Why sunscreen isn’t a magic bullet against melanoma

Those of us interested in natural ways to promote health face a conundrum when it comes to sunshine. On one hand, it’s nature’s source of vitamin D. On the other hand… it may cause skin cancer.

And considering the fact that the American Cancer Society (ACS) is estimating over 105,000 new case of melanoma this year, this is no small concern. But a new study brings some peace of mind about getting the sunshine vitamin the old-fashioned way…

Soak up the sun this summer

The study, which was presented at the American Public Health Association 2016 Annual Meeting, enrolled 499 white children at birth or at age 6. The researchers categorized the children’s skin tone as lighter or darker.

Every year, they examined the children for new moles (an indicator of melanoma risk). They also had the parents complete an annual survey about the frequency of sunscreen use when kids were outside for more than 15 minutes, thickness of sunscreen application, which parts of the body were protected, and other sun-protection measures.

Ultimately, researchers found that only the high-risk kids—those with lighter-toned skin who had at least three sunburns between the ages of 12 and 14 years—benefitted from sunscreen.1 Out of the kids in that group, those who used sunscreen had significantly fewer moles than those who did not.

As for all of the other kids? Sunscreen didn’t offer protection against developing moles.

Now, this study only looked at a young population of children… and moles can take much longer than that to start appearing. But as it stands, this is the longest-term mole study ever conducted. And if the evidence holds true, we need to rethink our sunscreen recommendations once and for all.

The message that sunscreen protects against skin cancer is so widely accepted it’s practically gospel. But, as this evidence suggests, it might not be true. Plus, as I’ve been warning about for decades now, most sunscreens on the market today are chock-full of toxic chemicals.

A toxic threat within hours

Results from a small clinical trial to test over-the-counter sunscreens showed that people who used them wound up with systemic concentrations of the products’ active ingredient that well exceeded safety thresholds outlined by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).2

The study tested four commercial sunscreens—two sprays, one lotion, and one cream. The goal was to assess concentrations of a chemical ingredient called avobenzone. But researchers also measured for three more active ingredients: Oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule.

Subjects applied sunscreens according to directions stated on the label. And since the goal wasn’t to assess performance, the experiment took place indoors—away from heat, sunlight, and humidity.

On the first day, after four applications, all but one of the subjects had systemic concentrations of the active ingredients that surpassed 0.5 nanograms per millilitre (ng/mL). This is what the FDA calls the Threshold of Toxicological Concern—the level over which no chemical can be presumed safe.

Any level under 0.5 ng/mL would only carry a carcinogenic risk of one in 100,000 after a single dose. (Which is still one too high, if you ask me.)

To make matters worse, subjects reached this threshold quickly—within two to six hours of applying sunscreens containing avobenzone, oxybenzone, or octocrylene. Concentrations also accumulated over time—reaching as high as 4.3 ng/mL for avobenzone and 209.6 ng/mL for oxybenzone, within just a few days!

We don’t know what these chemicals do in our bodies at those insane concentrations. But we do know that oxybenzone is detectable in breast milk, amniotic fluid, urine, and blood. And that it’s also a documented endocrine disruptor.

So I trust that I don’t need to point out the danger here.

Stay natural, stay safe

I haven’t used conventional sunscreen in years. And luckily for me, I have Mediterranean skin that doesn’t easily burn. But unless you want to take a gamble on skin cancer and premature aging, you should follow these general guidelines…

Enjoy around 20 minutes of maximum skin exposure under the mid-day sun before covering up and using safe, natural sunscreens. Luckily, there are plenty of non-toxic options out there. (I like Lavera, Aubrey, Earth’s Best, and Soleo the best.) All you have to do is look for one of two ingredients: Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

(Some sunscreens may also contain natural botanicals such as licorice, curcumin, aloin, ginsenoside, or epicatechin. Research shows that these ingredients all protect against UV damage. And they have a natural sun protection factor of at least 15!3,4)

If you have trouble finding an option on store shelves, you may have to order them online. But, I promise this is one purchase that’s worth a little extra legwork. Then, join me in soaking up the sunshine vitamin this summer… the old-fashioned way! Your body and mind will benefit.


  1. “Study Calls Into Question Sunscreen in Melanoma Prevention.” Medscape Medical News, 11/04/2016. (medscape.com/viewarticle/871438)
  2. “FDA Finds High Systemic Absorption of Sunscreen Ingredients.” Medscape Medical News, 05/06/2019. (medscape.com/viewarticle/912651)
  3. Mukherjee P, et al. “Bioactive compounds from natural resources against skin aging.” Phytomedicine 2011; 19(1):64-73
  4. Kühnl J, et al. “Licochalcone A activates Nrf2in vitro and contributes to licorice extract-induced lowered cutaneous oxidative stress in vivo.” Experimental Dermatology, 2015; 24 (1): 42.