Eating Through Your Skin: Sunscreen Safety

By Dr Mahalia Freed, ND Our skin is porous. We get this, intuitively, when we observe moisturizer being sucked up by our thirsty winter skin. The implication? Anything you put on your skin you are effectively “eating”, but without the benefit of the digestive tract’s extensive immune system and processing. Absorption through the skin is well-established scientific fact. Unfortunately, only 11% of the 10 500 ingredients in personal care products are tested for safety even by the industry’s own internal review panel.

There are still known hormone disruptors and carcinogens even in “natural” personal care products. And sunscreen is no exception. Indeed, because of the lack of regulation, many sunscreens on the market not only contain toxic ingredients, but may not even protect us from ultraviolet radiation. The US-based Environmental Working Group has analyzed sunscreens annually since 2007. Of 1,802 name-brand sunscreens on the market in summer 2009, “2 out of 5 sunscreen products offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns”. Despite label claims, some sunscreen ingredients are found to actually break down in the sun, rapidly losing their effectiveness. As well, common sunscreen ingredients are known to absorb into the blood, and in some cases build up in our bodies and the environment. They are linked to hormone disruption, allergic reactions and oxidative damage. While consumer pressure has resulted in some improvements in sunscreen manufacturing in the past couple years, overall, only 8% of products tested in 2009 met the EWG’s criteria for both safety and effectiveness. Their criteria: “blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards”.

Okay, so what do we need to know to protect ourselves from skin damage and prevent skin cancer?

Sunscreen Guidelines:

• Use EWG’s 2013 sunscreen report for a comprehensive guide to which products are both effective and safe, and what to look for.

• Read labels carefully for ingredients, but note that there is as of yet no regulation of label claims.

• Use your own judgment. If you or your children burn easily, limit exposure by wearing sun-protective clothing, avoiding midday sun, and looking for shade. Use sunscreen only when necessary, and choose carefully. If you have darker skin, build up a tan gradually and you may not need sunscreen as often, if at all.

• Weigh the risks and the benefits. Note that the relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer is not as linear as we are led to believe. Risk factors for skin cancer include fair skin, frequent sunburns, moles, and family history of skin cancer. While it is true that more sun exposure may be associated with more sunburns for fair skinned individuals, this is not true of everyone. Furthermore, vitamin D, which is produced in our skin with unprotected sun exposure, is known to be antiproliferative, as in protective against cancers. And indeed, there is abundant research linking higher vitamin D status to lower rates of cancers including lung, breast, colon, and prostate cancers.

• If you are fair skinned, or don’t spend much time in the sun, talk to your doctor(s) about supplementing with vitamin D.

This article was originally published in the Lifecycles Wellness May 2010 clinic newsletter.

About Mahalia Freed, Naturopathic Doctor

“I believe that within every person is an innate capacity to establish, maintain, and restore their own health.” Dr Mahalia Freed says, “My role as an ND is to help people access this potential by choosing treatments that support the body’s inherent healing capability.”

Mahalia Freed is a Naturopathic Doctor happily based at Lifecycles Wellness in Yorkville. In her family practice, Dr Freed has a special focus in endocrinology, mental health, oncology, fertility, and perinatal care. For more information on cancer prevention, spring recipes, and other topics, follow her on Facebook: or visit her website