To Sunscreen or Not to Sunscreen?

By Dr. Karen Carleton

photo (2)Why wear sunscreen? Put simply, to keep our skin from burning: Sunburns are linked to cancer. It is not known if sunscreen use prevents skin cancers like melanoma and basal cell carcinoma, but it does lower one’s risk. Keep in mind that sunburn is different than sun exposure. Regular sun exposure can means higher vitamin D production which means greater support for the immune system, stronger bones and other health benefits including possible reduced risk of melanoma. (Vitamin D production is a whole other important discussion and it’s always important to talk with your doctor about testing your levels.)

As with most things in life, moderation is key so avoid sunburn but not all sun exposure. We are in the midst of summertime with more sunny, sizzling hot days to come and it’s not too late to rethink your sunscreen use. Whether you are not yet in the habit of using sunscreen or you use sunscreen every day, I hope that this post will inspire you to make any needed changes! For you, this change may be to start using sunscreen and for those already in the habit it’s time to make sure that the sunscreen you use is the healthiest choice for you.

The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep is a website dedicated to providing information on the safety of all sorts of skincare including sunscreens. They currently have a summer guide to sunscreens which is chock full of information. I’ve highlighted some of their information below and encourage readers to use this resource as a guide for all skincare products.

In choosing a sunscreen, here are some points to guide you in choosing the one for you:


Spray sunscreens: These are quite popular for use on kids who are pretty much moving targets when it comes to applying sunscreen. Resist the urge. The aerosolized delivery may pose serious inhalation risks and it’s too easy to under apply or miss a patch which then leads to almost guaranteed sunburn. Ditto on powders as well.

Super high SPFs: SPF stands for “sun protection factor” and only measures protection against UVB rays.  It’s the UVB rays that burn the skin, but the UVA rays that penetrate deep into the skin which can negatively effect the immune system, speed up the skin aging process and may cause skin cancer. The skin may not get burned by extended sun exposure when a high SPF is used, but the risk of other types of skin damage are increased. Use no higher than a SPF 50 and reapply often regardless of the number.

Oxybenzone: Most chemical sunscreens in the U.S. contain this chemical which penetrates the skin, enters the bloodstream and acts like an estrogen in the body. Basically it messes with your hormones. It also has been found to commonly cause allergic skin reactions.

Retinyl Palmitate: This form of vitamin A may have anti-aging effects on skin when used at night, but when used on sun-exposed skin it may speed development of skin tumors and lesions. Quite a few sunscreens and SPF moisturizers contain retinyl palmitate – check your labels!

Sunscreen/bug repellant combos: F or one, bugs are not usually out during peak UV hours. Also, we typically need to apply sunscreen more frequently than a repellant or vice versa depending on time of day and location. We want to avoid repellant on the face, but definitely want sunscreen on it.

Tanning oils: These rarely even contain SPF. You are basically oiling yourself up to fry and fry you likely will. Not a good idea.

The active ingredients in sunscreens are chemical filters and mineral filters. There may be concerns with both although some have higher concerns than others. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are in the higher toxicity range; homosalate, octisalate and octocrylene in the moderate range; and titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone and mexoryl SX in the lower toxicity range. Almost every chemical sunscreen in the U.S. contains oxybenzone which, as already stated, should be avoided.


Mineral sunscreens are generally rated better for safety by the EWG. Zinc oxide provides excellent UVA protection so be sure the mineral sunscreen you choose contains it.

If you are hesitant to use a mineral sunscreen because of the classic lifeguard white-nose look that you don’t want for your entire body, rest assured that there are quite a few out there that go on smoothly and leave minimal or no white. You often have to just try them out to see which one works for you as far as consistency, scent and color. You will find a broader choice of good quality, mineral sunscreens at stores that focus on natural and organic products. There is also an integrative pharmacy in town that has a broad selection and licensed estheticians on staff to help you with your options.

It goes without saying that it is extremely important to protect kids from sunburn. A few blistering sunburns in childhood can double the lifetime chance of developing serious forms of skin cancer. The best protection is sunscreen and then a hat and shirt. For infants under 6 months, it is absolutely necessary to keep them out of the direct sun because their skin is not yet protected by melanin. Most sunscreens advise against using for babies under 6 months so consult your doctor if you feel you need to use it. It is best to keep babies in tightly woven, but loose fitting clothing and a sun hat. Make shade using the stroller canopy or an umbrella and take walks in the early morning or late afternoon.

For toddlers and children, test sunscreen on the inside of the wrist on the day before using to see if there is any skin reaction. Young kids’ skin is particularly sensitive to chemical allergens as well as UV rays. When you find one that works for you, slop it on and reapply often especially if they are sweating or playing in the water

With all this said, it is important to remember that sunscreen is not the first step in protecting your skin. Monitor moles and have them checked periodically by your doctor for any changes. Wear protective clothing, especially during peak UV hours. A brimmed hat, shirt, shorts or pants will provide much needed coverage. Find or make shade and avoid the midday hour when the UV rays are strongest.

Dr. Karen CarletonHave fun in the sun, and do what you can to keep your skin healthy and happy!

Yours in Health,
Dr Karen





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