dr. John

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