Last Updated on October 5, 2020
Sun protection 101: You may be surprised that your sunscreen may not protect you from skin cancer. Even more alarming, it may actually cause other health problems!
You’ve probably gotten the message that it’s important to wear sunscreen to protect yourself from skin cancer. So you dutifully slather the stuff on whenever you’re going to be in the sun.
But did you know most conventional sunscreens contain ingredients with known health hazards?
According to the Environmental Working Group’s latest guide, “Almost three-fourths of the products we examined offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin.”
Far more startling, they note that
There is little scientific evidence to suggest that sunscreen alone reduces cancer risk, particularly for melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer. Despite a growing awareness of the dangers of exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, and a multi-billion dollar sunscreen industry, melanoma rates have tripled over the past three decades.
In essence, you could be covering yourself in chemicals that set you up for other kinds of cancer, as well as endocrine disruption and other health problems you’d rather avoid!
Savvier Sun Protection Strategies
Seek Shade and Cover Up!
Though some sun exposure is advantageous for your vitamin D levels, as well as other benefits to health, sustained time in the sun — even with sunscreen on — may put you at higher risk for certain types of cancer. The Environmental Working Group recommends relying on sunscreen only when shade and clothing aren’t options.
New research suggests that sun avoidance may actually have negative effects on health, especially for darker-skinned people. Read this intriguing article from Outside online and decide whether you might be better served by some sun exposure, at least some of the time.
At the beach, you can bring a sun tent or sunbrella to shade you for the time you choose to be out of the sun. And when you’re out by the water, sun hats and shirts can help a lot. Because let’s be honest, how often do you put sunscreen on the part in your hair or your ears?
Here are some awesome sun protection tools worth checking out:
Sun Protection Clothing
Much of your wardrobe already provides sun protection, if it’s not too hot to wear it. Tightly-woven, darker clothing especially. But you’re not going to be happy in a dark, long sleeve tee for long at the beach!
More options for swimshirts (also known as rashguards, a holdover when these tight-fitting swim shirts were primarily for protecting surfers from abrasions from their boards) are available than ever. They’re designed to be lighweight and quick-drying. They’re usually made with a tight weave to offer higher sun protection. Some are infused with sunblocking chemicals to enhance sun protection. (See caveat below about this issue.)
Probably greener and cheaper. I’m always a fan of things that are re-usable (like a shirt rather than sunscreen), so from a sustainability standpoint, sun-protective shirts that you wear for years should save resources and money. Don’t think anyone’s done a careful lifecycle analysis on this one yet, but I’ll be sure to let you know when they do.
If you figure how much sunscreen you’d need to cover that area as many times as you can wear the shirt, I think you’ll find you come out ahead. Plus most people don’t put on the recommended ounce, so their sun protection is far less than they think.
(If you do put on the recommended ounce, you’ll see how fast a sunshirt can pay for itself, especially if you’re using a safe mineral sunscreen, which can cost a pretty penny. See recommendations at the bottom of the post.)
They can do what sunscreen can’t. Swim shirts can keep shoulders above water from burning after extended time in the pool. Look around your pool or beach, and I’ll bet you see plenty of pink shoulders peeking from the water.
They can help the less careful. They make sense for those among us who aren’t so consistent or meticulous about applying sunscreen to shoulders and backs. (Guys, I’m talking to you.)
Not always cool enough. While they may be comfortable enough in the water, if it’s really hot, they may not be cool enough. Time to seek shade!
Caveat: Some clothing sold as sun protective has been infused with precisely those chemicals you’re trying to avoid in sunscreen. And some companies make misleading claims about their fabric, saying chemicals haven’t been added to their clothing, because they’re embedded in the fabric as its woven. Be sure to check before purchasing!
Those embedded with zinc oxide are probably less of a concern, though I’d stay away from anything that uses nano particles, which are small enough to be absorbed by your skin.
Look instead for a tight weave that makes chemical treatment unnecessary. The other advantage? The sun protection can’t wash out.
Sun Protection for the Whole Family
Covering up your kids can also save you time, money, and headache. Think of all the extra hours to enjoy summer that you’re not spending rubbing sunscreen on little wriggly bodies!
Here are some brands that make swimshirt without added chemicals:
For those times you need sunscreen…
Sometimes, you just need sunscreen, especially if you’ve chosen a short-sleeve swim shirt. Please, please skip the chemical stuff, which isn’t safe for you or good for our endangered oceans. Get a good mineral sunscreen instead.
Mineral sunscreens typically use zinc oxide to form a barrier on top of the skin, which is why they can go on white. Formulations have improved in recent years, and the options below do a pretty good job of sinking in within a few minutes.
These sunscreens get high marks from EWG, and are some of the most affordable nontoxic options. PLUS they’re B Corporations, companies that have committed to responsible business practices! (Read more about why we should support B Corporations here.)
- Thinksport (about $3/oz)
- Badger (about $4.50/oz)
- Babyganics (about $1/oz — you often get a discount on your first shipment with Subscribe & Save)
If you’ve thought about mineral sunscreens and were put off by the price tag, Babyganics is worth trying. Its 2-pack of 6-ounce bottles comes in at around a dollar an ounce when you use Subscribe and Save on Amazon, not much more than the chemical sunscreens you can find at drugstores.
There’s a bit of a tradeoff, however: EWG doesn’t give it top ratings for UVA protection, and it has a couple of ingredients that rated a ‘4’ on EWGs scale. But since most other ingredients got 1s or 2s, the product got a 2 as a whole. This is a good compromise over chemical sunscreens if other mineral sunscreens are out of your budget.
I’ve heard good things about Goddess Garden (about $3/oz) products as well. Let me know how you like it if you decide to give it a try.
You can also find handmade sunscreens on Etsy.
Other Sun Protection Strategies
Some research suggests that certain foods have protective effects against sun damage and skin cancer. One more benefit of a diet featuring foods high in antioxidants such as green tea, colorful fruits and vegetables, and even chocolate!
Because UVA rays still penetrate glass, experts recommend wearing sunscreen when you drive.
Don’t forget the sunglasses! Your eyes need protection, too!
What’s your sun protection strategy? Any favorite products to share?
Pin to save this important info on sun protection!
Disclaimer: I’m a health enthusiast, not a medical professional. Content on this website is intended for informational purposes only and is not meant to provide personalized medical advice. I draw on numerous health sources, some of which are linked above. Please consult them for more information and a licensed professional for personalized recommendations.
Photo credits: MatanVizel, pexels, chezbeate, Unsplash, jill111
Susannah is a proud garden geek and energy nerd who loves healthy food and natural remedies. Her work has appeared in Mother Earth Living, Ensia, Northern Gardener, Sierra, and on numerous websites. Her first book, Everything Elderberry, released in September 2020 and has been a #1 new release in holistic medicine, naturopathy, herb gardening, and other categories. Find out more and grab your copy here.