Sunscreen, for being such a utilitarian product, elicits a lot of heated (sun pun!) discussion. People are more concerned than ever about the safety of their products, thanks non-profits like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the launch and popularity of more “natural” beauty brands. And it makes sense. Who wants to slather dangerous things all over themselves?
But there are a lot of seemingly contradictory arguments about sunscreen online—like are the chemicals in the sunscreen worse for your body than the sun damage from not wearing it? To cut through some of the hysteria and misconceptions, I asked NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Heidi Waldorf to clarify a few of the common sunscreen controversies.
Sunscreen is dangerous.
“What are dangerous are ultraviolet rays,” Dr. Waldorf says. “UV rays are carcinogenic.” While there is some evidence that certain chemicals in sunscreens—like oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate—can disrupt hormones or cause allergic reactions, the scientific community and the FDA haven’t been that concerned because they call the effects “insignificant.” Of course, other countries have banned the controversial ingredients, so if you’re worried, you can try physical sun blockers that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead. (Be aware that the FDA is currently investigating whether spray sunscreens are safe and/or effective, and this includes ones containing titanium dioxide. It’s potentially not safe to inhale.) The bottom line is, try not to get sucked into Internet hype. “There is a lot of unsubstantiated pseudoscience against sunscreen ingredients,” Dr. Waldorf said. “If anything, most people don’t use enough product to protect their skin from the sun, let alone to fully absorb it.”
If I wear sunscreen, I’m totally protected.
Related to Dr. Waldorf’s above point, you can’t assume that you’re protected from UV exposure just because you slapped on some sunscreen. “It is very difficult to apply enough sunscreen often enough to maintain the labeled sun protection level,” she said. “I always recommend supplementing sunscreen with a broad-brimmed hat, sun protective clothing and seeking shade during midday hours.” Recent research in a study published last month backs her up on this. Applying a product with SPF helped, but UV rays can still penetrate some clothing. If you’re outside, it’s generally recommended that you reapply every two hours and take alternate protection measures.
Cocount oil can be used as sunscreen.
Coconut oil is having a moment right now, to put it mildly. In addition to the hundred other things you can supposedly use it for, it got a reputation as a sunscreen because this study found that it can block up to 20% of the sun’s UV rays. However, a typical commercial SPF 30 sunscreen blocks 97% of UV rays. So should you use coconut oil to protect yourself from the sun? Dr. Waldorf’s resounding reply: “No!”