It’s getting to be that time of year again, when we crack out the shorts and slap on the sunscreen, smearing it all over our sun-starved, pasty white skin. (Nope? Just me then?) It’s also that time of year when people start singing the dangers of lathering our bodies in all these “chemicals.” Should we really be worried about what sunscreen is doing to our bodies? The short answer: No.
Sunscreen comes in two basic types: physical or chemical. Physical sunscreen contains minerals such as zinc and titanium dioxide. They work by scattering the sun’s rays and stopping them from causing damage. They also tend to be the thicker, white varieties (i.e. think cricketer with a white nose). The chemical sunscreens are made from a variety of different products, normally using oxybenzone or other similar compounds.
One argument against sunscreen revolves around the zinc and titanium dioxide nanoparticles entering into the body and crossing into the bloodstream, where they then release “skin-damaging free radicals.” Other theories posit that they stop us from getting enough vitamin D. Another says that putting sunscreen on actually increases the chance of getting skin cancer.
Well, unsurprisingly, the science doesn’t stick. The trials that showed how zinc and titanium dioxide were harmful were done by injecting it into mice. I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan on injecting sunscreen any time soon. Studies looking at whether the minerals do cross into the body have shown that minute levels do make it, but in such small volumes that it’s basically undetectable.
When it comes to vitamin D, most of us make more than enough during the summer to last us through the winter. You don’t need to get sunburned or redden your skin, and sunbathing won’t help you make more of the stuff. Once your body has healthy levels of the vitamin, it will simply stop making more. And if you’re still worried about not getting enough vitamin D, then don’t stop wearing sunscreen, go to your doctor!
Interestingly, there is some evidence that people who apply sunscreen are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer. But this has nothing to do with the sunscreen. It’s because people don’t apply it properly. Experts think that when people put on high-factor lotion, it gives them a false sense of security, meaning they’re more likely to stay out in the sun for longer, and less likely to reapply. According to Cancer Research UK: “Getting painful sunburn, just once every two years, can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.”
So if you’re going out in the sun over the next few days, follow the advice of the experts. Put on at least an SPF 15 sun cream, as this will block roughly 93% of the harmful UVB rays from the sun. If you’re especially prone to burning or planning on spending a longer time out in the sun, then go for something higher - SPF 60 blocks up to 98% of UBV. Unfortunately, as no sunscreen currently available is able to block 100% of UVB rays, it’s best to reapply the lotion at least every 2-3 hours, more so if you’re sweating a lot or going swimming. And take a hat with you, always take a hat.