Skin Cancer, Vitamin D, and Safe Sunscreen


Although there have been countless articles written on the dangers of certain sunscreens (in terms of their ingredient and delivery) and studies linking their use to the increase of skin cancer rates, very few of us seem to be paying attention. Whether at the beach or at the pool, most people are slathering themselves with known carcinogens or, worse yet (and my biggest pet peeve!), using aerosol spray-on sunscreens and releasing millions of nanoparticles (i.e., particles known for causing lung damage as well as developmental issues in animals) into the air that they (and everyone around them) is breathing.

I was so frustrated with this when coming back from the beach the other day, I started this post in the car with the intention of producing a well researched piece that wasn't only about the dangers of most sunscreens and a mention of specific ingredients to avoid, but also my favorite safe alternatives, which meet the following criteria:

Beautycounter's Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion with SPF 30 is my #1 choice for me and my family.

Beautycounter's Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion with SPF 30 is my #1 choice for me and my family.

  • Protect you and yours from the sun effectively (this includes broad spectrum protection and water resistant properties),

  • Use non-toxic and safe ingredients that I would feel safe using on my own child, and

  • Don't leave you looking shiny and silver, like many of the safer, zinc-based sunscreen options out there.

As this is likely going to be a long post (not only am I verbose, but I have a lot to say on this topic), I am going to give you the opportunity to opt out of reading everything and choose the topic in which you are most interested.  Just click on any section below to be taken directly to that portion of the post.

  1. The Sun: Overexposure vs. Underexposure and the Role of Vitamin D

  2. 6 Rules to Follow When Buying Sunscreen

  3. My Favorite Safer Sunscreens

The Sun:  Overexposure vs. Underexposure and the Role of Vitamin D

There has been a great deal of fear generated about the sun and its dangers.  And while exposure to the sun comes with the risk of overexposure, sunburns and possibly skin cancer – all of which pose serious threats, the sun also provides our bodies with a number of health benefits, particularly, vitamin D3, which is absolutely crucial to good health. In fact, due to the increased use of sunscreen (using an SPF15 sunscreen can reduce vitamin D formation by as much as 99%), fewer people are getting the necessary sun exposure and a majority of us (two thirds of Americans) have a serious deficiency, which has been associated with many serious conditions, including increased cancer risk, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disorders, multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis, depression, chronic headaches, brittle bones, the common cold, and even premature death (University of California’s San Diego School of Medicine found that people with an average age of 55 who had lower blood levels of vitamin D were twice as likely to die prematurely as those with higher levels).

One way to make sure that you get enough Vitamin D3 is to get about 15 minutes of sun exposure on your body (face and hands is not enough -- strive to have at least 40% of your skin uncovered) without sunscreen. For those of us who don't have the time, enough sun (because of season changes), or are just simply too sensitive to the sun, we must supplement daily with up to 4,000 IUs of a high quality Vitamin D supplement.  Children can safely take about 1000 IUs for every 25 lbs. of body weight.  

If you can't get enough sun exposure, make sure you take a quality D3 supplement. This is my personal favorite, because it is sublingual and combined with K2, both of which contribute to maximum absorption.

If you can't get enough sun exposure, make sure you take a quality D3 supplement. This is my personal favorite, because it is sublingual and combined with K2, both of which contribute to maximum absorption.

There are a number of factors that must go into choosing a Vitamin D supplement:

  1. Choose Vitamin D3 (or cholecalciferol), which is the recommended form of vitamin D and is the natural form of vitamin D that your body makes from sunlight.

  2. Ensure that your D3 supplement contains K2 or supplement with K2 when taking D3 orally, as this duo works together for optimal health and maximum absorption.

  3. Avoid synthetic preservatives, fillers, binders, added sugars

  4. Choose sublingual drops because they ensure maximum absorption and the fastest, most efficient pathway into our bodies, avoiding the digestive tract and entering the bloodstream in minutes.

  5. Take D3 with your biggest meal of the day. It is best absorbed with meals containing fats.

As always, it is wise to consult with your doctor when changing your Vitamin D intake and to have your blood level of 25-hydroxyvitamin D checked annually.

6 Rules to Follow When Buying Sunscreen

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. While we can turn to sunscreens to help protect ourselves from some of the negative side effects of too much sun, all sunscreens are not created equal. In fact, some controversial research suggests that sunscreens may even contribute to cancer by forming potentially harmful breakdown products when absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream. Whether or not a link actually exists, we can't deny that most sunscreens contain many dangerous chemicals that are harmful to our health.  

Moreover, according to an Environmental Working Group (EWG) report, about 73% of sunscreens n the market don't even work.

So, how do you choose a sunscreen that's effective and healthy? You can start by following the following guidelines:

1.  Avoid aerosol (spray) sunscreens.

Simply put, aerosol sunscreens are not safe for the skin or the lungs.  The FDA announced its plan to investigate the potentially harmful effects of inhaling aerosol sunscreens in 2011 (but never finalized their recommendations) and Consumer Reports recently issued a warning against the sprays that advises parents to stay away from using them on children. 

First, it's very difficult to apply spray sunscreens in a thickness that will provide adequate protection from the sun. Second, and even more importantly, spraying on sunscreen increases your risk of inhaling harmful chemicals directly into your lungs and subjecting everyone around you to the same threat. In the same way as secondhand smoke can cause cancer, the harmful chemicals in spray sunscreen (and there are plenty!) are being delivered to your (and your kids’) lungs. Allergy doctors in particular are concerned about its potential to trigger allergies or asthma in children. There is no question that you need to ditch the sprays ASAP!

2. Avoid oxybenzone.

According to the EWG, oxybenzone is found in 80% of all chemical sunscreens and has been found in the bodies of 96% of the U.S. population. Oxybenzone is a known endocrine disruptor, which means that it can interfere with the body's endocrine (or hormone) system at certain doses and lead to cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders. This chemical acts like estrogen in the body and is linked to abnormal sperm function in animal studies and endometriosis in women, and it may be linked to cellular damage that leads to skin cancer.

3. Avoid retinyl palmitate and other vitamin A ingredients.

Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, can be found in nearly 14% of beach and sport sunscreens, 15% of moisturizers with SPF, and 6% of all SPF-rated lip products in EWG’s 2017 sunscreen database. However, this known human reproductive toxicant, which has been banned in the EU and restricted in Canada, may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied in the presence of sunlight.  In addition, its presence in cosmetics, sunscreens and personal care products could contribute to vitamin A toxicity due to excessive exposure.

4. Choose a mineral sunscreen.

Of the three sunscreen options - non-mineral, mineral, and a combination of the two - always select a mineral sunscreen, since the non-mineral options could penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream, where they may disrupt hormones, trigger allergic responses and release free radicals as they break down. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, contain zinc or titanium, which do not break down in sunlight, are not usually absorbed, and are non-allergenic. They also tend to be more effective at blocking UVA rays than non-mineral sunscreens and are generally considered safer, although they sometimes contain nanoparticles, which are not tightly regulated and haven't been studied for long-term impact.

5. Beware of ultra-high SPFs and stick with an SPF between 30-50. Australia caps SPF values at 30, the EU and Japan at 50, and Canada allows a maximum of “50+." The FDA has long contended that any SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading” (FDA 2007), and in 2011 they proposed a regulation to ban the sales of labels higher than SPF 50+ but, as in the case of aerosol sunscreens, the agency has neither completed work on this rule or enforced it. The EWG believes that that there are at least five solid reasons to never buy any SPF above 50:

1) They offer marginally better sunburn protection:  


Contrary to popular belief, SPF15 is NOT half as effective as an SPF30. In reality, SPF15 filters about 93% of UV-B rays; SPF30 about 97%; and SPF50 98%. The difference between SPF30 and SPF50 is a mere 1% filtering improvement. Dermatologists generally recommend a sunscreen with SPF30 protection, and even people who are most sensitive to sunburn will be adequately protected with an SPF between 30-50 (as long as they are applied correctly). 

2) They protect less effectively against UVA rays

Although UVA rays do not cause a sunburn, they have been shown to penetrate deeper into the skin, cause skin aging and wrinkling, and are associated with a higher risk of developing melanoma. Most US sunscreens are designed and oriented to block UVB rays which cause sunburn. Because the ingredients used to focus on blocking UVB rays do not harmonize with those used against UVA rays, higher SPF sunscreens are actually less effective at blocking the latter. 

3) SPF labs are not the real world:  The intense UV light used in laboratory SPF tests is different than the conditions experienced in the real world (not to mention inconsistent results between different labs). What one company calculates to be SPF100 another company may determine to be SPF30, with only the slightest change to light intensity or the thickness applied.  In 2011, P&G wrote the FDA, warning that SPF values should be capped at 50+ because the current system is “at best, misleading to consumers” and “may inappropriately influence their purchase decision."

4) They provide a false sense of security, which leads to bad behavior

Sunscreen application mistakes

Studies by the World Health Organization (WHO) have shown that high-SPF products spur “profound changes in sun behavior,” including staying in the sun longer, forgeting to reapply, going in the water too soon, and failing to compensate with supplemental protection, such as hats and umbrellas. The effect is increased sun exposure and an increased risk of skin damage and melanoma.

5) They contain toxic ingredients that pose greater health risks

High-SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals, which can penetrate the skin causing tissue damage, hormone disruption, and allergic reaction.  Without the additional gains in the area of proven extra protection from skin damage, these high SPF products are just not worth the additional health risk.


6. Ignore misleading claims

In 2011, the FDA banned the use of claims such as "waterproof" and "sweatproof" on sunscreen bottles, because these marketing terms misled consumers. However, marketers are still allowed to use many other terms, like "sun shield" and "age shield," with the intent of making you believe that their products offer full protection against any potential harmful effects from the sun.  As a result, many consumers trust that sunscreen is all they need to protect their skin, and this is simply not so.

My Favorite Safer Sunscreens

There is no sunscreen that can block out all of the sun's rays, so it's clear that the best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt. By covering the skin, you don't have to worry about burning, chemicals, or reapplication. However, that isn't always realistic and we have to depend on sunscreen when we go to the beach or when we play sports, etc.  So in addition to following the above six rules when choosing a sunscreen, it is important to check out the EWG database to see how your choice is rated.  

For the past two years, I have been using Beautycounter sunscreens and am absolutely in love with the products. Below, you will find the four sunscreen products I use for me and my family (truth be told, I do prefer the lotion over the spray, due to personal preference, but if a spray is your fave, Beautycounter's non-aerosol mist is the safest one you're going to find ).* A more detailed review of the brand and each individual product follows below.  

* Please note that I only recommend products that I have comprehensively researched, personally use or have used, and absolutely love.

Why I Love Beautycounter, the Brand

I can't start a discussion about Beautycounter's products without first mentioning how much I love this brand.  Beautycounter does an amazing job of balancing their social and environmental mission - to get safe products in the hands of everyone - and developing high end, gorgeous, and, most importantly, safe personal care and beauty products that actually work. The company is also leading the movement to change the way our country regulates the ingredients that go into our skincare and beauty products, which, at the moment, is barely at all.  In fact, here is some deeply disturbing information about the regulation of the U.S. personal care and beauty industry that you should consider:

Most personal care and cosmetics brands are taking full advantage of this incredible lack of government oversight by using dangerous, untested chemicals in their products, but not Beautycounter, which, as part of their mission, has voluntarily created their Never List™, which contains over 1,500 harmful or questionable chemicals that are never used as ingredients in their products. This includes the over 1,400 chemicals banned or restricted in personal care products by the European Union (the U.S. bans only 30!), plus additional chemicals found to be of concern. Moreover, they are completely transparent about every single ingredient in each product, never hiding dangerous chemicals under the guise of protecting a proprietary formula within the terms "parfum" or "fragrance." In fact, not only does Beautycounter list every single ingredient (Beautycouter products are scented with essential oils or fruit extract vs. hormone disrupting chemicals), but they go a step further and decipher every single ingredient used in their products—all of which are carefully chosen and assessed for safety through their groundbreaking Ingredient Selection Process—in their ingredient glossary, because scientists shouldn't be the only ones able to decipher the label on a personal care or beauty bottle... Read More.  

My Favorite Sunscreen Products: Review of My Top 3

Acording to the EWG, the healthiest sunscreens contain non-nan0 titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.  And these are exactly the ingredients in the products I recommend.  Besides the fact that I can rest easy knowing that Beautycounter's sun protection products do not contain the most harmful substances found in sunscreens (chemicals that may very well be contributing to the sharp increase in skin cancer since the 80's), I absolutely love using them.  So let's examine them one-by-one.

1. Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion

Unlike many of the "safe" sunscreens you may have tried, the Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Lotion is lightweight and water-resistant, goes on easy and totally smooth.  It blends into the skin quickly and seamlessly without leaving white streaks or milky residue, and even helps hydrate your skin while protecting an effective shield against damaging UVA, UVB and Blue Light.

I personally love it because it's easy to apply, goes on streak-free, smells great, and lasts a long time (I used mine all summer for me and my family, in conjunction with the Protect Stick below, and still had some left for the winter holidays).  Most importantly, I know that it provides safe and excellent protection from the sun, offering water-resistant and well balanced broad spectrum protection for which it has earned EWG's highest rating of 1 (on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the safest, and 10 containing the most dangerous ingredients) and my trust.  

Oh, and it also comes in a travel size, which is perfect to throw in your carry on or in your bag.  


2. Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Stick

This is probably my favorite sunscreen product EVER, because of its original delivery method.  Shaped like a deodorant, it glides on super easy without leaving any residue.  Here are my top four reasons for loving this stick:

  1. It's super compact and fits in even the smallest purses. I personally store one in just about every bag I own in the event of a sun-mergency

  2. It goes on completely clear (see video below) and is particularly useful for squirmy kids.

  3. No mirror necessary because there is nothing to rub in. You can slather it all over your face and have full confidence that you aren't sporting streaks all over because your husband hasn't mentioned it.

  4. The smaller size is better suited and more convenient to put on your face. However, if you have younger kids, the big one is fantastic for quick and easy application to the body. It's a snap, because you don't have to rub it in and they can even do it themselves (with supervision, of course).

Beautycounter Protect Stick for Face SPF30 Review

In my opinion, the Countersun Sunscreen Stick is worth every penny because it's so quick and easy to apply, smells great, and lasts forever! Like the All Over Sunscreen above,  provides safe and excellent protection from the sun, offering water-resistant and well balanced broad spectrum protection from UVB and UVA rays, as well as blue light for which it has earned EWG's highest rating of 1 (on a scale from 1-10, with 1 being the safest, and 10 containing the most dangerous ingredients) and my recommendation.


5. Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer SPF 20

This gorgeous Dew Skin Tinted Moisturizer SPF 20 and winner of Allure's Best of Beauty Award evens out your skin color while moisturizing and protecting from the sun, all while leaving out the most toxic ingredients.  It's lightweight and leaves skin luminous and glowy, while providing sheer hydration and protection from sun damage.  Black currant, peony flower root extract, and vitamin C reduce the appearance of age spots and enhance skin brightness, while sodium hyaluronate promotes firmer, smoother-looking skin.  

I use it daily and love it because now I don't have to put harmful chemicals on my face every day to protect it from the aging effects from the sun.