The Sunscreen Dilemma

The sun has long been considered the source of life and a provider of energy. We need sunlight to make Vitamin D which benefits the immune system, bone health, and cardiovascular health. Vitamin D has been shown to reduce depression and possibly prevent cancer while Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to multiple sclerosis, osteomalacia, and delayed calcification of bones in children.

Many of you reading this are taking a Vitamin D supplement and since Vitamin D is fat-soluble, it is possible that this supplementation can cause toxic levels of Vitamin D. However, Vitamin D produced through sun exposure does not carry the risk of toxicity because after 20 minutes in the sun your body has already produced all the Vitamin D you need and any further exposure will degrade extra Vitamin D. 20 minutes of sun exposure provides the equivalent of 10,000 to 25,000 IU of oral vitamin D depending on the amount of pigment in your skin. If you want to get your Vitamin D from food, you would need to eat 35oz of wild salmon a day to equal 20 minutes of sun exposure.

The caveat – what about skin cancer? It is important to remember sun exposure does not equal skin cancer but sun damage increases the risk of skin cancer. It is possible to get healthy sun exposure without damaging your skin. First, assess your skin on the Fitzpatrick scale – type 1 is very fair, always burns and is likely to get skin cancer. Type 6 is very dark, never burns and is unlikely to get skin cancer. If you are a type 1 and have no pigment, minimize your exposure, avoid peak times, use shade and clothing as protection.

Why no mention of sunscreen? Most sunscreens contain harmful ingredients like oxybenzone and or benzophenone-3. Both have been linked to endocrine cancers and hormonal issues. Fragrances in sunscreen and other beauty products has also been linked to reproductive health problems. If your sunscreen has insect repellant, the sunscreen can cause too much insecticide to be absorbed in your body. With powder and spray sunscreen, you have increased your absorption of these harmful ingredients by inhaling the sunscreen.

Many common sunscreens were shown to be ineffective at blocking the sun as well as being toxic – Coppertone, Neutrogena and Banana Boat were found to be unsafe and ineffective. According to the Environmental Working Group’s cosmetic database ( and, the top three safest and most effective sunscreens were Blue Lizard, California Baby, and CVS with zinc oxide. I recommend visiting the website for the entire list to see where your sunscreen falls in the safe and effective range.

Having a diet high in anti-oxidants reduces any oxidative stress from exposure and damage. As with most things in life, moderation is the key. Avoid sun damage but don’t avoid the sun. If you have a past history of sun damage check your skin for suspicious growths, and if you are over 40, have annual skin exams. Remember ABCDE: Asymmetry, irregular Border, change in Color, Diameter greater than 1/4inch, Evolving over time. Always report any suspicious lesions to your physician. Early detection is the key to successfully treating skin cancers.