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With skin cancers on the rise, the debate over how well sunscreens work is still swirling.
While the medical and logical recommendation is to use a sunscreen, reduced sun exposure and cover is the prevailing wisdom. I get the impression that most health-minded folks look at using a sunscreen as perhaps the lesser of two evils.
Most know that too much sun can cause skin cancer, but many fear that putting a toxic sunscreen directly on the skin and then sitting in the sun seems contrary to good health as well.
There is mixed evidence regarding whether sunscreens actually work to prevent certain skin cancers. (7) According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a conclusion has yet to be reached, although the suggestion to use safe sunscreens is still strong. (2)
What Your Sunscreen Doesn’t Protect You From
Americans are being diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, at steadily upward-spiraling rates. According to the National Cancer Institute, over the past 35 years, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled. (2)
According to The American Cancer Society’s 2017 estimates for cases of melanoma, about 87,110 new melanomas will be diagnosed, and about 9,730 people are expected to die of melanoma. The risk of melanoma increases with age, with the average age of diagnosis being 63. Not to say that melanoma isn’t extremely common in young adults. In fact, it is one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30, especially young women.
In the general population, there is a strong correlation between melanoma risk and number of sunburns, particularly during childhood.
It seems that for every study that suggests sunscreens will reduce the risk of melanoma, there is another study that suggests they do not offer protection. However, the FDA, National Cancer Institute and International Agency for Research on Cancer have concluded that no one can say for sure that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of melanoma or any other skin cancer. (2)
Some Interesting Facts (2)
- Some studies suggest that regular sun exposure may not be as harmful as intermittent and high-intensity sunlight.
- Outdoor workers report lower rates of melanoma than indoor workers.
- Melanoma rates are higher among people who live in northern American cities with less year-round UV intensity than among residents of sunnier cities.
- Researchers speculate that higher vitamin D levels among people with regular sun exposure may play a role in reduced melanoma risk.
Are There Herbal Sunscreens?
In 2012, there was a review of all the botanical agents studied for the treatment and prevention of non-melanoma skin cancers. (8) The review found that numerous botanicals offer multiple chemo-preventive properties that may be useful as sunscreens or as a part of a sunscreen formulation. (1) For example, Ingenol mebutate (a cousin of the poinsettia and an extract from Euphorbia) was recently approved by the FDA for treatment of Actinic Keratosis also known as a Solar Keratosis, which are crusty, scaly spots that form on sun-damaged skin. (5)
There are many such botanicals being studied as potential sunscreens that may act as healthier, more natural, more effective, and perhaps more user-friendly sunscreens in the future. Here is a glimpse of the botanicals currently being studied:
- Extract of Euphoria peplus (Ingenol mebutate)
- St. John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum)
- Black salve (blood root)
- Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia)
- Beta carotene
- Genistein: a flavonoid found in soy, Greek sage, Greek oregano, Ginkgo biloba.
While such botanicals are not likely to be found in your over-the-counter sunscreen and are not yet proven, hopefully more natural botanical ingredients will be studied and found in the next generation of sunscreens.
We RecommendSun Protection: New Options, New Research
- Sunscreens with SPF values lower than 15.
- Sprayable Sunscreens – pose serious inhalation risks.
- Sky-High SPF values (50+) – SPF stands for “sun protection factor” and refers only to protection from UVB radiation, leaving the skin exposed to the more dangerous and damaging UVA rays.
- Oxybenzone – they are endocrine-disrupting chemicals and estrogenic.
- Retinyl Palmitate – on sun-exposed skin may be linked to skin tumors and lesions.
- Combined Sunscreen/Bug Repellents – the combination increases the risk of absorbing both.
- Sunscreen towelettes or powders – not FDA approved and increase risk of inhalation.
- Tanning Oils – generally have no sunscreen protection.
The Safest Sunscreen Ingredients
- Zinc oxide
- Titanium dioxide
Do you have a favorite clean, herbal sunscreen you recommend? Share in the comments!