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Sun, Sunscreen, Skin Cancer, and Safety: How Much Do You Need?

handstand at the beach

Does sunscreen cause cancer?

Like almost any topic in the field of health and wellness, it seems there is a tangled web of research and opinions when it comes to cancer, sun exposure and sunscreen ingredients.

Should we wear SPF 50 sunscreen for our walk from the house to the mailbox, or should we shun all sunscreens in our quest to increase our Vitamin D levels as much as possible? Do we buy sun protective clothing to safeguard every inch of our skin from the damaging UV rays, or should the real cause of our cancer fears be the sunscreen ingredients themselves?

When CNN broke the latest research on sunscreen in 2019 showing that YES, active ingredients in most sunscreens DO get into the bloodstream within just a day, the American community went hog wild sharing it.

But CNN of course spent more than half the article reminding us to wear sunscreen, wear it daily, and don’t change a single habit until science has had time to prove that what we’re slathering on our children multiple times a day is killing them slowly.


For my family, I choose not to be guinea pigs. I’ve been saying since 2010 that we need to run away from conventional chemical sunscreens, and I stand by that even more firmly today!

Since we now know that sunscreen actives do enter the bloodstream (thank you, science, for telling all of us through a tiny study of 24 people what those in the natural health world have known by common sense for decades), we can start to ask bigger questions — like what does it do in there?

Could sunscreen even cause the cancer we’re trying to avoid by wearing it??

As usual, I’m going to seek the balance on this controversial topic and try to share with you some brief synopses of research on the issue. I am grateful for the direction EWG offers in their yearly Sunscreen Guides but realize that multiple sources are necessary, especially when I read articles like this one questioning EWG’s scientific validity. In spite of the rebuttal, I think EWG does a great job organizing a wealth of information.

Note: If you’re ready to buy a natural, non-toxic sunscreen but aren’t sure which one, I reviewed over 100 safe sunscreens and add more every year – get the details on my favorites HERE.

How Chemical Sunscreen Works

“Sunscreens absorb UV energy and have to be absorbed into the upper layer of skin to really get up to full speed,” says Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center. (source)

A chemical reaction takes place between the sunscreen ingredients and the UV rays to “screen” your body from most of the effects of the sun. That’s why the instructions on the sunscreen bottles say to put it on 20 minutes before being exposed to the sun. It needs that time to sink in to your skin before its full SPF is realized. (1, 2, 3)

Because the active ingredients in chemical sunscreen don’t provide broad spectrum coverage alone, there must be a proper balance of multiple actives to offer balanced, safe coverage.

I use the term “safe” loosely there – safe from sunburn, but because the chemical constituents also degrade in the sunlight, they’re really not safe. More below…

How Mineral Sunscreen Works

Mineral active ingredients in sunscreen, on the other hand, are called a “physical” block rather than chemical. They sit on the surface of your skin rather than being absorbed into it. Most sources say that sunblocks “reflect and scatter UV light.” (1, 2, 3, 4 and many more)

On the other hand, the founder of Kabana, a biochemist from Stanford, disagrees with that explanation and claims instead:

“Zinc oxide has a broader UV absorption profile than titanium dioxide, which is noteworthy, because much misinformation populates the media about how these chemicals protect us – they do NOT reflect and scatter in the UV spectrum – rather zinc oxide absorbs UV and does so very effectively. The media (and ‘experts’ alike) need to investigate the physical chemistry of these compounds, rather than assume they reflect UV light because they look white in the visible spectrum. They do reflect in the visible, but would look black in the UV.” (source)

Either way, sunscreens use minerals that sit on the surface of the skin (usually zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) rather than chemicals that sink into the skin to protect one from the sun. Mineral sunscreens begin working right away on both UVA and UVB rays, so there’s no need to apply 20 minutes before sun exposure.

Notably, in 2011 the FDA banned the use of the term “sunblock” on sunscreen products.

Here’s a GREAT interview with Erik Kreider, founder of Kabana. He covers all the science geek information and research about sun safety and the hazards of petrochemical sunscreens. I learned a lot!!

What Is a Sunburn?

What exactly are we trying to protect ourselves from when we use sunscreen, anyway?

According to this source from a dermatologist: Ultraviolet rays of sun penetrate the skin and cause damage to the skin.

Inflammation and redness is a first level sunburn. Blistering means deeper damage to the skin. Tanned skin is superficially damaged skin. Tanning is the skin’s way of trying to protect the skin from damage.

What Does SPF Mean?

Every person’s skin has a certain tolerance for sun, and most people believe SPF (Sun Protection Factor) multiplies that tolerance. In other words, if you could spend 15 minutes in the sun without getting burned, applying the appropriate amount of an SPF 15 product would allow you spend 15 times 15 minutes in the sun. This is not actually 100% accurate about how SPF protects!!!

Another way of describing SPF is to say that the sunscreen absorbs UV rays at a percentage based on the SPF. For example, that SPF 15 sunscreen would allow your skin to absorb 1/15 th of the UV rays that it would if you weren’t wearing any protection. That’s about 6.7% of the rays coming through your sunscreen.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Using that formula, an SPF of 45 allows your skin to absorb 2.2% of the UV rays. Increasing the SPF three times only increased the protection by 4.5%. (12) Some use that data to claim that SPF 15 is really all you’ll need, since higher SPFs don’t add much protection at all. This doc at WebMD says anything over SPF 45 is “silly” and recommends SPF 30 to patients.

Often studies show that those who use a higher SPF are more likely to get melanoma (skin cancer), possibly because they’re tricked into thinking they’re safe from the sun and stay out longer. In 2011 the FDA was considering banning SPFs over 50 because they can feel so misleading, but they didn’t go through with it.

It’s vitally important to note that SPF only applies to UVB rays, the burning rays of the sun. All the invisible damage from UVA and UVC rays may still be coming through your SPF 5,000 tube. Good thing zinc oxide protects from both all by itself!

Why Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Is Imperative

The ultimate questions for any suncream is: Does it protect from both UVA (cancer causing) and UVB (skin damaging/burning) rays?

It doesn’t matter if a sunscreen saves you from a sunburn if it increases your risk of skin cancer at the same time from the other rays that simply don’t have short term, visible effects, right? All sunscreens will protect from UVB rays because you’d notice if it wasn’t working – you’d be sunburned!

Both UVA and UVB rays cause some cancers, but until 2011, the FDA didn’t even require sunscreens to offer UVA protection, Yikes! All along, sunscreens including zinc oxide protected from the full spectrum of the sun, naturally. It’s the only ingredient that covers for both!

To make sure you’re fully protected, look for the term “broad spectrum” on the package.

The trouble: UVA protection, which only comes from active ingredients avobenzone, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, isn’t always balanced well with UVB protection in a formula.

[RELATED: Read why Avobenzone is a terrible choice for sunscreen!]

Too much to look through right now?

I organized alllll the sunscreens we reviewed in their recommendation category – one page at-a-glance to find out what is safe to buy AND works! Print it or save to your phone for reference!

The guide also includes answers to questions people ask me all the time:

  • Which brand rubs in the clearest?
  • What’s the best for all day outdoor sports?
  • How do I save money on natural sunscreens?
  • What looks good on ladies’ faces?
  • Is there an option that is FAST to apply to wiggly kids?

I’ll send a copy to your email so you can see it right away and find it again later!

All Sunscreens Release Free Radicals

The sun is said to cause cancer because it forms free radicals in the skin. Sunscreens help protect our skin (to an extent) from that radiation, but in the process they also form free radicals, because all the energy from the sun has to go somewhere.

The trick is to block more free radicals than the sun cream creates. Many sunscreens include natural antioxidants like Vitamin E or green tea to combat the formation of free radicals in the skin.

The Risks of Chemical Sunscreens

3 at beach

Since chemically-based sunscreens have to be absorbed into your skin just to start working, they have one strike against them already just for entering your system instead of sitting on the surface. Some of the potential health risks of chemical sunscreens include:

  • Hormone disruption; mimics estrogen and raises risk of breast cancer (theoretical but frightening) 1, 2
  • Allergic reactions
  • Bioaccumulation in tissue and organs (found in 97% of Americans’ bloodstreams!)2
  • Also found in mother’s milk, demonstrating its reach even to the unborn
  • Oxybenzone is pegged for lowering thyroid hormone (source)
  • Shaving may increase the absorption of the chemicals (source)
  • Failure to biodegrade in the environment 3

Oxybenzone is the chemical ingredient with the most fingers pointing at it; that’s the one found in 97% of Americans. If I was only avoiding one ingredient, Oxybenzone would probably be the winner, especially for children, whose small bodies make them especially susceptible to endocrine disruptors. Hawaii agrees for the sake of the coral reefs!

RELATED: Cheap Reef-Safe Sunscreen that actually works!

Those free radicals that form when the sun’s rays touch the sunscreen are ironic, don’t you think, since you can’t exactly avoid that situation, or you wouldn’t need sunscreen in the first place. Free radicals are cancer-causing, but here’s the catch: It’s thought that both the sunscreen and the sun must penetrate deeper into the skin in order for the problems to happen.

If you reapply, the new sunscreen will, in theory, block the sun afresh and stop its path to the already well-absorbed sunscreen. If you don’t reapply, you may just be inviting skin cancer to roost in your skin. Applying a chemical sunscreen one time, particularly one with oxybenzone, and forgetting to reapply when still in the sun may have worse consequences than not applying any sun protection at all.

Risks of Mineral Sunblocks: Nano vs. Micronized Particles

As soon as you learn to look for words like “zinc oxide” and “titanium dioxide” on your sunscreen (sunblock!) bottles, another layer reveals itself. Apparently smaller sized pieces of the minerals rub in more effectively (but also change the way the UVA and UVB radiation is screened out). For aesthetic reasons, many sunscreens therefore use “nano particles” of both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

The smaller the particle, unfortunately, the more likely it is that it is absorbed into the skin, where it could cause unknown problems, including…what else? Cancer. 1, 2, 3 The nano particles may also be more hazardous to the environment and even if swallowed inadvertently while swimming.

This review of sunscreening agents from the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology states:

“Studies have shown that nanoparticles of these two compounds [zinc oxide and titanium dioxide] cause cytotoxicity, genotoxicity, and potential photocarcinogenecity.”

That article is a great overall scholarly summary of a ton of sunscreen information and research, if your science geek brain wants to go deeper.

You might also see the term “micronized” on a sunblock using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. This is a smaller form of the minerals, but not as small as “nano”. If the ingredients weren’t “micronized” – simply the process of grinding them smaller – they would be gritty like sand, rather ineffective at protecting your skin, and pure opaque white if it was possible to apply correctly. Micronized minerals are not small enough to get through the cell walls and are nothing to worry about.

Not all sunscreens disclose on the labels whether they use nano or micronized minerals. A good rule of thumb: If your zinc or titanium sunscreen goes on clear it is nanosized.

Here is some scholarly research worth reading if you really want to know more: A review of the scientific literature on the safety of nanoparticulate titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in sunscreens

Is Zinc Oxide Better Than Titanium Dioxide?


This study shows that zinc oxide is far better at blocking UVA than titanium dioxide, important for broad spectrum coverage, and The Skin Cancer Foundation discusses how both zinc and titanium dioxide are broad spectrum but zinc is more effective.

This study from 1997 demonstrated that microfine zinc oxide is broad spectrum and a safe and effective sunscreen.

Here are some studies that demonstrate that titanium dioxide does not penetrate the skin: 1, 2, 3 However, here’s a great interview with sunscreen expert Erik Kreider in which he explains (around the 25-minute mark) that titanium dioxide is still not as preferable as zinc oxide because:

  • Zinc oxide has the best UV absorption profile
  • Zinc is a critical mineral nutrient and even in vitamins (whereas titanium dioxide is a heavy metal)
  • Zinc oxide is the only active ingredient the FDA approves for babies – Zinc oxide is the active ingredient in many diaper rash crèmes, which is a pretty clear indication that it’s gentle and safe for even the most sensitive skin.
  • Zinc oxide holds onto its electrons more tightly (and therefore should generate fewer free radicals when exposed to the radiation of the sun)

I am not opposed to or scared of titanium dioxide, but when I am looking at optimal ingredients, I prefer zinc only.

Zinc oxide is also the only active sunscreen ingredient approved by the FDA for infants under six months, which is a striking fact.

Zinc oxide is a better sunscreen ingredient, as it offers the best UVA protection of all current sunscreen chemicals, and titanium dioxide is second best. (source) I don’t know that I’d avoid titanium dioxide with as much vehemence as I avoid oxybenzone, for example, but pure zinc oxide sunblocks are probably the best choice.

Too much to look through right now?

I organized alllll the sunscreens we reviewed in their recommendation category – one page at-a-glance to find out what is safe to buy AND works! Print it or save to your phone for reference!

The guide also includes answers to questions people ask me all the time:

  • Which brand rubs in the clearest?
  • What’s the best for all day outdoor sports?
  • How do I save money on natural sunscreens?
  • What looks good on ladies’ faces?
  • Is there an option that is FAST to apply to wiggly kids?

I’ll send a copy to your email so you can see it right away and find it again later!

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

About The Author

64 thoughts on “Sun, Sunscreen, Skin Cancer, and Safety: How Much Do You Need?”

  1. Hi Katie,
    So what waterproof sunscreen do you use? My son needs something fragrance free.
    The kids are headed to the lake and mountains this week and I don’t have a whole lot of time to research. (Printed this article off for later).

  2. Sun protective clothing is a great way to reduce the amount of sunscreen you need and still block harmful UV rays. Little Leaves sun protective clothing blocks 98% of UV rays and has styles for the whole family. They use cotton and bamboo fabric that is not treated with chemicals for a UPF rating of 50+.

  3. After 72 yrs of research, I have found that the best sunblock is to spend the hottest part of the day at my friendly neighborhood tavern that serves very cold beer! Hehe, Taras

  4. I just found out that avobenzene will likely stain clothing as soon as it’s mixed with water. The combination of water and the avobenzene produce rusty/pink stains on the clothing. To remove those stains I looked on-line. There is conflicting information about whether to use oxy-bleach and, of course, that’s one of the things I have already tried. I am going to try the method that uses baking soda first to remove any oil, followed by a dish soap soak and hot rinse (as hot as fabric allows). Wish me luck.
    If this fails, I may try a commercial rust-remover product.

    1. I have used the clear dishwashing liquid twice on the affected fabrics and on one that hadn’t been washed. There is a marked improvement, but not total success on the already stained clothes. Now I am trying some Barkeeper’s Freind. The item that was not exposed to water before the treatment appears to be a-okay. It is hard to know what areas needed to be treated because the stain wasn’t there…yet.
      The avobenzone sunscreen needs to be washed off from your skin with soap and water. Swimming and a rinse do not remove it from your skin.

  5. Your links regarding titanium dioxide nanoparticles causing cancer do not provide any information on that topic (the first seems to be a link to the EWG homepage, leaving me to guess that the link to specific article no longer exists and EWG just redirects you, the second is the wikipedia page on TiO2, which explicitly states that science has found that it does not penetrate the skin and the last link is no longer found)

    Multiple studies countering the idea that TiO2 nanoparticles penetrate either the skin or organs.
    (performed on minipigs, if you read the whole article, be warned that the description of the testing procedure is scientifically explicit and graphic, but the abstract covers the important information if you want to avoid reading that)
    Using microscopy on live human skin to determine depth of penetration of TiO2 nano particles

    This one shows how little was absorbed by organs when it was ingested (far more chance of being absorbed by organs), not applied to skin (regardless of particle size)

    food for thought 🙂

    1. Jeanette,
      Good to know that my sources became outdated, thank you for the update! I think you’ll really like this interview with Erik Kreider, a biochemist and sunscreen expert: He discusses titanium dioxide and why it’s not quite as good as zinc oxide. So even if it doesn’t cause cancer, and you have good sources on that, thank you, it’s still not the ideal choice for sunscreen when zinc is available. 🙂 Katie

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  7. I truly believe now that zinc sunscreen is dangerous. I started using it years ago and
    during that time I developed numbing in my
    extremities, heart palpatations, balance issues,
    brain fog, and burning in my breastbone that turned out to be some sort of hard lump
    deposit. My face also changed; I believe there are deposits on my cheekbones and the areas
    on both sides of my nose.
    I found out that it was toxic when I found a website where people had the same symptoms
    after using denture creams with zinc oxide. Using it is one of my biggest regrets. I even recommended it on a website before I found out that it wasn’t safe.

  8. Pingback: How to Make Your Own Sunscreen | Healthy Wife. Healthy Life.

  9. david fountain

    Try Sun Putty – 100% natural skin-loving SPF30 sunscreen…it is awesome. Sun Putty is great broad-spectrum protection and helps my skin tremendously. All outdoors travelers and sportsmen should use it.

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  13. Loved reading every word in this article. Confirmed alot of questions I had.. However,What do you think about the new ‘spray’ sunscreen, since you cant tell if it’s clear and contains nanosized titanium dioxide particles??? Bad ??
    Also, on this same subject of nansized titanium dioxide, and product labels dont specify if its micronized or nanosized, and you said if it’s ‘clear’ on the skin, it’s bad… Well, in cosmetics, like lip gloss, that contains titanium dioxide, since it’s ‘clear’, would that mean nanosized and clear, and obviously on your lips, and ‘yes’ you do ingest any lipgloss…
    I know it’s a new can of worms, but I am trying to research lip gloss in depth (for me and my girls sake since we use it soooo much)… I want the facts on it.. All lip glosses contain titanium dioxide, is it nanosized?? Your thoughts??

    1. Katie Kimball @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Hmmmm, great questions! I haven’t looked at the spray sunscreens, but if they send mist into the air, that IS a new can of worms, b/c then you’re inhaling stuff. Generally not good.

      For cosmetics, you can call the company and ask. If it’s not a natural brand, you probably have more to worry about than nano tit. diox. anyway. Do you use lip gloss for the moisturizing factor or the cuteness? If you just need a natural lip balm, our whole family uses MadeOn’s – totally awesome, and you can even make your own (maybe tinted?):

      Good luck on your search – it’s a worthy one! Let me know if you learn anything, as I’m working on looking into natural makeups for a fall series. Thanks! 🙂 Katie

  14. I had an interesting experience with sun tans. I lived in Michigan from birth to about 40. I moved on a boat and headed south. That first summer living aboard and cruising the east coast I had a pretty good tan going. The next 3 years I was sailing and living aboard in the Caribbean. I never used sun screen but my tan started to fade. I lived and worked outside in the Virgin Islands for 2 years and my skin lightened up to what it was like in Michigan in early summer. I never got darker, never burned, never used sunscreen.

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  18. I was told once that all we need is 3-5 minutes a day of sun to get our recommended Vitamin D amounts, and that it’s best absorbed through our eyelids and the palms of our hands. I think few people will burn for only 3-5 minutes of unprotected exposure, so I feel safe about that.

    1. That is interesting… and bizarre…. when you consider the fact that our eyelids and the palms of our hands probably get very little sun exposure… why would those be the areas where sunlight is best absorbed and assimilated into Vit D?

      I’m not saying what you said isn’t true, but it’s the frist time I’ve ever heard such a statement about sunlight and vit D, both the areas of the body and the amount of time needed. Do you have a source?

      Just another reason why this is such a confusing topic b/c there doesn’t seem to be consistent recommendations on how to balance our need for sunlight and our need to protect our skin from permanent damage. And of course there is a huge spectrum of complexions and locales which would have to factor into those recommendations.

      1. It’s something I was told by a source I trust, but I haven’t read anything online about it. In any case, it’s easy enough to stand in the sun, eyes closed and palms up, for 3-5 minutes…so that’s what I do now. I think 3-5 minutes is reasonable exposure to avoid any kind of damage. Let me know if you find out more!

  19. I have lived in Hawaii for 23 years and because I was from that beautiful but sun challenged Pacific Northwest I have been mostly careful regarding sun exposure times and durations. I came here porcelain hued and now am a soft honey color year round. There have been mistakes made however at various times, and I have suffered a few sunburns in years past.— A hike started on a cool rainy tropical morn ends up in steamy hot late afternoon on a high ridge with little cover . A wonderful dip into a cool waterfall pool has rinsed away the sunscreen applied back at the car from the sunscreen still in the car.– Or the beach day or see a whale day becomes extended due to visiting company. etc. etc. Everyone’s blown it a time or much more . I have been a natural organic foods educator, worked with Chinese herbalists and did a bit of catering so am quite knowledgeable about natural healing modalities. Beauty products have also been scrutinized . So how did I miss the sunscreen debate until 3-4 years ago. Since then I have used the zinc sunscreens and I don’t mind the white effect because I do one simple thing .I apply a favorite lotion with a touch of water first so my skin is slightly damp and the sunscreen just glides on. The soft lemon grass -honey vanilla scent in Surfer Honey is lovely .—But a really great product for establishing fabulous internal protection is called Bio Astin which has natural Astaxanthin . This is from a microalgae Haematoccocus pluvialis . This is the substance that gives salmon that brilliant pink color and the stamina and endurance for their incredible journeys. Check out a book called ” Astaxanthin King of the carotenoids. It is by Bob Capelli and Gerald Cysewski, PhD. I have not had any sunburns even after working in my orchard for 6-7 hours straight. Thirty five +years of whole foods ,a hat , natural sunscreen and 4 years of Bio Astin and I get constant comments on my “yery youthful skin” . The last 2 only recently added have been quite noticeable in their help. I wish I had used all of these all these years Aloha

    1. Neat info and testimony, Linda! Dr. Mercola’s sunblock uses astaxanthin, and I wasn’t sure what it was at first (review of that product coming). Thanks! 🙂 Katie

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  21. I had to read this to see if your research aligned with my suspicions-that it isn’t just about sun exposure, and chemicals aren’t the answer. There’s sure a lot here to read and try to understand!

    My personal belief is skin type plays a role. I’ve always tanned easily and rarely burn, but hardly use sunscreen. I probably won’t at all with these new studies suggesting the sun isn’t the only problem. How did people live in sunny locations hundreds of years ago and NOT get skin cancer? Was it just not defined yet? I think not.

    I believe diet plays a major role now too, since learning the benefits of a traditional, whole food diet.

    Interesting to hear from those that have greatly reduced vegetable oils and now don’t burn.

    Thanks for another great post!

    1. Melanin and immigration. If you are a “white” person, you are not originally from sunny places, vice versa.

      Also, there is the factor of longer life span. You don’t need to worry about skin cancer if starvation or the black plague killed you first.

  22. Lenetta @ Nettacow

    Oh, Katie, you haven’t made my head explode with a research post like this in a while! :>) So much to absorb… (that’s probably a pun, but my brain is cramped from trying to wrap my head around all this!) I linked on my weekly roundup – thanks for what you do!
    .-= Lenetta @ Nettacow´s last blog ..Link Roundup – Feet in the Pool Edition =-.

    1. Had to give you time to heal from the last one, didn’t I? Don’t worry, I’m giving up research for the rest of the summer now! : ) Katie

  23. One of my comments is similar to the first: There are more types of skin cancer than just melanoma, which was the only one mentioned above. Does anyone dispute that Squamous Cell Carcinoma and Basal Cell Carcinoma ARE caused by sun damage? These cancers may not be life threatening, but they can be very disfiguring. Removing them always leaves a scar, and depending on how large and deep the tumor was, reconstructive plastic surgery may be required. They are also found on the prominent, sun-exposed areas of your body – anywhere on the face -cheeks, nose, eyes, lips ears, as well as the back, arms, shoulders, hands, etc.

    To answer an above poster, yes, the sun’s rays do penetrate our clothing. In addition to clothing designed for sun protection, there is also a product called RIT Sunguard which is a laundry additive and makes your clothes more sun-protective than they are normally. It washes out after about 20 washings.

    I am really wondering about people who live in very cold climates (like, Eskimos?) who musn’t get very much sun exposure if they always are bundled up from head to toe, including their face much of the time! Are their diets especially rich in Vit D? (Fish oil, perhaps? 🙂 )

    With regard to melanoma, i just recently heard a snipet on NPR about blacks and hispanics getting melanoma at a greater rate than whites.

    Do we need both UVA and UVB to make vit D? If not, maybe they should invent a UVA only sunscreen!

    1. Sarah,
      I just read something about the UVA/UVB balance, and it sounds like we need to stick with the full spectrum. I wish I knew more about the skin cancer question – most of the sources I read didn’t go into differences, just “skin cancer” generalities. It certainly is a difficult question!

  24. Katie~ You are amazing! Thank you so much for taking the time to sort through this mountain of information and break it down into more manageable bites of information for us. I just sort of “knew in my knower” a couple of years ago that if I was changing so many other things in my life (food, home cleaning, personal care, etc.) that the sunscreen issue deserved a closer look, too. We have tried several brands and I am very eager to see if what we have settled on is on your list and where it ranks. As a very fair skinned person (with fair skinned hubby and kids) we do have to be careful. I’ve had numerous burns – and in addition to the pain they cause there is the concern about future consequences. Again – THANKS!

  25. Katie,
    We’ve been experimenting with keeping covered while swimming, etc., and it seems to work. The only sunburn we’ve had this year came from the time Grandma took the kids swimming and insisted on using sunscreen instead of a shirt or dress to cover. But I’m curious, do the UV rays penetrate clothing?
    Thanks for this article. It helped me understand sunscreen so much better, CW

    1. CW,
      Yes, UV does penetrate clothing. It’s said that most clothing is about an SPF 15, and you can buy special “UPF” clothing (which I will review this week!). 🙂 Katie

  26. Vinegar works great to relieve the pain of a sunburn! I got one while tubing down the river last summer and the only thing that would make it feel better was straight up distilled white vinegar. It would work to relieve the pain for several hours after I applied it.

    Don’t know why it works, but it does.
    .-= Catie´s last blog ..Ben- Pin is the Bloon! =-.

  27. I spent the first 28 years of my life in Michigan and really never gave a thought to my exposure to sun. Six years ago, we moved to Las Vegas and everything changed. Our temps for the past week have been 110 and above. I make sure to keep my kids out of the sun during the heat of the day (usually 10-3) not only for sun exposure, but just because it can be dangerous with heat stroke, dehydration, etc. We use hats and rash guards when swimming. My kids have never used chemical sunscreens — always zinc oxide based. Living in the desert definitely forced me to research and think about our exposure to the sun!

    We’ve had one sunburn in 6 years — last week on a cloudy day in San Diego when the temp was about 68. We were on the beach and I didn’t even think about the sun! My fair skinned son and I both got burned, but my olive skinned hubby and daughters were just fine.

    I definitely think there is something to be said about skin tone and your geographic location. It’s easy to take precautions when it is hot as blazes outside and the sun won’t let you forget it’s there! It was trickier in the cooler, damp weather to remember to take precautions to avoid burns (if not just to avoid being uncomfortable).
    .-= Camille´s last blog ..Menu Plan Monday- July 11 =-.

  28. I’ve done some research as well, and like you said there’s a lot of conflicting evidence out there but I’ve learned that broccoli juice can be used as sunscreen & is quite possibly the most powerful natural sunscreen available to us! That is, if you don’t mind the green tint. 🙂 Here’s a link:

    I think I’ll try it this summer and see how green I actually get, and if I can still go out in public, ha! Good luck with your research. 🙂

  29. As we moved to a whole foods diet, we stopped burning. I burn slightly on my back/shoulders but nowhere else now. I can be out for hours in direct sun and my legs, arms, face won’t burn at all. My family can’t believe it. I burned BADLY and EASILY as a child eating SAD and wearing sunscreen.

    My children have NEVER burned, despite being fair-skinned and blue-eyed. No matter how long we’re out or in what conditions. 3 hours in the middle of the day at the zoo? No problem!

    I have to wonder about the people who say “sunscreen could have prevented this cancer.” Sunscreen or lack thereof isn’t the whole story. Was diet a factor? Low vit D levels? Low fat intake? etc. etc. It’s not just “sun or no sun.” or “Sunscreen or no sunscreen.” Just my thoughts.
    .-= Kate´s last blog ..Interview- Thyroid Disease Update =-.

    1. I second this; we noticed a huge change in our sun tolerance when we cleaned up our diet. I also used to fry pretty quickly, and now only get a little pink if I stay out way too long. I have seen on every of my kids get burnt once, maybe, after a long day in the sun. My boys spend hours outside in the sun and though they are very fair and don’t wear sunscreen they just don’t burn. Probably the layer of dirt that quickly accumulates as they play doesn’t hurt either…

  30. Well done Katie!

    Also, regarding the nano comment above, there is a lot of research (500+ studies) on nano sized zinc particles which proves that they are safe. Look on the EWG’s website and you’ll find all the research. Not one study proves any penetration of nano sized zinc particles.

  31. Thanks for all this great information. Much of it was new to me so I’m sure I’ll be back to read the article again and process it some more.

    In Australia, kids (and adults) are encouraged to Slip on a shirt, Slap on a hat as well as Slop on some sunscreen. Shirts and hats definitely don’t cause cancer. 🙂

  32. Random question…is that first picture you doing a handstand?! That is pretty impressive! 🙂

    I can attest to the cutting out polyunsaturated fats reducing sunburn too. (Although my understanding was that it was due to omegas being balanced? Have you come across anything about that in your research?) Since changing our diet, we have yet to get a sunburn in spite of not using sunscreen. My boys and I are pretty fair skinned (dh is more olive) and we spend a decent amount of time in the sun. Dh even works outside most of the day in the summer.

    Also I’m all for safe sunscreen when needed. Dh works at a summer day camp and the regular sunscreen kids bring eats away at the finish on the floors. Yikes! I don’t want that on my skin! So I’m looking forward to your reviews! 🙂

    1. Brittany,
      Eats away the finish on the floors! Yuck! That’s frightening.

      And yes, that’s me messing around on the beach!
      😉 Katie

    2. I never heard of that happening, but you should still use sunscreen, skin cancer shows up later.

  33. My approach is to go out in the morning and then about 11-11:30 we come in and do some indoor activities and then hit the outdoors again later in the afternoon. I do have some safer stuff to put on them if we happen to be at the beach in the middle of the day like you said.

  34. I’ve decided for my family that we avoid as much as possible being in the sun during the hottest time of the day. Then if we go out later and will be out longer than a half hour or so, I put coconut oil on. It’s been working great so far. I try to avoid sunscreens at all costs b/c I suffered from an extreme Vitamin D deficiency for over 10 years. I had unexplained pain, depression, extremely tight muscles, etc. and at 23 I could barely walk. I got those levels up and have been healthy ever since!

  35. I love this!! Thank you so much Katie! I live in AZ, and it is 2nd nature to slather the kids before they step out of the door this time of year. I a just coming to the end of my 1st tube of natural sunblock. I hate to think of all the chemicals I have put on my kids since before they could walk in the name of protection! I am eagerly anticipating you review tomorrow! I think we will try to seek a balance of sun hats/wear, and natural sunblock in the hottest parts of the day (when we are even in them!)…

  36. I’ve also read that coconut oil works as a defense, and also that some kinds of vinegar work to relieve sunburn.

  37. I just wanted to pop in and say that I have noticed a marked increase in my skin’s tolerance to burning since we switched to using only olive oil and coconut oil. I pretty much do not burn anymore. I did get a teensy bit of redness when i was outside much longer than anticipated at a festival over the weekend, but it did not hurt, and healed up almost immediately when I applied coconut oil. Certainly, I would not use that as my primary line of defense (and am curious to see what brands are recommended tomorrow :), but I thought I would add more anecdotal evidence to the Cutting out polyunsaturated fats idea.

  38. Wow. Thank you for this very thorough information.

    A doc i follow & like very much feels that folks don’t make enough Vitamin D after age 40 & so need a supplement. Some friends of mine (in their 50s) say that they burn much less when taking Vitamin D3 supplements. It almost seems to be a catch-22 in that you need some in your system to effectively make it too.

    I try to limit my “burn time” & only use sunscreen when i’m going to be outside for a long period of time. But i also don’t have kids to worry about.

    I read recently that if your shadow is longer than you are tall, you aren’t able to get enough sun to make Vitamin D.
    .-= Kathryn´s last blog ..Mostly pics =-.

    1. Kathryn,
      I’d wondered about indirect rays being strong enough to help with Vitamin D. Drat! It’s good to know, though, not all sun exposure is the same, just like with sunburns.
      🙂 Katie

  39. And those nanoparticles are quite often genetically modified which opens up a whole other can of unknown worms!

    Great and timely article! I’m always trying to get a balance on this one since I have blonde haired, blue eyed children that LIVE outside all summer. My youngest son got sick the day after I slathered him in an organic sunscreen for the first time in his three years of life. I think I sunscreen poisoned him! 🙂 But, it just goes to show even the organic and ‘better’ products just aren’t that healthy.

    So, it’s always a trade-off. Which does the least harm. Thank you for all your research on this important issue!

    1. Angie,
      Zinc oxide is a mineral, not a living thing, so it can’t be genetically modified. It has no genes! At least we can close that can right back up. 😉
      Your poor son – was it a rash or another sicky thing?
      🙂 Katie

      1. Sorry Katie. Poor choice of words. What I meant to reference was the manipulation of regular things into nanoparticle-sized things and we really don’t have a lot of research on them to know the long term health consequences. What we do know is worrisome. It’s a conundrum on what to do!

        My son (after his day of being slathered with sunscreen) was fussy the rest of that day. The next morning woke up with a low grade fever and threw up once. I would say it might have been a bug but all the symptoms went away and he was good as new after about two hours… which is not the usual course of a virus around here. 🙂

        Of course, I can’t be sure it was the sunscreen but I have my suspicions.

  40. When I look at the CDC chart of skin cancer deaths by state, it struck me that the most deaths are across the middle of the nation.

    I would speculate it’s because in places with intense sun (and heat) like AZ, TX, FL people don’t go out unprotected in the middle of the day, but in cooler climes (CO, ID, WY, UT) they might spend a good portion of the day outside because the blistering hot days are fewer.

    I grew up in CO, and the atmosphere is thinner. I worked with SAR groups and we were always told that you burn more easily in the mountains, even on cool or overcast days. And it’s well known you can get a sunburn from snow reflections.

    Have you seen any research that links altitude to skin cancer risks?

    My father was born and bred in AZ, but spent most of his adult life in CO. He was recently diagnosed with (and successfully treated) for melanoma. I don’t recall him ever applying sunscreen.
    .-= Milehimama´s last blog ..HEB Bunker Hill Review =-.

    1. oops forgot link to CDC skin cancer info:
      .-= Milehimama´s last blog ..HEB Bunker Hill Review =-.

    2. Just saw one passing mention of high altitudes: “Dermatologists say that fair-haired people need to be especially cautious when they vacation in sun-drenched places, or on ski slopes, with high altitudes and reflected sun on snow.” (source) It would make sense that you’re closer to the sun on a mountain, yes?
      Great additions to the info here!
      🙂 Katie

  41. keep in mind that melanoma is not the only type of skin cancer. my dad has basal cell carcinoma and it could have been prevented with sunscreen. the doctors also just found a second type of skin cancer on him this past week but the results on what type it is are not back yet. he didn’t even start using sunscreen until about 5 years after he first got skin cancer.
    .-= Carrie´s last blog ..Feed your iTunes Library- Summer Sci-Fi- Battle for Hoth- and Mad Men =-.

    1. Carrie,
      That is very good to remember. It’s such a tricky subject, because ultimately skin cancer is a new-to-us issue (compared to something like a cold), so I don’t know that it’s fully understood. I imagine it’s all the more scary when you’re dealing with the real effects of skin cancer in your family. Thank you so much for sharing your insight — 🙂 Katie

      1. Tricky? No offense, but it has been proven that sun exposure increases your risk of skin cancer (just look at australia).

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