Summer Alert! The Shady Side of Sunscreens


Summertime is fun-in-the-sun time, and for many of us, that’s a very good thing. Our body needs sunlight. Mine does, that’s for sure. Too much sun is a no-no, I know, but too little is also risky and contributes to a sickly pallor and a variety of diseases and disorders.

In fact, health experts now say that vitamin D deficiency - a result of running around with sunscreen on, all the time - is causing more health problems than overexposure.

But what about skin cancer? Yes, it is a serious health concern and can be life-threatening. Anytime you’re outside (running, biking, enjoying an active lifestyle, one hopes), you should do what you can to reduce your risk.

But hear this: Slathering on huge doses of chemical-laden sunscreen is NOT the best way to prevent skin cancer. In fact, I have come to believe in the minority view that many commercial sunscreens are actually contributing to our high rates of skin cancer. Since sunscreens have come on the market, the rate of skin cancers hasn’t gone down - it’s skyrocketed. (Don’t expect to see this in their ads.)

Look at the list of ingredients on your sunscreen for clues. If you find yourself stumbling over a long list of chemicals and additives, stop and ask yourself: Do I really want to put all that stuff on my precious skin - the body’s largest organ -- and then bake it in? If your skin had an LED readout like the “check engine” light on your car - and it just might one day - I’m confident it would read, “Keep chemicals off.”

So suggestion No. 1: If you (and your children) use commercial sunscreen, make sure it is mineral-based, not chemical-based. Look for quality products from conscious companies that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. To reduce any chalky white residue, don’t smear these products on thickly the way you’ve been taught to do with chemical sunscreens. When it comes to the healthier alternative, a few little dabs will do you.

And don’t think that applying a higher-than-15 SPF sunscreen -- a 35! a 150! - means you are buying better, longer protection. You’re not. The Skin Cancer Foundation says your skin will have greater protection if you apply SPF 15 twice in four hours than if you use SPF 30 only once.

Here are more suggestions for reducing your risk of skin cancer while at the same time cheerleading you on to spending more time outdoors this summer, more time walking in the woods, paddling down a gentle river, more time enjoying the sun’s life-giving light, instead of fearing it:

  • See a professional skin expert. If you’re really disciplined about scanning your own body -- front and back, around the ears, between the cracks - looking for suspicious lumps, bumps or changes to existing moles and skin marks, then I salute you. You are practicing skin cancer protection in the most admirable way. Second best is getting your skin checked over by a professional at least once a year. That’s what I do when I go to see my eagle-eyed, nitpicking dermatologist Dr. Z, and it’s worth every co-pay penny.
  • Up your antioxidants. If you need another reason to take an antioxidant-rich multivitamin, here it is: Vitamin C (at least 500 mg) and vitamin E (400 IU is a conservative recommendation) are both helpful in preventing sun damage and protecting your skin. New studies also show that foods containing carotenoids - beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein - can also offer your skin extra protection. So starting this summer and continuing year-round, up your intake of carrots, cantaloupes, sweet potatoes, squash, tomatoes and melons. I’ve also read very good free-radical-fighting things about green tea and selenium.
  • Consider sun-protective clothing. I usually don’t deal in brand names, but Solumbra is an exception. It’s both a medical device and a line of clothing. The soft, lightweight shirts, pants and hats protect against 97 percent of the UVA and UVB rays - better than most sunscreens. No chemicals! No reapplying! I also like knowing that the founder of the company (, Shaun Hughes, is a melanoma survivor himself and is on a mission to help others prevent skin cancer.

“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t going away.” -- Elvis Presley, who always had a nice tan.

Marilynn Preston - fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues - is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web site at