Is Sunscreen Zapping Your Energy and Harming Your Health?

As with anything in this life, there is a ‘Goldilocks’ factor for sun exposure – it has to be ‘just right’!

Too much and we get sunburn, sunstroke and skin damage. Too little and we get vitamin D deficiency with increased risk of weak bones (osteomalacia), autoimmune disease and cancer – to name but a few of the negative consequences.

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We have previously talked about the benefits of sunbathing and in particular, about the important role vitamin D plays in your body.  Here I want to highlight the specific way that use of sunscreen can harm your health and deplete your precious energy.

We are told to use sunscreen liberally

The UK NICE/NHS guidelines say that you should apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of your body whenever you go in the sun, that “most people do not apply enough sunscreen” and that there is no “healthy way to tan”.

They go on to say in this article:

Any tan can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Getting a tan does very little to protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun. The idea that there is such a thing as a healthy tan is a myth.” (1)

In fact, most people who develop malignant melanoma (the most dangerous kind of skin cancer) are not sun worshipers at all and they get the melanoma on parts of their bodies that are not even exposed to the sun – in Japan a high number of melanomas appear on the soles of the feet!

In fact, a ‘healthy glow’ indicates some regular sun exposure and is an external indicator of good vitamin D levels and lower skin cancer risk. Researchers have even found that people who used a UVB tanning bed had serum 25(OH)D concentrations (vitamin D) 90% higher than those of control subjects (2)

It really is common sense that we need to be careful in the sun – but to say that a tan will increase your risk of skin cancer is unnecessary scaremongering!

To be fair, NICE advises that vitamin D is important and that some sunscreen-free skin exposure is required to enable us to make it.

But, the overwhelming public health message is: use sunscreen or you will get skin cancer.

We all know people who won’t leave the house without it and given our tendency in the UK to spend a large proportion of our time inside buildings, this does not bode well for healthy sunscreen-free sun exposure.

Here’s the truth:


Research has found that higher blood levels of Vitamin D protect against malignant melanoma, thought to be caused by exposure to UV light!

Sun screen blocks the UVB rays that enable you to produce vitamin D and without adequate Vitamin D, we are more likely to get skin cancer.

Most sunscreens are harmful and should be used only as a last resort only.

If you need to use a sunscreen, you’ll need to buy a safe one; but finding one is an absolute minefield of toxicity – we’ll give you some tips on what to look for below!

Sunscreen is bad because…

We don’t get the ‘signal’ that we’ve had enough sun

When we’ve been in the sun long enough (reach our limit of safe exposure) we start to turn a nice shade of pink and feel uncomfortable in the direct sun.

This ‘signal’ happens much sooner for some of us than for others – but for all of us, sunscreen gives us the impression that we can stay in the sun much longer without burning, so we don’t go inside or cover up as quickly as we should.

The sun’s UVB rays cause burning and topical damage, but its UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and have long been known to play a major part in skin ageing and wrinkling (photoageing).

Until recently, scientists believed UVA did not cause significant damage in areas of the epidermis (outermost skin layer) where most skin cancers occur.  Studies over the past two decades, however, show that UVA damages skin cells called keratinocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, where most skin cancers occur.

Reddening and tanning is a natural, skin protective, response to sun exposure; our skin reddens to signal the risk of burning from UVB and a tan is a protective response from UVA radiation. However, many brands of sunscreen block the UVB rays to prevent burning but they don’t block the UVA rays which are the ones which could really do us harm.

If you think about it in evolutionary terms, it’s inconceivable that sun exposure is inherently bad for us and moderate exposure (optimally, 20 mins a day between the hours of 11am – 2pm) brings a whole bunch of benefits.

But building tolerance slowly, day-by-day is the key; if you’re not used to the sun, then your skin will be more sensitive to it and you will burn!

Many brands contain cancer-causing chemicals

According to MindBodyGreen, most brands are laden with toxic chemicals such as:

  • Oxybenzone, which is linked to hormone disruption and cell damage that may lead to skin cancer.
  • Retinyl palmitate, which has now been proven to be a carcinogen.
  • Octyl-methoxycinnamate causes oxidation damage of the skin, which ages your face.
  • Butyl-Methdiebenzoylmethane, which releases free radicals into the body.

Many brands contain thyroid decreasing chemicals

Thyroid and thyroid hormones are absolutely essential for energy, vitality and health, so looking after your thyroid is key.

But this can be more difficult than it sounds, since many of the chemicals of modern life – and particularly fluoride (in toothpaste and water supplies) interfere with thyroid function.

The chemicals in sunscreen are no exception – many brands contain Benzophenone 2 (BP2) which decreases the function of the thyroid meaning that your energy will certainly be zapped!

It blocks your pores

It puts chemicals on your skin that block your pores and prevent it breathing, increasing the risk of rashes, irritation and inflammation – especially with waterproof sunscreens which have been likened to ‘wrapping your skin in cling film’. (3)

So all in all, it looks like sunscreen does more harm than it does us good!  But of course, there are times when we do need safe and effective sun protection…

When to use sunscreen

Firstly I agree with the EWG: “Sunscreen should be your last resort.”(4)

If you are going out in the sun for longer than is needed to get a burst of Vitamin D and a slight start to your tan, then:


  • Wear clothes and hats and cover up
  • Find or make shade
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes

And, as Dr Mercola’s advises:

“If you work in the outdoors all day, are planning a trip to an outdoor theme park, or if you need to protect sensitive areas of your face (like around your eyes), safe sunscreen is certainly recommended. But if you apply sunscreen every time you’re out in the sun, you’ll block your body’s ability to produce Vitamin D.”

How to choose a safe, effective sunscreen

As far as possible I try to follow the rule of ‘if you wouldn’t eat it, don’t put it on your skin’.

So, this has led to using a traditional sunscreen used by Pacific Islanders –  coconut oil! Coconut oil will moisturise your skin and no, you won’t ‘fry’ yourself!! (5)

Bruce Fife, ND, author of Coconut Cures: Preventing and Treating Common Health Problems with Coconut Oil, explains that coconut oil applied on the skin protects against sunburn and cancer. Unlike sunscreen, unprocessed coconut oil doesn’t completely block the UVB rays that are necessary for vitamin D synthesis.

It protects the skin and underlying tissues from the damage that excessive exposure can cause. Instead of burning or turning red, it produces a light tan, depending on the length of time spent in the sun.

In fact, coconut oil is actually ideal for general skin care.  It helps protect skin from the ageing effects of free radicals and so improve the appearance of skin with its anti-ageing benefits. Many experts believe coconut oil may help us to restore more youthful-looking skin: when coconut oil is absorbed into the skin and connective tissues, it helps keep them strong and supple and aids in exfoliating the outer layer of dead skin cells, making the skin smoother. Physiologist and biochemist Dr Ray Peat considers coconut oil to be an antioxidant due to its stability and resistance to oxidation and free radical formation and believes it reduces our need for the antioxidant protection of vitamin E. (5)

Not bad eh? Coconut oil is an anti-ageing skin ‘go-to’.  Go get some – you’re so worth it!

If you do want to use something stronger in the form of a commercial sunscreen, then follow these tips:

  • Use a mineral based one – zinc oxide or titanium dioxide rather than oxybenzone as the active ingredient.
  • Make sure it blocks UVA and UVB – otherwise you’ll still get the damaging rays, but not the vitamin D producing ones.
  • Make sure there is no retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) used in it as a preservative – it harms skin and seems to cause nasty tumours on the skin.
  • Get the cream not the spray – despite the convenience, the dangers of inhalation are real and not worth the risk especially with kids.



Izabella Natrins

I'm here to inspire and support women at midlife and beyond to re-ignite purpose and meaning to take back control of their health and create the radical, resilient heath they want and deserve. As a whole-health expert with over 30 years experience in the field, a qualified Health and Wellness Coach and Ballymaloe-trained nutritional chef, my real food nutrition and lifestyle medicine programmes support women fighting fatigue, struggling with overwhelm, weight gain, sleep, energy and niggling or multiple diagnosed health issues. As an advocate for real food nutrition, regenerative agriculture and whole-health, my book 'The Real Food Solution' is an evidence-based treasury wisdom for energy, vitality and better health for people and planet and a call to action to change the way we grown, source and cook our food. As the CEO at The UK Health Coaches Association, I'm proud to continue the task of leading the first professional association for Health and Wellness Coaches in the world and the gold standard for the UK and Ireland.

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11 Responses

  1. Some really useful education on this site – love how holistic this resource has become. With useful and practical info. Love it!!

  2. Donna says:

    Coconut oil fixes a broken leg in my home, it is a without a doubt a superfood! Great info and good advice as always xxD

  3. Absolutely brilliant post. I use coconut oil every day, but I had no idea that it actually protects against the sun too! We have had to deal with a lot of scaremongering about using SPF30 or more every day on our face, let alone our bodies when we’re out in the sun. A little bit of Vitamin D has never hurt anybody 🙂

  4. Jo Romero says:

    This is really interesting Izabella, because I was burned quite badly in the sun when I was about 15, and my doctor then basically told me to stay out of the sun ever since, because I would be at risk of getting skin cancer. But I find that as long as I go out in the sun for a little bit each day, and only for a few hours in a coolish sunny day, I don’t ever get burned. I have quite pale skin and just stay in the shade or wear something like a hat and something thin to cover my arms and shoulders when I’m out in it for any length of time. It just feel counterintuitive to lock yourself away for a day while the sun’s out. You just have to be careful, and I’m learning how important vitamin D is for the body, too.

    • Thank you Jo. Humans evolved in sunlight and there are only two hormones for which every cell in the the body has a receptor – thyroid and vitamin D. That tells us just how important sunlight and vitamin D is for our health!

  5. Helen says:

    Great article! As a redhead who lived in Bermuda for 6 years people are always surprised to hear that I didn’t get burnt all the time. When you live in those climates you rarely tend to spend more than an hour in the sun at a time unlike when people go on holiday and feel the need to be in it all day. I used to wear a UV rash vest when swimming or paddleboarding and used coconut oil on my body daily. Only got slightly burnt once in the whole 6 years and my skin definitely got used to the sun even though I never tan in the slightest. Just learn to know your limits!

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