Some people believe sunscreen is ‘dangerous’, so we separated the facts from the myths.

Woman using sunspray on her leg to protect herself from sunburn

Growing up in the generation of Slip, Slop, Slappers, sunscreen was as much a part of summer as Zooper Doopers and Slip N’ Slide related injuries.

We never questioned the smothering our mum’s gave us, and even embraced fluoro zinc on occasion – especially if it happened to coincide with our sports day colours.

But, despite incidences of skin cancer rising at a steady rate, in recent years there have been a few (very vocal) people who are distinctly anti-sunscreen.

You might remember the quotes celebrity chef (and apparent skin expert) Pete Evans gave a couple years back where he claimed that he rarely used sunscreen because they were “full of poisonous chemicals”.

Advertisement

Well, it’s not just Pete on the bandwagon – riding shotgun with him are wellness experts, regular punters, and even an integrative doctor in the US, Dr. Frank Lipman, who has written a bunch pretty controversial articles on the topic.

So what’s the deal? Is this really something to worry about? We spoke to a real life skin expert, Cosmetic Dermatologist Dr Natasha Cook to get some answers.

The Chemical Factor

Before we get into chemical talk, here’s a little backgrounder on sunscreen.

There are two types on sunblock the market: chemical and physical, and they work in different ways.

Chemical sunscreens use, well, chemicals, to absorb the sun’s rays and then convert them into non-harmful energy, pushing them back out into the environment so that they’re not absorbed into your skin.

Physical blocks use the naturally occurring minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to essentially create a mask on the skin, reflecting the rays so they can’t penetrate the skin.

The sunscreens copping heat from the anti-block bandits are the chemical filters. Though, as Dr. Cook explains these “chemicals” have been on the market for over 40 years, and have all passed the notoriously stringent TGA (Therapeutic Goods Association) testing before they get to market.

However, she does add, “While there is no evidence to suggest they are toxic or create any damage, some of them can lead to allergies and skin reactions.” And, while a lot of people are (understandably) scared off by the word “chemical” Dr. Cook is quick to point out “when we think about it, the periodic table is nature. It makes chemicals and we are all made of chemicals.”

So, are there “bad” ingredients?

According to Dr. Cook, there was – PABA (or para-aminobenzoic acid) – but it’s no longer used in Oz because of its high allergen rate. “There was a high incidence of photoallergic skin reaction, meaning that reactions on the skin that occur when the ingredient is exposed to UV light,” she explains.

Then, there’s oxybenzone, a sunscreen ingredient that’s commonly used thanks to its powers in blocking both UVB and UVA rays. But that’s not all it does. The very same ingredient has been found to contribute to the destruction of coral reefs worldwide, so much so that Hawaii has now passed a law banning all sunscreens containing the ingredient.

Which of course sucks for the environment, but what does this mean for humans? Well, what we know is that oxybenzone does cross the skin barrier, meaning traces will likely end up in our body. Some studies have also shown that is can be an endocrine (hormone) disruptor, and can have anti-androgenic effects (as in, can lower testosterone).

A post shared by michelle (@michellerebekahlea) on

Physical filters have also been a source of hot debate in the sunscreen world, specifically the use of nano particles.

These particles were introduced to help the usually thick, white cast of zinc appear less visible and blend better on the skin. And, while some are concerned about these being absorbed into the body (and the effect this may have), based on the current research and evidence the TGA has ruled them as non-harmful to the skin cells.

What about Vitamin D?

One of the cornerstone arguments for the anti-sunscreen camp is the need for vitamin D. And yes, it’s true that we need vitamin D in our life not only to keep from being miserable, but for our bones and general health too.

However, that’s not a license to head to the beach sans-sunscreen. How much vitamin D we need depends on a lot of factors (age, weight, where we live, the season), and how much we can absorb from sunlight also depends on things like skin colour and pollution.

So, while some experts will recommend 15 minutes of “safe” sun exposure a day (in the morning when the sun is least harsh), there is no hard and fast rule.

Full sun at midday is not the wisest time to 'get vitamin D'. Image: Unsplash.

If you are worried about your vitamin D levels, Dr. Cook suggests taking a vitamin D3 supplement. “Taking a good quality supplement is a more reliable dosage [of vitamin D] without risking damage to your skin,” she says.

Oh, and for those who tout the “just wear a shirt” solution (looking at you, Pete) unless you’re some kind of fabric-knowledge wizard, this is like playing roulette with your SP factor.

“Sometimes they give better protection sometimes LESS,” says Dr. Cook, “it all depends on the colour and weave of the fabric. For example, a white T-shirt gives you an SPF 4 equivalent. Personally, I believe you need both to be safe. Add in sunglasses, hats and staying out of peak times between 10-4 in summer.”

Safety in sunscreen

So, where does this all leave us?

Well, thanks to the big fat Ozone hole that’s conveniently hanging out over Oz, sun protection is really a non-negotiable – including sunscreen.

“I have no problem with wearing sunscreen,” says Dr. Cook, “though obviously some products are better than others.”

So what does a skin expert choose for her skin?

“I prefer chemical filter free sunscreen and like using a combination of physical blockers in the form of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These substances are inert which mean they are un-reactive, create no skin reactions and they give broad spectrum coverage.”

What's your favourite sunscreen? tell us in the comments! 

Sarah Tarca is a beauty, travel and lifestyle writer.

JOIN THE CONVERSATION
FROM OUR NETWORK