Summer — with apologies to our friends in the southern hemisphere — is here at last! As we all head outdoors to take advantage of the gorgeous weather, it’s important to remember to protect ourselves from that big burning ball of UV light in the sky. A splash of sunlight on your face might feel good, but at the cellular level, it’s taking a molecular baseball bat to your DNA. You need to slather on some sunscreen before you head outside!
Some people, however, may have tried to convince you that the sunscreen you’re applying is just as bad as the sunlight itself. And if you’re scared of something, of course, the Internet is a great place to go to get your fears confirmed. You can find any number of sites warning you of the dangerous ‘toxins’ in sunscreen — I even found a few swearing that UV light from the sun couldn’t possibly cause cancer, because UV light is needed to make vitamin D in your body. And vitamins are good for you, right?!
As in most cases, too much of a good thing is not so good when it comes to sunlight. Yes, your body needs some UV light to help manufacture vitamin D, but 20 minutes a day is plenty, and you can get some vitamin D from your diet as well — especially from fatty fish and fortified dairy products. So no, you will not come down with a case of rickets if you properly protect yourself from sun damage.
But what about the other issue some people object to about sunscreen use: that the chemicals involved are dangerous, toxic, or otherwise ‘non-natural’? Let’s take a look at what exactly it is that goes into your bottle of sunscreen.
First of all, it’s worth noting that there are two different types of sunscreen, which protect you from UV light in different ways. The first type, chemical sunscreen, works by absorbing UV light and releasing that energy in a different, less harmful way. The second type, physical blockers (which are also technically chemicals, just chemicals that do something different), function by scattering the rays of UV light, bouncing them off in different directions and out away from your body.
The main accusation against chemical sunscreen agents is that they’re able to be absorbed by the skin, and that this absorption will lead to them getting into the body and causing toxic effects. Plus, they have scary science names. Octocrylene? Oxybenzone?! Those sound like the invention of a comic book super-villain; who wants something with a name like that smeared all over them? And studies have indeed showed that these chemicals show up in the lower layers of human skin after they’ve been applied to the surface. Just … not very much of them. The levels of chemicals found absorbed were far below the threshold for safety. And if you’re going to set a zero-tolerance policy for putting anything ‘toxic’ in your body, I hope you never eat an even slightly-charred veggie burger, or use any nutmeg in your baking. Or drink water, for that matter. Too much water can be toxic, too; that doesn’t mean eliminating it from your lifestyle is a great idea.
On the UV blocker side, accusations of cancer-causing are a popular accusation. Titanium dioxide is a mineral component of this type of sunscreen that scatters the UV light when it hits you, so that instead of pounding your tender meat-suit into oblivion, that light bounces harmlessly away. Crunchy fear-mongers and pearl-clutchers like to point to studies showing that titanium dioxide exposure is correlated to inflammation and DNA damage in mice. Inflammation + damaged DNA = cancer, doesn’t it? The problems is that these studies tend to involve having the mice chug the stuff in their drinking water, or huff it directly into their little mousy lungs. So yes, I guess sunscreen is pretty dangerous, if you’re drinking it straight from the bottle. I know there are some brands that smell like coconut, but that doesn’t make them an acceptable substitute to mix into a piÃ±a colada. Besides, you know what else is rather definitively shown to damage DNA and cause cancer? Too much UV light.
Sunscreen: it’s your friend, as long as you don’t drink it or snort it like liquid cocaine. But instead of resting on your sunscreen laurels, it’s a good idea to take a few other — gasp — natural steps to protect yourself, too. Wear a brimmed hat. Cover up with clothes (be careful, because some fabrics and colors are less protective than others; that Lady Gaga-style Saran Wrap dress isn’t going to do much for you). And use sunglasses, since rubbing sunscreen in your eyes is generally considered by scientists to be Not a Great Idea. Cancer sucks, so don’t let anyone scare you off of doing what’s best to protect yourself — and that should include a liberal dose of sunscreen.
(Feature image: itVega / Shutterstock)