As summer winds down, people are flocking to the nearest beach to park their towels under the August sun. Many will cover their bodies in sunscreen to protect against UV radiation and prevent burns. It’s widely accepted that doing so helps prevent skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States. But what has been a beach bag mainstay since the ‘40s is now, for a growing group of sunblock skeptics, up for debate.
"Dermatologists warn that making DIY sunscreen or avoiding sunscreen altogether isn’t just problematic — it’s dangerous.
In May, exploratory research from the US Food and Drug Association raised questions about the safety and environmental impacts of sunscreen after trace levels of its active ingredients were found in the bloodstream of people who used sunscreen in large amounts. The FDA and health professionals have stressed that the data are preliminary and do not mean that sunscreen is harmful or unsafe.
Nevertheless, some people have started buying “all natural” or “non-toxic” sunscreens. Others have even started making their own. But dermatologists warn that making DIY sunscreen or avoiding sunscreen altogether isn’t just problematic — it’s dangerous.
“Would you go to your kitchen and make a medicine to treat your blood pressure if it’s high because you read that online?” Sherrif Ibrahim, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center and fellow at the American Academy of Dermatology, asks Inverse.
“Would you cook up a medicine in your kitchen to prevent heart disease? I don’t think so. So what makes it okay for you to cook up something that you’re going to rub all over your body and say that it’s protecting you from skin cancer when maybe it’s making it worse?”
Dermatologists are aware that sunscreen skepticism is spreading and are concerned that it’s a result of people misunderstanding the science.
“What patients have expressed to me is a real heightened sense of concern,” Cecilia Larocca, M.D., dermatologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and instructor at Harvard Medical School, tells Inverse. “Their takeaway message is that the sunscreen should be avoided or chemical sunscreen should be avoided, which is certainly an overstatement in terms of interpretation of the data.” As a result of this fundamental misinterpretation, some people are shunning sunscreen altogether and sometimes resorting to DIY formulas.
Alexis Krcelic, a health and wellness coach and mineral sunscreen user, tells Inverse that any unknown concerning chemical exposure isn’t worth the risk.
“I don’t want 30 years down the road after I’ve been spraying sunscreen on myself everyday for them to say, ‘Oh, just kidding. We’ve actually found in this long term study that this is really bad,’” Krcelic says. “I think that relying on the government to tell you what’s safe for people versus what’s not is tricky.”
The Dark Side of Sunshine
The benefit of consistent sunscreen use, chemical or mineral, is well tested, FDA experts argue. Chemical sunscreen absorbs the sun’s rays while mineral sunscreen acts as a physical block, reflecting UV radiation.
"Everything says that using sunscreen is better for you than not using it."
“The only thing I know for sure is that when people use sunscreen on a regular basis, two things happen. One, they get less in cancer and two, their skin ages better,” Doris Day, M.D., dermatologist and associate professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells Inverse. “Everything I know about sun protection, all the ingredients, all the data, everything says that using sunscreen is better for you than not using it.”
Ibrahim agrees. “As a dermatologist and a skin cancer specialist, I recommend sunscreen to every one of my patients for use every day, all year round. The scientific studies support wearing it on a regular basis to protect against skin cancer. The FDA continues to tell Americans that they should apply sunscreen. We know the public health benefits of sunscreen use. Until we find a reason not to use it, we should absolutely continue using it.”
Copious evidence shows that sunshine overload is harmful and contributes to sunburns, premature aging, and skin cancer. When you don’t apply sunscreen or forget to reapply in the sun, damage can be swift. As soon as your skin changes color, as a tan or sunburn, you’re in trouble, Ibrahim says.
“The signal for the body to tan is that it detects damage to the DNA and our skin cells,” Ibrahim says. “If DNA is getting mutated so that the sequence of the letters of the DNA molecule is changing from UV exposure, then the body recognizes that and says, ‘I’ve got to protect my skin by generating melanin, the pigment.’” That melanin absorbs the UV, protecting the nucleus of the cell to prevent the DNA from mutating further.
“Any tan or maintenance of a tan is indicative of the DNA getting mutated, which is the root cause of all human cancer,” he says.
All three dermatologists say the disease is rampant. “We can’t keep up with the number of skin cancers we’re seeing. If you’re fair skinned in America, one in three people is getting skin cancer. The majority of these are not fatal growths.” Ibrahim is referring to skin cancers called basal cell carcinomas or squamous cell carcinomas, which can be devastating if they are not treated. “They can destroy whatever they grow into and be extremely destructive,” he says.
“As a dermatologist in practice for 20 years, I see melanoma on the rise,” Day says. “I see more patients, at younger and younger ages. It is a cancer that kills young people and it’s preventable to 90% with proper sun protection.”
Smart Sun Protection
To prevent these deleterious effects, the Centers for Disease Control and other health professionals advise using sunscreen, wearing hats and sun-protective clothing, and staying in the shade.
Most sunscreen products work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering sunlight. They contain active organic ingredients (like octyl methoxycinnamate or oxybenzone) and inorganic ingredients (like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. And these ingredients are nothing new: Some have been used in sunscreen for over 30 years. A few, particularly oxybenzone, have gotten more flak than others, but mainly for their environmental impact on marine life.
Despite their impact on the environment, chemical sunscreens offer the best defense against harmful rays. “When it comes to melanomas, the chemical sunscreens tend to have the best UVA protection, which really increases your risk for melanoma,” Larocca says. This tangible benefit tends to tip the scale for people who may be concerned about some theoretical unknown, she says.
The most recent sunscreen controversy started when the FDA proposed a new rule in February, calling for additional safety data on 12 common sunscreen ingredients. The proposal spurred a debate about the safety of sunscreen that was later compounded by findings from a study published in May in JAMA, which found that trace amounts of sunscreen ingredients were absorbed in the bloodstream.
As Inverse reported previously, the study used large amounts of sunscreen, likely far more than the average beach-goer. “If you rub anything on your skin, you can detected in your blood if you apply it that frequently. So just that fact alone doesn’t mean it’s harmful,” Ibrahim says.
This data, however concerning, is preliminary. Health professionals stress that sunscreen is safe.
"There has not been one reported case of something bad happening because of the application of sunscreen other than maybe a contact allergy."
“The FDA is only asking for more information. They’re not saying it’s not safe,” Day says. “They would have taken it off the market if it was unsafe.”
Ibrahim also points out that sunscreen has been studied extensively and used widely for decades. There has not been one reported case of something bad happening because of the application of sunscreen other than maybe a contact allergy, he says. “And there are millions and millions of cases where we know bad outcomes including death have happened if people don’t wear sunscreen.”
Unless you live in darkness, not wearing sunscreen or protecting your skin from the sun’s rays is likely to contribute to skin cancer.
“We’re all in agreement to say let’s study it, but we’re not at the point where we’re going to say, hey, let’s stop using it until we find out more,” Ibrahim says. “We’re going to continue our use until someone proves us otherwise.”
Despite the medical community’s continued support of sunscreen as sun protection, news headlines, and discussion on social media have thrown people into a tailspin. Media outlets say sunscreen may be poisonous and blogs speculate that it causes melanoma. The public is often left confused and scared.
“It comes down to people who have a voice and an agenda but not necessarily science,” Day says. “You have people who have pseudoscience who take a few facts, not even published, or reproduced, or not conducted on humans and no data to follow up.”
Perceived unknowns can be terrifying, and lead people to reject a substance, even if it is not confirmed to be harmful. Fear and uncertainty drive people’s behavior, Day explains.
“The fear is that I’m putting something on that I don’t really want to do it anyway,” she says. “I’d rather have a tan and the sun is natural. Sunscreens are not natural, right? The fear of what could be happening by this effort you’re making will drive people to say, ‘It’s absorbed into my body. It’s getting up in my tissues and that could be killing me. And I’m doing this on purpose. When sun is vitamin D, it’s normal. It’s natural, it’s outdoors. I’m supposed to be exposed.’
This rationale leads people to turn to mineral sunscreens or stop using sunscreen at all.
“I think that people in the natural non-toxic community go a bit too far with things, as in saying we don’t need things because all we have is full of chemicals and I understand that,” Krcelic, the wellness coach, says. “I think that there needs to be better options so people who don’t want to DIY or if people aren’t sure if this is going to be effective, there needs to be a lot more options on the market for people.”
The Dangerous Rise of DIY Sunscreen
Sunscreen skeptics — parents, wellness influencers, bloggers and other individuals — have taken to the internet to share concerns and offer do-it-yourself sunscreen recipes claiming to be safer than commercial options. One recipe, from Wellness Mama, includes almond oil, olive oil, coconut oil, beeswax, and the inorganic compound zinc oxide.
Anecdotally, users report great results. Tamazeen Barber, a wellness advocate for doTerra, a company that markets essential oils, concocts her own sunscreen recipe using helichrysum and lavender essential oils and a few other ingredients. “It wasn’t waterproof and you need to reapply a few times but it worked pretty well,” says Barber, who also reports increased sun protection from taking fish oil supplements.
A 2013 human clinical trial did find that omega-3 fish oil supplements marginally improved skin’s immunity to sunlight. However, the researchers concluded that supplements were no substitute for sunscreen and physical protection but instead an “additional small measure to help protect skin from sun damage.”
“I believe personally that the chemicals in sunscreen actually do cause skin cancer to be increased because when you add synthetics to stuff, you’re breaking down your skin cells,” Barber says. “I think that you’re just breaking down your body’s abilities to do what it’s supposed to do naturally.” According to MD Anderson, one of the country’s leading cancer centers, there is no medical evidence that the chemicals in sunscreen contribute to skin cancer.
The problem with homemade sunscreens is that it’s hard to know whether they actually protect the skin. Natural products have lax standards compared to commercial sunscreens, which must withstand intense scrutiny because they are regulated as drugs. Commercial sunscreens use a metric called sun protection factor (SPF) to measure how long a sunscreen will protect you from UV rays. But for the ingredients in DIY sunscreens, SPF values are harder to measure.
"We can do better cost wise, safety wise, and efficiency wise with using sunscreens.
Health professionals are troubled by the DIY sunscreen movement. “I think that is scary; I don’t think that has any testing or any science behind it,” Day says. “The intentions are good but honestly, we can do better cost wise, safety wise, and efficiency wise with using sunscreens. And you know what, you use these things that seem natural, you don’t know that they’re not also being absorbed or causing any harm. You just don’t know.”
Homemade sunscreen may be worse than intended, especially if it incorporates oils.
“I think rubbing oil all over your body is the same as what people were doing 20, 30 years ago using baby oil over the body. And all that did was singe people. It allowed them to get brown without the first burn,” Ibrahim says. The burn is a safety mechanism telling you to get out of the sun and seek shade, he explains. But if you blow past that warning sign, you could do a lot of harm.
The “Natural” Myth
Across the web, sunscreens billed as “natural” appeal to cautious consumers. But Day stresses that this label does not have science supporting it.
“Natural is a myth. Everything is a chemical,” Day says. “Look for scientific evidence of both safety and efficacy, which is what the FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients have. I have not seen that for other ingredients at that level of academic and scientific rigor.”
Krcelic is also skeptical of labels and packaging. “I basically never trust the label. It doesn’t even necessarily say natural, but it’s really just very deceiving in terms of its looks. They can create very green and beautiful packaging and people were like, ‘Oh, this must be okay for you.’”
Finding the right sunscreen for you might take a bit of digging, but Larocca emphasizes there are a lot of options.
“There is a sunscreen for everyone, regardless of your concerns,” she says. “There are many alternatives that provide you with adequate protection from the sun. The solution is not no sunscreen. It’s just finding what’s the right approach for you.”
Ultimately, it’s critical to do your own research and find the best way to protect yourself from the sun.
“Being a doctor, being a human, being a woman, and my sister died of cancer — I’m not one to take things we put in our body lightly,” Day says. “I want to be as careful and as safe as possible, but we have to be evidence based as much as possible. And evidence based is incredibly rigorous.”
“So I’m never cavalier about information or science, but I also worry about people with a loud voice who shout out over real science and become more convincing and accepted as fact when in reality the facts are quite different than what they’re saying.”