The Scorching Truth

Your Sunscreen May Give You Cancer


Summer is here. Go get your sunscreen. I’ll wait. Bring it here and start reading the ingredients. All sunscreens are NOT created equal.

A very high number of name-brand chemical sunscreens are tainted with toxic ingredients and act as endocrine disruptors, and should be swept from your shelves, right along with artificial sweeteners, antibacterial soaps and beach bags with names of cities on them.
Get the reading glasses. Oxybenzone? Just say “no.”

Retinyl palmitate? Not in your sunscreen.

A blend of insect repellent and sunscreen? Bug off.

Don’t use sunscreen powders either. The Food and Drug Administration quietly banned them in 2012 because the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles could get into people’s lungs and cause serious damage. Oops. Sunscreen sprays are harmful in a similar way, so if that’s what you’re using, can it.

And you know those super-high SPF sunscreens rated 50+ or more that you bought because you thought you were getting super-high extra protection from skin cancer?

It’s not true. It’s just clever, misleading marketing. A 50+ isn’t better for you than a 30 and can be much worse because it gives you a false sense of protection and results in even more exposure to damaging rays.

These are some of the sunny highlights of this year’s Environmental Working Group’s 2014 Sunscreen Guide, a must-read in my house, right up there with Best Beach Bars of Greece. I’ve been consulting EWG’s online list of best and worst sunscreens for years, and I want you to do the same (

But prepare to do a slow burn. The billion-dollar sunscreen industry has done a great job bamboozling us for years about the safety and effectiveness of their products. The FDA has been an enabler—slow to act, unwilling to provide meaningful protection—and the EWG characterizes its 2012 rewrite of a few rules as “feeble, tardy and full of gaps.” Other public health advocates aren’t quite so polite.

And here’s the part that makes me go pale: Not only haven’t rates of skin cancer gone down since people have been slathering up with chemical sunscreens, but they’ve skyrocketed. For example, the number of melanoma cases—the pit viper of skin cancers—has tripled since the 1970s, when sunscreen mania began.

For a fuller explanation of what’s been going on, pay attention to EWG’s first Sun Safety Campaign promoting the use of physical sunscreens over chemical sunscreens. Meanwhile, let’s shine a little more light on some of the darker details:

This chemical ingredient is a synthetic estrogen. It quickly penetrates your skin, gets into your bloodstream, circulates throughout your body, and is linked to cell damage, endocrine disruption, allergic reactions and cancer. Cancer? Yep. And not just skin cancer. Breast cancer, ovarian cancer and prostate cancer, too. More than 40 percent of all beach and sport sunscreens on the market today have this hormone-disrupting ingredient. Keep it off your porous and precious skin.

Retinyl palmitate is another name for vitamin A. It’s a very good nutrient in your sweet potatoes and spinach, but not in your sunscreen, screams the EWG. Why? Because there’s growing data (including the FDA’s own research) that links vitamin A to the accelerated growth of skin tumors and lesions. That’s right. The sunscreen you use to prevent skin cancer is raising your risk of getting it. Talk about the scorching truth. The EWG reports that 20 percent of the sunscreens on the market list retinyl palmitate as an ingredient.

Two-thirds of the mass-marketed sunscreens the EWG analyzed don’t work well and have toxic ingredients. But the good news is there are more good choices available than ever before. Zinc and titanium-based products are physical sunscreens that don’t penetrate the skin, don’t contaminate your endocrine system, and offer lasting ultraviolet protection. Yes, you’ll look like you’ve dived into a vanilla cupcake, but actually there are some newer formulas of physical sunscreen that blend in better.

The best sunscreen, many experts conclude, is a hat and a shirt. I also urge you to do regular self-exams, looking for suspicious moles or growths. If you see something, say something. And even if you don’t, have a professional check out your skin at least once a year. It’s a jungle out there.

“Chemical sunscreens are endocrine disruptors ... There are very good alternatives. I tell my patients to be very careful about what they put on their body.” —Dr. Arthur Perry

Marilynn Preston—healthy lifestyle expert, well being coach and Emmy-winning producer—is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website,, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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