THRIVE | Is your sunscreen doing more harm than good?

Do you dutifully apply sunscreen on all of your exposed skin every time you go out in the sun? There are a few reasons why this widely circulated advice is counter to reason and scientific evidence.

On the surface, the application of sunscreen seems like the natural and logical choice to help block too many of the harmful UV rays we get from extended time in the sunshine, especially here in the Northwest, when we get sporadic doses of extended time in the sunshine and our skin is not used to this. 

We know that UV light causes skin cancer and prematurely ages the skin, and so it’s very important to protect our skin with sunscreen and other methods. We don’t want to block sunshine completely — about 20 minutes each day is good for us — because it boosts our vitamin D and improves our mood. Beyond 20 minutes, however, and our immune system begins to suffer. We either need to spend time inside or start to protect our skin with sunscreen and shade. 

But which sunscreen? 

Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases its annual guide to sunscreens, and this year’s data again shows that you must be very cautious when choosing which sunscreen to apply to your skin.

Two-thirds of the sunscreens analyzed by EWG did not work well or contained potentially hazardous ingredients. This included many of the most popular brands on the market.

If you use sunscreen purchased from a drugstore, grocery store or discount chain, there’s a high chance your sunscreen is on EWG’s worst sunscreens list. So do yourself (and your kids) a favor by getting up to speed on which sunscreens are safe and which are toxic before slathering up again.


What to watch out for

There are more than 1800 products on the market to choose from, making it incredibly confusing and difficult to pick the best and safest brand. Here’s what you need to watch out for:

•Oxybenzone — This is a hormone-disrupting chemical that penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. It is the most popular ingredient in chemical-based sunscreens and only blocks UVB ray (that sun’s good rays that provide vitamin D production), not UVA, which are the most free radical-damaging rays.

Avoid any sunscreen that has this chemical at all costs, especially for children.

•Vitamin A (Retinyl Palmitate) — A 2009 study by U.S. government scientists released by the National Toxicology Program found when this is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, it may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.

•Fragrance — Sure, it may make the product smell nice, but this is a petroleum-based product that is linked to organ toxicity and allergies, according to the Environmental Working Group.

•High SPF — The FDA does not regulate SPF higher than 50, and there’s no scientific proof they work better than lower SPF.

Many of the higher SPFs do not provide any additional protection, and studies have suggested that users are exposed to as many or more ultraviolet rays as those who use lower-SPF products.

•Sprays or powders — Generally speaking, sprays and powders have additional chemicals added to them for performance purposes. These additional chemicals are usually not something you want to spray on your body and can be toxic to the lungs.

Besides, remember sunscreen is formulated for your skin, not your lungs. Many of the side effects of sprays and powders on the lungs are not tested before being approved.

•Popular conventional brands – Aveeno, Banana Boat, Coppertone Sport, Coppertone Water Babies, Bull Frog, Neutrogena, store brands, Hawaiian Tropic and many other popular brands are rated the worst in terms of safety in the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide. You can use this guide to find out how good or bad the brand you have or want to buy is rated.


Choosing a safe sunscreen

Look for titanium dioxide- and zinc oxide-based mineral sunscreens, which do not penetrate the skin and provide UVA protection against the sun’s most damaging rays.

Choose non-nano products that do not have small particles that can absorb into skin.

Choose sunscreens that are unscented or use essential oils as fragrance.

Pick lotion-based sunscreens with water resistance.

Pick broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays.

Choose sunscreen products that are rated 0-2 in the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide (

DR. NATE CLEM is a chiropractor specializing in pediatrics and family wellness at Discovery Wellness Center ( To comment on this column, write to