Opinion by Jake Crossman
The timeless debate since their inception; Are sunscreen and sunglasses bad for you? Or are they helpful aids in protecting against the sun’s harmful carcinogenic UV rays? There are hundreds of conflicting scientific opinions on these hot-button issues with varying amounts of information and data all trying to tell you a different story. With all of these conflicting sources what is the correct answer and is there a correct answer?
USA Medical is here to clarify whether sunscreen and sunglasses are more harmful than helpful. We have gone through hundreds of articles so you don’t have to – and are going to deliver the best answer we can to everyone’s burning questions about if sunscreen and sunglasses are bad for you and provide a clear, articulate response so you won’t have to think the next time you go to grab some SPF or polarized lenses.
The History of Sunscreen and Sunglasses
Let’s start with sunscreen. The idea of protecting your skin from harmful UV rays is not new – in fact, the earliest recordings of people using a form of protection on their skin were the ancient Egyptians who used jasmine and rice to cover themselves from the hot sun. In ancient Greece they used olive oil, even though it might not have been as effective as other sunblocks it soothed, moisturized, and tanned the skin. Indian tribes would use sunflower oil and pine needles. For centuries people have been using things to cover their skin, from oils to eating a certain diet – there are countless ways to naturally protect your skin from the sun. It wasn’t until as recently as 1944 that traditional “sunscreen” became a household item.
One of the first large producers of sunscreen has a name that is still synonymous with sunscreen use today and that brand is Coppertone. Coppertone was marketed as a way to get “the best” tan you could have while still protecting yourself from harmful UV rays. The problem with Coppertone and a lot of other sunscreen manufacturers at this time was they were creating sunscreen with very harmful chemicals in them that have been linked to causing cancer, such as, benzene, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone. In fact, just last year Coppertone Sunscreen had a nationwide recall of all of their spray-on sunscreens because they had trace amounts of benzene in them, which has been banned for human use by the FDA due to its high toxicity.
There is another issue with sunscreen that a lot of people seem to overlook and that is vitamin D absorption. If you are going to put on sunscreen, check to see if it blocks vitamin D first. Studies have shown that over 75% of adults in America are suffering from a vitamin D deficient life (JAMA). The study looked at the vitamin D levels of adults from 1988 to 2004 and found a significant decrease in the amount of proper sunlight exposure people were getting and the amount of natural vitamin D that was present in the body.
“increased intake of vitamin D (≥1000 IU/d)—particularly during the winter months and at higher latitudes—and judicious sun exposure would improve vitamin D status and likely improve the overall health of the US population (JAMA).”
This is cause for concern since a lack of vitamin D can lead to a variety of different health issues such as lower bone density, osteoporosis, and rickets. Sunscreens can create such a thick layer of chemicals on the skin that will not only block UV lights but also the essential nutrients you need from sunlight.
A big marketing point with sunscreen companies is the use of SPF. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. This can range from 10 SPF to 120 SPF. The problem is people believe that the higher the SPF the more protection against the sun you are receiving. This is only half true. The difference between a 30 SPF and a 100 SPF is only about 4%. This can be a big factor if you are extremely fair skinned but you would still need to reapply either sunscreens multiple times throughout the day. Sunscreen companies don’t account for user error when applying sunscreen which is a MASSIVE inconsistency between the actual data and real world use.
For sunscreen to properly work you would need to apply roughly two millimeters on top of the skin, not rubbed into the skin, and re-apply every 15 to 30 minutes (wired). Even if you were to do this, the efficacy of sunscreen varies from user to user, in short, there are too many outlying factors to ensure proper sunscreen use.
The largest shocker of all is there is no direct correlation between sunscreen, and protecting you from skin cancer, even though that is ingrained into everyone’s head. The sun itself has been proven to cause squamous cells to multiply and increase the risk of skin cancer, but there is no sound data that suggests sunscreen protects you from this. In fact, cases of melanoma have drastically increased over the last 3 decades.
“…melanoma rates have not gone down or even stayed flat. In fact, over the past thirty years, they’ve nearly tripled. If sunscreen protects against skin cancer, why are melanoma rates rising? (wired)”
There is a Belgian epidemiologist Dr. Auitier who through several studies has come to the conclusion that the rise in melanoma cases is because of how liberally people use sunscreen and the amount of time spent in the sun. More sunscreen = more time allowed in the sun, right? This is incorrect; if you burn easily you shouldn’t think you are able to stay in the sun longer just because you have a higher SPF sunscreen on. Autier has gone so far as to say that the FDA recommendation of reapplying sunscreen should be looked at as “abuse” (wired).
While we know that there are harmful UV rays coming from the sun, there are also a lot of nutrients as well. Most doctors agree that spending 20-30 minutes in direct sunlight everyday can increase happiness, and provide natural nutrients to your body. Before you go to buy a bottle of sunscreen check to make sure it isn’t loaded with chemicals and has natural ingredients – and try to explore other alternatives to protecting your skin from the sun as well.
When thinking of sunglasses, a few images might come to mind. James Dean, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, the list goes on. But where do sunglasses come from? Why are they apposite to looking cool? And are they more damaging than they are good?
The first pair of sunglasses ever discovered by historians were “snow goggles” used to protect the wearer’s eyes from the harsh reflection of the sun off of snow. These goggles were carved out of caribou antler with thin slits for the eyes and covered in soot to absorb the most amount of light and decrease reflection (googleartsandculture).
From there, sunglasses evolved into different variations and eventually, they became what we would call modern-day glasses. Doctors first prescribed sunglasses to those affected by syphilis because one of the symptoms of the disease is light sensitivity. It wasn’t until the late 1920’s that sunglasses began to take hold of the American culture of being “cool.”
Celebrities wore them as a way to protect their identity out in public, from there the influence of the fashion world took hold and sunglasses were beginning to pop up all over the country, primarily being sold at beaches. By the early 1930s sunglasses had become a trend, yet only 25% of users said they had purchased sunglasses to protect their eyes from the sun.
In 1936 the infamous brand Rayban was founded. They produced glasses for WWII fighter pilots to shield their eyes from the glare of the sun when flying above the clouds (googleartsandculture). From then on sunglasses have become some of the most popular fashion accessories ever. They can be used as a sign of luxury, or utility – but how efficient are they, and can they impair your vision over time?
“when you artificially create darkness over your eyes with standard sunglasses, your pupils open up WIDE and allow in even more potentially harmful UV light (modelhealth).”
One of the issues with current sunglasses is unless they are polarized or have UV protection they are more harmful than helpful to your eyesight. Even with lenses that are polarized there is still an issue with wearing them every single day.
Your eyes need natural sunlight to remain healthy, this is a fact. The more you cover up your eyes the fewer nutrients they will receive, leading to eye fatigue, less adaptability to light and dark, and in some cases degeneration of the eye’s effectiveness. Furthermore, wearing poor quality or cheaply made sunglasses will still shade your eyes from the sun but will increase the size of your pupils and let harmful UV light through. This can cause more damage than not wearing sunglasses because your eyes are now allowing more harmful rays in than if you weren’t wearing any.
A study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information states that the most effective sunglasses are those with UV lenses that are polarized and fit your face like swimming goggles.
“The most sun protective sunglasses in all exposure conditions were close-fitting goggles, blocking UVR from all directions. The estimated UVR doses received by skin zones protected by middle or large-sized sunglasses highly differed and strongly depended on environmental conditions (NCBI).”
Much like sunscreen, sunglasses need to be used effectively if they were to have any practical use in protecting your eyes from UV rays and most definitely should not be worn every day at all hours.
Are Sunscreen And Sunglasses Bad For You?: Alternatives
There are plenty of alternatives to sunscreen and sunglasses use. For example, you could revert to what our ancient ancestors used for thousands of years, sunflower oil, and coconut oil. Both of these have built-in SPF and create a protective barrier over the skin that can block UV rays. Be careful to use virgin coconut oil, not regular olive oil, since regular olive oil will attract rays to your skin, and cause you to burn faster.
There are alternative sunscreens that are available for purchase as well that don’t have the harsh cancer-causing chemicals that a lot of traditional sunscreens did have. Make sure to always double-check your labels and read what you are purchasing to ensure it is the best for you.
In regards to sunglasses, while they are a fashion statement they aren’t as good as you might think at protecting your eyes. Make sure you are allowing your eyes to get natural unfiltered sun exposure at least once a day, and try not to wear sunglasses unless absolutely necessary.
A healthy diet that consists of omega-3s, nutrients, and protein will also help your body to naturally protect itself from the sun, and increase the production of vitamin D. Doing your due diligence in taking care of your overall health will allow for you to be able to have a very healthy relationship with the sun.
Are Sunscreen And Sunglasses Bad For You?: Final Thoughts
Is sunscreen bad for you? Definitively no; however with improper use and purchasing toxic sunscreen then yes, it can be extremely bad for you which is mostly the case. We suggest taking other precautions against the sun, like limiting your time, and alternative sunblocks before you go and purchase what is essentially a bottle of chemicals.
Are sunglasses bad for you? The research is unclear. While sunglasses will continue to remain a very staple fashion statement the actual science behind them is not sound. Your eyes are one of your most vital assets, protecting them should be important. In closing, don’t wear sunglasses for extended periods and make sure if you are purchasing a pair of sunglasses they are optimized for maximum coverage and are polarized against UV rays.
USA Medical wants to remain as transparent as possible in all areas of health. In doing so we collected as much data and information as we could about sunscreen and sunglasses and presented them in a way that hopefully, you can understand and are now able to make an informed decision the next time that you purchase a product to protect against the sun.
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Mertes, Alyssa. “The History of Sunscreen: When Was It Invented & by Who?” Promotional Products Blog, 4 Aug. 2022, https://www.qualitylogoproducts.com/blog/history-of-sunscreen/.
Adit A. Ginde, MD. “Demographic Differences and Trends of Vitamin D Insufficiency in the US Population, 1988-2004.” Archives of Internal Medicine, JAMA Network, 23 Mar. 2009, https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/414878.
Zaidan, George. “Wait, What’s the Deal with Sunscreen? Does It Work or Not?” Wired, Conde Nast, 18 Apr. 2020, https://www.wired.com/story/whats-deal-with-sunscreen-does-it-work-or-not/.
Cancer Statistics, 2021 – Siegel – Wiley Online Library. https://acsjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.3322/caac.21654.
“The Evolution of Sunglasses – Google Arts & Culture.” Google, Google, https://artsandculture.google.com/story/the-evolution-of-sunglasses/OAUBKXCQPV3VKg?hl=en.
Mercedes, et al. “Cooler than Me? the 4 Side Effects of Wearing Sunglasses.” The Model Health Show, 10 Dec. 2019, https://themodelhealthshow.com/side-effects-of-sunglasses/.