Mainstream health agencies and medical experts beat the drum about the dangers of sun exposure and the importance of sunscreen use. But is this truly in our best interest? Is this really a good choice for optimal health? As wise and discerning consumers, it is vital for each one of us to answer these questions by fully examining the whole story when it comes to sun exposure and sunscreen use.

Each year, especially as the summer season kicks into high gear, consumers around the world are flocking to the stores to stock up on sunscreen for the season. But while so many are busy trying to get their hands on this substance, so few are taking the time to examine the possible health consequences of using this chemical on their bodies, and in large amounts used annually, throughout their life.

For decades now, we have been brainwashed to think that sunscreen is our life saver. Many of us consider it incomprehensible to be outdoors today without this substance rubbed all over our skin. We are constantly told that it will help prevent or reduce the risk of getting skin cancer. We are told that it will decrease sun damage to our skin. We are told it is an essential part of our interaction with the sun.

And yet, today the story is changing and fast. For a few years now experts, activists and various organizations have stood up to question the safety and effectiveness of sunscreen. Today, we are learning with more and more certainty that commercial sunscreen is actually more harmful then helpful when it comes to our overall health.

This is why it is imperative that every health conscious consumer first becomes aware of the whole story when it comes to sunscreen and the increasing controversy when it comes to this substance. Secondly, it is imperative that we understand what are truly healthy and optimal options when it comes to sunscreen products and our relationship with the sun.

EWG Sunscreen Guide to the Rescue

Each year, the EWG tests numerous sunscreens using exclusive scientific analysis to help the consumer understand the effectiveness, quality and safety of sunscreen products. Each year hundreds of products are put to the test and show some shocking results.

In 2008, they investigated over 1000 brand name sunscreens and found that 4 out of 5 sunscreens, or 80% contain chemicals that pose risks to our health. This is obviously not good news for a product that we are trusting to protect us.

In 2010, out of the 500 sunscreen options tested, only 39 were found to be both safe and effective—meaning they do what they are supposed to do without causing harm. This means only 1 in 12 or 8% of the sunscreens out there can be considered, trusted and relied upon. Between the false sense of security that many sunscreens promote, such as high SPF one, and new data linking ingredients like vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) to accelerated development of skin tumors and lesions, most products don’t live up to their hype.

You may be wondering, how can this be? Surely there are agencies in place to protect the consumer from such problems. Well, the sad news is that the FDA has not issued any new sunscreen guidelines since 1978 until December 2012. This is hard to comprehend considering how much advances on a biological, chemical and technological level are changing annually! Since that time we have learned so much about the chemicals in sunscreen, various interactions, diseases and more. There is no excuse why something so critical to our health isn’t being updated every few years.

You may be hopeful that since the recent 2012 regulation updates, we are in a better position today. Sadly, that isn’t true either. According to the EWG, “These regulations demand truth in sunscreen marketing and, for the first time, require that claims of water resistance and broad spectrum sun protection be validated.” Unfortunately not much has changed for the 2013 sun season where commercial sunscreen brands are concerned.

The good news is that the 2013 guide from the EWG shows that 25% of sunscreens that they reviewed offer good skin protection and are free of ingredients with serious safety concerns. This is a nice increase since the 8% in 2010. It gives us a ray of hope that as awareness keeps rising, consumers are being more demanding and companies are starting to listen—at least the natural health oriented ones.

However besides the FDA, no other agency is taking responsibility for regulating the safety and effectiveness of sunscreen. Aside from the research the EWG is running, the responsibility really falls on the consumer to educate themselves about these products and how they can help or hurt them and their family.

Most importantly we as consumers, also have to remember one huge factor in all of this. The sunscreen industry is a huge money making conglomerate. According to IBISWorld data, the industry has grown an average 4.2% per year to $1.3 billion by year-end 2012, and is expected to continue its increasing trend through 2017. As consumers, we need to keep this in mind when making decisions when it comes to our health. Remember that most of the advertising and fear tactics are done for no other reason then to sell a product, or make you think that you need it.

Today however many researchers are starting to come to a new conclusion, which is not hard to see as we look at trends which show that as sunscreen use increased, so did rates of skin cancer. In fact over the past decade, many scientists studying cancer are coming to this very conclusion, which is that the use of sunscreen chemicals may be increasing the incidence of cancer and that sunlight exposure may actually decrease human cancer rates and improve your health. This is perhaps the most important thing that we as health conscious consumers have to take seriously when it comes to our health today.

Safest Sunscreen Options

To make a wise decision as an informed consumer for yourself and your family, start by referring to the EWG’s annual sunscreen guide. Aside from the guide a good rule of thumb to stick to when considering a sunscreen option is to stay away from the most popular commercial brands. For years now, the EWG has known that names like Hawaiian Tropic, Bannana Boat, Neutrogena and Coppertone are some of the worst culprits out there when it comes to safety and effectiveness.

The top-rated sunscreens are based on mineral ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in their non-nano particle forms, along with other common, natural ingredients. They are the best choice for proper UVA protection, while forgoing common chemical ingredients suspected to be potential allergens, carcinogens or hormone disruptors.

So what are the best options when it comes to safe and effective protection? While slight changes occur annually, common examples of consistently high ranking (safe, natural and effective) sunscreens include:

1. Badger

2. All Terrain

3. California Baby

4. UV Natural

6. Beyond Coastal

7. Goddess Garden

8. Aubrey Organics

9. Alba Botanica

10. Loving Naturals

Since I first learned about the dangers associated with commercial sunscreens, and their lack of effectiveness, I immediately switched over to a natural option. My first option, which was Badger sunscreen has remained my top pick to date. I don’t use much sunscreen practising other sun smart habits instead, but when I do Badger offers me all of the protection and satisfaction I need.

Safest and Healthiest Way to Enjoy the Sun

To conclude I will leave you with 3 simple and important sun smart tips:

1. Always choose to cover up with clothing as a first option, and only use natural sunscreen as a second option when staying out in the sun during risky periods.

Even EWG recommends that wearing a hat and shirt in the sun should be your first line of defense than using an EWG recommended sunscreen.

2. Plan to spend some uncovered time in the sun.

We need the sun for optimal health. Do not think of the sun as your enemy. The sun has always been a link to great health and today we know that in its production of vitamin D, it protects us from many diseases like cancers and even multiple sclerosis.

Sunscreens block vitamin D production and absorption. It is estimated that 70 – 90% of the population is deficient in vitamin D today. This is a vital component to our health and cannot be overlooked. It should also come as no surprise given our society’s obsession with sunscreen products today and limited outdoor exposure.

Smart and safe sun exposure is possible. For more tips as to when and how, check out the 5 part Sun Smart Series I wrote to help you further.

3. Avoid popular chemical sunscreen options at all costs.

We know too much today to continue using toxic chemical substances that may not only not protect us properly, but also leave us with many unhealthy side-effects. From hormonal disruptors to increased cancer risks and allergies, no individual should be subjected to such serious risks when healthier options exist abundantly.

Remember, the sun can be enjoyed safely, without chemical blocks and in fact we all need it for optimal health. We have abandoned a healthy relationship with the sun, and it is time to rekindle that and bring it back.

  1. Sun Smart Series - Part 1: Get to Know the UV Index

  2. Sun Smart Series - Part 2: Get to Know Your Skin

  3. Sun Smart Series - Part 3: Get to Know the Sun

  4. Sun Smart Series - Part 4: Get to Know Sunscreen

  5. Sun Smart Series - Part 5: Maximize the Benefits, Minimize the Risks

  6. Is Sunscreen Protecting You From Skin Cancer or Causing You To Get It?