To sunscreen or not to sunscreen?

How much and what quality of sunscreen do we need to protect our skin? 30+? Higher? And what about the risk of developing melanoma? Do sunscreens actually help or do they cause damage?

Let’s face it. The sunscreen promoters and marketeers have done a terrific job. Rarely does anyone go out to the beach, or step out for a walk in the sun, without some form of block-out lotion. Sure, they may stop you getting sun burnt when spending hours exposed to the sun, but is there any connection between sunscreens and skin-cancer protection?

Here are a few things to consider. Over the last two decades there’s been a huge increase in the use of block-out/sunscreen. At the same time, there’s also been a huge increase in the incidence of skin cancer. There’s also been an increasing recognition of Vitamin D deficiency in Australia (our bodies require sunshine to naturally create vitamin D).

A 2012 released study (Deakin University) indicated 31 percent of the population were vitamin D deficient, and nearly 75% of the population had levels considered as below optimal for musculoskeletal health. There may not be a causal or a direct link between any of those facts, but they might lead to questions in an inquiring mind – questions beyond blaming everything on a hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic.


Here are some more facts from the Cancer Council in Australia. The incidence of skin cancer in Australia is one of the highest in the world and GPs have over 1 million patient consultations for skin cancer. Every year, skin cancers account for 80% of all newly diagnosed cancers and between 95 to 99% of them are caused by exposure to the sun. Sounds like a very good case for either wearing block out, or simply hiding from the sun. This is, of course, what a great many people do – hence the Vitamin D deficiency. But hang on….

Sunscreens do not protect adequately against the entire spectrum of radiation put out by the sun. Whilst sunscreens concentrate on UVB the type of UV radiation responsible for inducing most skin cancers, sunscreens generally do not equally protect users from UVA long wave radiation, and this type of radiation can also lead to tumour formation, particularly in patients with a low level of vitamin D. On a more superficial level UVA is also responsible for producing ageing characteristics such as wrinkles. (Osiecki, Cancer The Importance of Clinical Nutrition, 2012).

Avoiding the use of sunscreen by hiding from the sun isn’t a healthy solution either. Block-outs may not fully protect us from the sun, but they do reduce our exposure to the ultra-violet light we need for creating Vitamin D. And a deficiency of Vitamin D can lead to all kinds of unwanted and sinister conditions, including various cancers.

We can infer from the above that exposure to the sun is pretty much a balancing act. Too little means Vitamin D deficiency and a compromised immune system, and too much sun risks burning increases the risk of skin cancers as well as visible signs of ageing.


Using sunscreen has other hidden issues besides the ability to block out UVB radiation to a certain extent.

As a naturopath I am concerned about anything that interferes with the body’s natural way of functioning at an optimal level. Unfortunately, sunscreen suppresses the skin’s ability to produce melanin, a natural photo-protectant. The reduced production of melanin leads to an increased risk of melanoma, as well as potentially affecting the immune system, and negatively impacting on health sleep patterns.

Sunscreen also encourages us to stay out longer in the sun than we would otherwise, again increasing the risk factors for long term UVA exposure. Mind you, there’s nothing particularly natural about a north European skin living in the Australian tropics.

And then there are the potentially toxic ingredients which sunscreens are made out of. In 2009 a cell toxicity study suggested that “zinc oxide, a common ingredient in sunscreens, undergoes a chemical reaction when exposed to UV that releases free radicals that can damage cells or DNA that could increase the risk of cancer.” (Dr.Yinfa Ma, Toxicity of nano- and micro-sized ZnO particles in human lung epithelial cells).

Indeed, several sources have suggested that various common elements of sunscreens can leech free radicals causing a risk for DNA disruption and ultimately cancer. Derivatives of Vitamin A are often used in some sunscreens. A year long 2010 study suggested that these derivatives have photo-carcinogenic properties that develop tumours and lesions up to 21 percent faster in lab animals. The same study also cited the use of the chemical oxybenzone that penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. (Environmental Working Group, 2010).


Other studies have indicated problems with octocrylene, octylmethoxycinnamate, benzophenone-3 para-aminobenzoic acid, phenylbenzimidazole et al. Titanium Dioxide is one of the most common ingredients used in cosmetics. Its considered safe for use by the public – BUT these days we are in the nano-sized particle era and many researcher believes that nano particles may enter the body and cause health problems further down the line.

Certainly a 2009 study found titanium dioxide nanoparticles cause genetic damage in mice (Nanoparticle use in a common household items causes genetic damage in mice, Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Centre, UCLA). Are you sure that whatever you put on your skin is absolutely safe?

The above are just a few samples from studies done on a few chemical/mineral ingredients found in sunscreen. Unfortunately, there are others…..

To make matters worse for sunscreen users, Epidemiologist Marianne Berwick (Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre New York) has pointed to 10 studies, half of which showed people who used sunscreen suffered higher cancer rates than those who used nothing! Only two studies demonstrated that sunscreen lotion played a protective role. She concluded “sunscreen alone does not prevent melanoma”.

Other studies suggest factors like diet, moles and fluorescent lighting have a much greater impact on the development of melanoma. Researcher Valerie Beral (The Lancet) stated, ” Most surveys of patients with melanoma have found only a weak relation, if any, between excessive exposure to sunlight and the risk of the disease developing.” And as long ago as 1988, Dr. Robin D Evans pointed out that most studies suggested total sunlight exposure over a lifetime was not a risk factor (The Journal of Dermatologic Surgery and Oncology, April 1988).

So we may need to go beyond the sun to find the additional risk factors for the increased incidence of skin cancer over the past 20 years. Certainly the amount of sunlight we receive has not increased, but there have been changes in food and diet, increased stress, greater community exposure to toxic chemicals and electro-magnetic fields etc (and, of course, lets not discount totally that hole in the ozone layer!)


I would suggest that exposure to UVB and UVA via the sun may well be a catalyst for cancer in a body that is already predisposed to it via other factors, and I would certainly question the idea that sunscreen is a protection against the development of melanoma. I would also suggest that when thinking of skin cancer, we think not only of looking from the outside coming into the body, but also looking from the inside of the body and going out.

Since the 70s, our diets have changed enormously, particularly with regards to access to processed foods. You can see it on the streets. Australia is one of the most obese countries in the world. As we have got wider, our skin cancers have multiplied. Any connection?

I would suggest that many of our digestion and dietary issues are drivers behind skin cancers. For example, the quality and balance of our gut flora impact on our skin. Gut flora imbalances are the cause of many skin allergies, but in addition, low intake and absorption of antioxidant foods leaves our skin open to oxidation from the sun.

You may notice that I stated intake and absorption? Even though you may be consuming high levels of antioxidant foods, are the foods organic? If not, you will need to consume 12% more non-organic food in order to receive the same level of beneficial nutrition as organic, and you will have to contend with other issues such as intake of pesticides.

Furthermore, is your digestion operating at an optimal level? Low stomach acid from processed foods, stress and genetics may mean you are not absorbing all the nutrients from your food. What about your other digestive organs? Are they producing enough enzymes to break down the foods into absorbable molecules to protect you? Do you have enough of the right balance of gut flora to the job properly or do you have a dysbiosis?

In a nutshell, your diet needs to reduce the possibility of oxidative stress. This means lots of antioxidants and bioflavanoids to reduce inflammation within the body; in plain language, lots of vegetables, salad, protein such as fish, meat and eggs, and fatty acids. Avoid the refined carbs. Avoid food grown using or containing pesticides and toxic substances (particularly arsenic).


Bottom line, your diet could help protect you against the sun.

So what would be my advice re getting the most out of the sun and using it to its best advantage, creating natural Vitamin D as well as protecting yourself rom burning (in a nutshell, taking control of how much sun you absorb according to your body and skin type, place of residence, family history and presence of moles):-

a. Everyday strip off and expose your body, particularly underarms, chest, buttocks, etc for just a few minutes a day in full sun. Start with less than a minute. This will allow your body to soak up what it requires to make Vitamin D by itself. But be very very careful, too much at one time can lead to burning. For myself, I need Vitamin D. This is what I do. Indeed, I follow all these tips.

b. Get a very wide brimmed and very shady hat, and wear it. Always wear it when outside. Wear quality clothes too that protect against over-exposure.

c. Don’t imagine that tinted/laminated car-windows, or windows at home are going to protect you fully from UVA radiation. They will not. Wear sleeves in the car on long journeys. Cover yourself.

d. Most important, eat a healthy diet with low carb, high protein and lots of fatty acids and anti oxidants (salad/greens).

e. Don’t go sunbaking for hours at a time at the beach – even if using sunscreen. What you gain in relaxation, you lose in terms of risks to your body.

f. Children’s outdoor games in the full Australian sun? Severe sunburning as a child is a known risk factor for skin cancer as an adult.

g. Seek shade when outdoors, even on a cloudy day.

h. If you are going to use sunscreen to help control sun-derived damage to the skin, consider using a plant-based formulation. For example, sesame oil resists 30% of UV, coconut, peanut, olive and cottonseed oils block out approximately 20%. Other ingredients from onions (quercetin), marigolds (apigenin), and turmeric (curcumin) have been shown to provide protection in UVA and UVB ranges.

Olive oil and grape seed can protect the skin’s lipids and comfrey (allantoin) can help in repairing sun-caused skin damage. Please note, I do not advocate applying or not applying sunscreen. But slip, slop, slap with the sunscreen isn’t a complete protection. Better to be careful with the sun, only take in what you need, and adjust one’s lifestyle accordingly.


About the Author:

Head ShotChristine Barnes is an experienced and respected natural medicine clinician who specialises in stress reduction and wellness. Her passion is her clinical practice where she inspires, educates and supports individuals to reach their health and wellness goals towards optimal wellness.
She has completed extensive advanced training and is a keynote speaker, wellness coach, author and educator.

Christine leads by example, living life to the fullest and subscribes to the importance of ‘practitioner heal thyself’ so that she can be the best inspiration for change in others.

Click here to view her website.

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