Using Sunscreens Can Make You a Magnet for Melanoma

Using Sunscreens Can Make You a Magnet for Melanoma

Story at-a-glance -

  • The Environmental Working Group has released its 2012 Sunscreen Guide, listing the safest and most toxic sunscreens on the market. About 75 percent of sunscreens contain potentially harmful ingredients, such as oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate
  • Two important factors to consider when buying sunscreen is to avoid products with SPF’s higher than 50, and to make sure it offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays. Keep in mind SPF only protects against UVB’s
  • Several studies have confirmed that appropriate sun exposure actually helps prevent skin cancer. In fact, melanoma occurrence has been found to decrease with greater sun exposure, and can be increased by sunscreens. The key to safe sun exposure is to determine the time of year when UVB rays will reach the ground in your specific area. When UVB rays are absent, your body will not produce vitamin D in response to sun exposure
  • Using an “internal sunscreen” is an option to slathering on sunscreen. Astaxanthin—a potent antioxidant—has been found to offer effective protection against sun damage when taken as a daily supplement. Some sunscreens are also starting to use astaxanthin as an ingredient to protect your skin from damage

By Dr. Mercola

With the height of the sun season upon us, health officials are telling everybody to pull out their sunscreen and slather it on.

But before you do that, it might be best to check the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) 2012 Sunscreen Guidei to see if your sunscreen is one of the 75 percent with potentially harmful ingredients in it.

Contrary to popular belief, many sunscreen products may actually increase the speed at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate, as well as other hazardous ingredients.

While there's disagreement on the actual level of toxicity some of the chemicals on EWG's list have on humans, the list does provide safer alternatives, so I highly recommend using this valuable resource as a guide before you start shopping.

I will also offer my own recommendations for protecting yourself against harmful sun exposure in this article, while still making sure you're getting the exposure you need in order to maintain healthy vitamin D levels.

This year, the EWG tested 800 commercially-available sunscreens, up from 600 tested just last year. Unfortunately, only 25 percent of these products effectively protect your skin without the use of potentially harmful ingredients, so it's important to do your homework.

To make it onto EWG's safe list, sunscreens must:

  • Be free of oxybenzone
  • Be free of retinyl palmitate (a type of vitamin A)
  • Provide a maximum of SPF 50, and
  • Protect against both UVA and UVB sunrays

Are You Drenching Your Skin with These Toxic Chemicals?

Oxybenzone is one of the most troublesome ingredients found in the majority of sunscreens. According to EWG's findings, 56 percent of sunscreens contain this harmful chemical. Its primary function is to absorb ultraviolet light. However, oxybenzone is also believed to cause hormone disruptions and the type of cell damage that can provoke cancer.

As I've mentioned on numerous other occasions, it's important to understand that chemicals are readily absorbed into your bloodstream and body through your skin. And sometimes this can be even more hazardous to your health than swallowing it.

Still, both the American Academy of Dermatology and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regard oxybenzone as safe. It's been approved by the FDA since 1978, and is approved for use on children over the age of six months.

Retinyl palmitate, a type of vitamin A, is another high-risk ingredient found in many sunscreens. According to a recent CNN reportii:

"Government-funded studies have found that this particular type of vitamin A may increase risk of skin cancer when used on sun-exposed skin. However, these reports have been in mice and evidence has been inconclusive for humans."

According to the research compiled by EWG's chemical database, however, retinyl palmitate gets a classification of "high concern" due to its developmental and reproductive toxicityiii. Research indicates that retinyl palmitate is readily absorbed by your skin. According to a report by the National Institutes of Healthiv:

"Cosmetic formulations containing retinyl palmitate are substantially more stable than those containing retinol. Furthermore, retinyl palmitate readily penetrates into the epidermis and dermis. In vitro measurements of retinyl palmitate's percutaneous absorption indicate that 18 percent of retinyl palmitate, topically applied in acetone, penetrates human skin within 30 hrs.

Percutaneous absorption of retinyl palmitate in currently marketed cosmetic products may be still greater due to the considerable efforts of cosmetics formulators to maximize the effectiveness of products containing retinyl palmitate and retinol.

Studies indicate that absorbed retinyl palmitate is readily hydrolyzed to retinol by cutaneous esterases. In addition, skin contains the enzymes required for further metabolism of retinol to retinaldehyde and retinoic acid, and some studies have shown that levels of retinoic acid in the skin can increase following topical application of retinyl palmitate or retinol." [Emphasis mine]

According to EWG's chemical database, retinoic acid—which has been shown to increase following topical application of retinyl palmitate—is also listed as moderately hazardous due to potential toxicity to organ systemsv. Despite these concerns, the FDA has continuously failed to alert consumers of the dangers of retinyl palmitate and its derivatives. This failure falls in line with the agency's continuous protection of their big business "clients" at the expense of public safety...

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Why Higher SPF isn't Necessarily Better

The EWG also warns against purchasing sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) greater than 50. The reason for this is because while SPF works by absorbing, reflecting or scattering the sun's rays on your skin, its protective ability is not linear and does not offer a great deal more protection at higher levels. As stated in the featured CNN article:

"While SPF 85 may sound like a lot more protection than SPF 30, the higher the number doesn't always give a high return. Studies show that sunscreen with SPF 15 can block about 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks 97 percent. SPF 50 blocks 98 percent. "The protective factors plateau from there. A product with SPF 100+ blocks about 99.1 percent of the UVB rays," [Dr. Ariel] Ostad said. "You don't really need a high number. They end up being expensive and don't offer more protection than SPF 50."

With regards to SPF, another important factor to remember is that SPF only protects against UVB rays, which are the rays within the ultraviolet spectrum that allows your body to produce vitamin D in your skin. But the most dangerous rays, in terms of causing skin damage and cancer are the UVA rays. This is why you always want to make sure any sunscreen you buy protects against UVA's as well as UVB's.

Please Remember the Trade Off and the Benefits of Vitamin D

Besides exposing your body to potentially harmful chemicals, perhaps an even greater concern is the fact that sunscreens effectively block the type of ultraviolet light needed in order for your body to produce vitamin D in response to the exposure. As just mentioned, UVB's are the rays responsible for vitamin D production, while UVA's are the ones responsible for the vast majority of skin damage from excessive sun exposure.

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in your overall health and well-being. If you've spent any time on my site at all, you know that I'm a firm advocate for optimizing your vitamin D levels. For example, this superb nutrient is known to:

Protect against cancer, including melanoma Support healthy kidney function
Enhance your muscle strength Promote healthy teeth
Help produce optimal blood pressure levels Help keep your bones strong and healthy
Help maintain a healthy immune system Support your cardiovascular health


This list of important benefits represents a mere fraction of the many ways vitamin D helps optimize your health. And, although you can obtain vitamin D from natural food sources, experts agree on one thing: Sunlight is by far the best way to get your vitamin D. The so-called experts who advise you to avoid all sunlight and religiously apply sunscreen are actually encouraging you to increase your risk of cancer, not lower it… The key is to find a healthy balance between getting enough natural sunlight to maximize your vitamin D production and maintain your optimal health, while at the same time protecting yourself from damage that occurs from overexposure to the sun. I'll review how to accomplish this in just a moment.

Sun Exposure Can Dramatically Help Protect You Against Cancer

Contrary to popular belief and what dermatologists have been telling you for years, several studies have already confirmed that appropriate sun exposure actually helps prevent skin cancer. In fact, melanoma occurrence has been found to decrease with greater sun exposure, and can, as already mentioned, be increased by sunscreens. For example, one such study revealed that melanoma patients who had higher levels of sun exposure were less likely to die than other melanoma patients, and patients who already had melanoma and got a lot of sun exposure were prone to a less aggressive tumor type.

Another Italian study, published in the European Journal of Cancer in June 2008vi, also supports earlier studies showing improved survival rates in melanoma patients who were exposed to sunlight more frequently in the time before their melanoma was diagnosed. Additionally, melanoma is actually more common in indoor workers than in outdoor workers, and is more common on regions of your body that are not exposed to the sun at all. Furthermore, UVB radiation has been found to delay the appearance of melanoma if you are genetically predisposed or prone to skin cancer!

The fact is, getting safe sun exposure every day is actually one of the best things you can do for your health. The point to remember is that once your skin turns the lightest shade of pink (if you're Caucasian), it's time to get out of the sun. Past this point of exposure your body will not produce any more vitamin D and you'll begin to have sun damage. And sunburn anywhere on your body is never good for your health.

How Do You Know if You Are Getting Enough Vitamin D?

A key factor that will determine whether or not sun exposure will affect your vitamin D status is that the UVB-rays must be able to pass through the atmosphere and reach where you are on the earth. If they can't reach you, your body will not manufacture vitamin D as a result of being in the sun. This obviously does not occur in the winter for most of us, but the sun's rays are also impeded during a fair amount of the year for people living in temperate climates. UVA's have greater penetration ability, so it's important to determine when vitamin D production can occur, and when to avoid sun exposure to reduce your chances of skin damage.

So how do you know if you have entered into the summer season and into the time of year, for your location, where enough UVB is actually able to penetrate the atmosphere to allow for vitamin D production in your skin?

Due to the physics and wavelength of UVB rays it will only penetrate the atmosphere when the sun is above an angle of about 50° from the horizon. When the sun is lower than 50°, the ozone layer reflects the UVB-rays but let through the longer UVA-rays. The following video will explain the procedure for determining the best times of year to boost your vitamin D stores through sun exposure.

The first step is to determine the latitude and longitude of your location. You can easily do this on Google Earth, or if you are in the U.S. you can use the TravelMath Latitude Longitude Calculator to find your latitude and longitudevii. Once you have obtained that you can go to the U.S. Navy site to calculate a table to determine the times and days of the year that the sun is above 50 degrees from the horizonviii. (The URL for the U.S. Naval Observatory Azimuth table is For a more detailed understanding of this you can visit the University of Colorado State's pageix that discusses this in more detail.

If you read the paper you will see that there are other factors, such as ozone concentration, altitude, air pollution, ground covered by snow or ice, and cloud cover that also contribute to the amount of UVB that is ultimately reaching your skin.

Translated to the date and time of some places on the globe, it means for example: In my hometown of Chicago, the UVB rays are not potentially present until March 25, and by September 16th it is not possible to produce any vitamin D from the sun in Chicago. Please understand it is only theoretically possible to get UVB rays during those times. If it happens to be cloudy or raining, the clouds will also block the UVB rays.

When NOT to Tan

From a health perspective, it's counterproductive to expose your skin to the sun when it is lower than 50 degrees above the horizon because you will not receive any valuable UVB rays, but you will expose yourself to the more dangerous and potentially deadly UVA rays. UVA's have a longer wavelength than UVB, which allows them to penetrate the ozone layer and other obstacles (like clouds and pollution) on their way from the sun to the earth. UVA is what radically increases your risk of skin cancer and photoaging of your skin. So while it will give you a tan, unless the companion UVB rays are available you're likely doing more harm than good and should probably stay out of the sun to protect your skin.

During the times of the year when UVB rays are not present where you live you essentially have two options: You can use a safe tanning bed or you can use oral vitamin D3.

Last but not least, you always want to avoid getting burned, but if you do end up with a burn, keep in mind that aloe vera is one of the best remedies to help repair your skin as it is loaded with powerful glyconutrients that accelerate healing. Ideally, it is best to use the gel from a fresh plant, but there are commercial products available that have active aloe in them.

Internal Sunscreen—A Viable Option to Toxic Lotions?

One of the most exciting nutrients I've learned about in recent years is astaxanthin, which along with a number of other exceptional benefits can also act as an internal sunscreen, effectively helping to protect your skin from sun damage from within. It has recently jumped to the front of the line in terms of its status as a "supernutrient," becoming the focus of a large and growing number of peer-reviewed scientific studies.

It's produced from marine algae in response to exposure to UV light. This is the way the algae protects itself, so it makes perfect sense that this deeply pigmented substance would have the capacity to "shield" you when it is taken in large enough quantities for a long enough time to saturate your body's tissues. Typically, this takes several weeks of daily supplementation.

In addition to taking it as a supplement, you can also look for a sunscreen that has astaxanthin in it. Just make sure the product in question does not contain other toxic ingredients, as topically applied astaxanthin will not likely cancel out the deleterious effects of an otherwise toxic lotion.

Cyanotech Corporation funded a study through an independent consumer research laboratory to measure the skin's resistance to both UVA and UVB light, before and after astaxanthin supplementationx. After taking 4mg per day for two weeks, subjects showed a significant increase in the amount of time necessary for UV radiation to redden their skin. Animal studies lend further evidence to astaxanthin's effects as an internal sunscreen.

Consider the following:

  • In 1995, hairless mice were fed various combinations of astaxanthin, beta-carotene and retinol for four months. After irradiation, astaxanthin alone or in combination with retinol was substantially effective in preventing photoaging of the skin (as measured by markers for skin damage).
  • In a 1998 study with rats, astaxanthin was found to be 100 times stronger than beta-carotene and 1000 times stronger than lutein in preventing UVA light-induced oxidative stress.
  • The Journal of Dermatological Science published a study in 2002 finding astaxanthin is able to protect against alterations in human DNA induced by UVA light exposure.

Other Tips to Decrease Your Risk of a Burn

Controlling your exposure to the sun is not always possible, and sometimes even the most vigilant of us forget to bring along the proper natural sunscreen when we face overexposure. You can prime your skin to defend against harmful UV rays by taking astaxanthin, but consuming a healthful diet full of natural antioxidants is another useful strategy to help counter skin damage from exposure to ultraviolet radiation.

Fresh, raw, unprocessed foods deliver the nutrients that your body needs to maintain a healthy balance of omega-6 and omega-3 oils in your skin, which is your first line of defense against sunburn. If you regularly consume processed foods and your cells are loaded up mostly with damaged, oxidized fats, you simply aren't giving your skin the proper fat protection it needs at a cellular level. Fresh, raw vegetables also provide your body with an abundance of powerful anti-oxidants that will help you fight the free radicals caused by sun damage that can lead to burns and cancer.

You can also make sure to wear a cap with a visor to protect your face and eyes from direct sunlight, along with enough clothing to protect your skin from direct sun contact. Most cotton clothing will provide you with about 15 SPF. I avoid using sunglasses, because I believe your eyes need to receive the full spectrum of light to function optimally, and sunglasses block out some essential waves of the light spectrum. So as you're getting your healthy and necessary daily exposure to direct sunlight to optimize your vitamin D levels, you'll also want to leave your sunglasses behind.