Sunscreen: Is The Risk Worth The Reward?

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Articles, Lifestyle

I rarely use sunscreen.

If I’m just tooling around on a typical day, I might end up in the sun for short 20-30 minute exposures, which is rarely enough to burn the skin. So I just don't wear sunscreen in a situation like that.

However, if I’m doing a longer workout, like an outdoor bike ride, run or swim session that lasts longer than an hour, I do wear sunscreen. In these cases, the super healthy sunscreen that my wife makes at home is typically enough to keep me protected.

But during long, hot and sun-exposed triathlons, in which I’m under intense UV exposure for 5-10 hours at a time, I often need something more waterproof and sweatproof, with a higher SPF.

However, I’m concerned about potential toxic ingredients in these waterproof, sweatproof, high SPF sunscreens…

…so a few weeks ago, I shot a video about sunscreen, in which I explained some of the most common dangerous products in sunscreen and how to avoid them.

You can watch the video below, and then we'll get into the real question: is the risk of sunscreen, and some of the other choices we make in fitness, worth the reward?

After I posted this video, I received some feedback, particularly from the company “KINeSYS”. They actually gave me quite valuable information that I want to share with you on this post, along with a link to an article from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.

Here is the letter I received:

“It is unfortunate that the FDA has dragged their feet on the sunscreen monograph update for years. When they released the 1999 sunscreen monograph, KINeSYS jumped on it right away (only major difference being that in 1999 SPF 30 was the max, now it was increased to SPF 50 in 2012).

It has annoyed me to no end, that other sunscreen companies were able to mislead the consumer, SPF 60, 70, 80, 100, while we've maintained an SPF 30. Without the FDA trying to educate the consumer, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) has become the authority on sunscreen? I am a fan of their mission, but in regard to sunscreens, it doesn't factor any risk/reward.

The sun? Chemicals? Minerals (chemicals)? And it completely favors mineral blocks, calling them “natural”.

Titanium Dioxide & Zinc Oxide (for those who want to believe) can be considered natural, and Ben, I now know you make your own sunscreen. Ti & Zn are mined from the earth, but crude Ti & Zn ores have to be purified via chemical & physical processes into pure mineral that are used in sunscreens.

The zinc contained in the feed material is leached in an aqueous ammonia solution. Ammonia is stripped from the solution by steam injection and the zinc precipitates as a basic zinc carbonate, which is then transformed into zinc oxide by calcinations and other processes before being U.S.P. grade and suitable for cosmetics. There is no amount of hammering you can do to make the minerals small enough to put into a cream.

We make a 25% pure Zinc oxide ointment, with Soybean, Coconut Oil, Sunflower, even cruelty free Beeswax, using Rosemary and Peppermint as preservatives & no parabens, but we market it as: a 100% mineral block, (not organic or natural), and as for “chemical free”, there is simply no such thing once you understand that Zinc & Titanium need to be processed using chemicals.

This is also why we don't market “reef safe”, as there is no study that is accepted by the FDA or Health Canada in regard to reef safe. Minerals are not biodegradable (they are minerals!) – they do, however, bioaccumulate in the coral & ocean floor. Other companies have issues with false statements like reef safe – and you can read this article for more information on that:

You also mentioned in the video that oxybenzone can be an endocrine disruptor or mimic estrogen, This protocol that is referred to is based on five genetically mutated mice fed whopping doses of oxybenzone, which showed the estrogenic mimics you are mentioning. It was calculated that would take a human 250 years to be exposed to this much oxybenzone!

You will notice from our Active & Inactive ingredient list, we try to minimize the number of ingredients, and even though we make a SPF 30, with 25% pure zinc oxide, I would never call it chemical free or natural, let alone organic.

I believe all our products are safe & effective and I know that it comes down to choice and risk/reward: 1) the sun, which we know can damage the skin and cause unpleasant sunburns, 2) the chemicals in sunscreen, which are not proven to be as harmful as the sun or 3) minerals, which are micronized or nano-sized via chemical process (and there isn't enough information available on their long term effects.)”

The reason I want to share this letter with you is it really got me thinking, especially the part about risk and reward.

For example, I’ve chosen to compete in long distance triathlons, often internationally. For me, the reward is the enjoyment and pleasure I derive from racing, traveling, meeting new people, engaging in rich cultural experiences, and expanding my knowledge of fitness and nutrition to be able to help my clients, readers and listeners.

However, this means that I not only take on all the long term, chronic endurance exercise risks that I describe in this “Top 10 Reasons Exercise Is Bad For You” post, but it also means that I must…

…consume higher amounts of acidic, inflammatory sugar (especially during races)…

…expose my body to huge amounts of circadian disruption and travel stress…

…spend long periods of time swimming in a chlorinated environments….

…spend elongated periods of time in the hot sun….

….wear sunscreen that has chemicals and minerals in it…

…and generally take on small doses of risk on a daily basis.

For me, the risk is worth the reward, even if it means I may subtract a few months off my life, or risk higher amounts of physical stress than if I’d lived at home in a bubble.

So what about you?

Do you take risks in life that you know are risks, but you take them anyway because they're worth the reward?

If so, share your risks below, and talk about the reward you get from those risks.

Or, you can simply ask any questions you’d like about travel, sugar, chlorine, chronic exercise, sunscreen or other potential “risks” that you may take on a daily basis. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Ask Ben a Podcast Question

17 thoughts on “Sunscreen: Is The Risk Worth The Reward?

  1. Bob says:

    There is something terribly wrong with the KINeSYS discussion of hormone mimic testing. Toxic substances become more toxic with increasing doses. So by exposing rats, for example, to ever increasing doses, you can determine at what point a substance becomes toxic. If it takes extremely high doses for a substance to become toxic, it can be determined that low doses are safe. However, the endocrine system (hormones) does not work in this way. Hormones are active in very low dosages, and only in a narrow range of dosages (for example, a woman’s natural serum levels of hormones are measured in units of pg/mL or parts per trillion). This means that exposure to hormones at extremely low or high doses will have no effect. To test if a substance is a hormone mimic, you start at a high dose and reduce the dose to extremely small levels. A male exposed to an estrogen mimic will see no effect if exposed at high levels, but if exposed at the critical low level, will experience loss of facial hair and breast growth. Very few substances are tested for an endocrine response because it is extremely difficult and expensive.

  2. Cole Vance says:

    It can be harmful to have days at the beach with sunscreen on because of long term damage to our skin from UV rays or chemicals from sunscreen. But having beach-days with our friends can be fun, and our long-term brain health responds well to experiencing good emotions. We may be taking care of our skin by sitting inside all-day, but for most people that can get boring; which in my case would lead to negative thinking and an increased risk of dementia as opposed to the increase risk of skin cancer. There is no solution to escaping the normal patterns of life; we are all going to grow older and eventually pass on one way or another. Hypothetically speaking, I’d personally rather die at 75 than to live to 90 while spending the last 15 years of my life in an assisted living center and unable to fulfill the basic day to day functions caring for myself. I try and do my outdoor workouts around sunrise since any other time in a summer day in Florida can be uncomfortable. But if I’m at the beach at noon I’ll deal with the toxins of sunscreen because I don’t want to deal with a burning, itchy and visually unappealing rash.

  3. Stephanie Cotton says:

    Hey Ben there is a really interesting book called Sunscreens – Biohazard: Treat as Hazardous Waste byElizabeth Plourde. It is a really interesting read about the effects of sunscreen and some of the myths we have been told. As a mother of 3 I really liked this book because it gives helpful hints like foods you can eat to help decrease the damage from sun exposure.

  4. Kem Johnson says:

    Well, you don't want to burn, but increasing safe sun exposure does reduce the risk of cancer, even melanoma.

    I have worked (thirty years, I'm sixty) in an industry that sun exposure is a problem but one that is far less risky than the hazards of the job, mountain and ski guiding. In those thirty years, I hate to count, but at least a dozen of my collegues (from a shifting pool of about a hundred) haven't come home from work. I could double that number of friends from "playtime". The Southern Alps doesn't take prisoners.

    We all think (and thought) that being in the mountains is well worth it.

  5. Terry says:

    Ben, I am off topic but hope you can address this issue with Extreme Endurance tablets. I just found undigested Extreme Endurance tablets in my stool. The product label does not suggest chewing before digestion. Should we be chewing this product before digesting ? Also, are the contents safe for teeth enamel is it needs to be chewed ?

    1. Here was the response from XEndurance:

      Hi Ben,

      All of the batches of product that we make are tested and are engineered to be dissolved in a pH range of 5.5. If for some reason Terry has a higher acid count, (which is lower than 5.5) this could be the cause for the tablets not dissolving in his small intestine. That being said, he should start taking the tablets first thing in the morning on an empty stomach with a non-acid based liquid. (water) His second dose can be 2-3 hours after his evening meal. It may be that other acidic foods he is eating inhibit the tablets from being absorbed into the small intestine.

      Or he can take the dosage 3 times a day; 2 in the am, 2 in the afternoon and 2 in the evening and this may help with his pH.

      We have had a handful of other athletes tell us that the tablets are not completely dissolving and most of those athletes solved the issue by changing the method of ingestion and cutting out a lot of coffee and juices, except in the case of one athlete who had celiac disease.

      Let me know if he has other questions and we can help.


  6. now you tell me! After 60 years of swimming,biking ,running,surfing,skiing and paddling I could of saved some money burning off the the funny spots on my body.

  7. Jeff Kletter says:

    Hello Ben, thank you for sharing my response to you. As you know, there is "risk" in life everyday.
    Be well and keep protected,

  8. Keerthi Kumar says:

    I grew up in India and sunscreen like fat free milk or yogurt is a very alien concept down there. We used to play cricket in the sun for hours but never used sunscreen as we didn't know such a thing even existed. I never used sunscreen even in America as I'm darker skin colored and have vitamin D deficiency. I always felt something wrong with sunscreens and just don't like that stuff or any cosmetics on my skin. I'm glad to see your post confirmed my gut feeling about this.

    1. Yes, Keerthi – of course with the caveat being that you do have more melatonin, which helps with sun, but as you know, can be a drawback when it comes to Vitamin D.

  9. Lara says:

    Hi Ben, interesting post. I’m Australian, and here under a hot summer sun I will burn in 5 minutes of sun exposure. My arms will burn through my car window if the sun is shining through, and yes, I will burn even if I seek shade and stay out of direct sunlight. The thing about light is that it bounces every which way, so shade helps, but only to an extent. Sunscreen is essential here. My daughter does Nippers at Bondi in the warmer months, and on the beach we need to wear sunscreen even at 8 or 9am. However when I do sprint training (on grass) I can usually get away with not wearing sunscreen in the morning, but only if I go early enough. I’ve developed an allergy to certain sunscreens but can handle zinc based ones ok, but I minimize the amount I have to wear by not wearing sleeveless tees, my always wearing a wide brimmed hat, and by simply staying out of the sun as much as possible during the hottest hours of the day. Evening is the best time to swim here – aside from the sharks ;) But there’s risk everywhere. Our world is far to beautiful to stay indoors so a certain amount of risk is ALWAYS worth the reward. The riskiest thing I do on a daily basis is to drive – but the rewards are worth it. We rarely consider the risks unless they are imminent. I think that’s human nature. Cheers, Lara

    1. You must be Australian, because I have no clue what "Nippers at Bondi" is. ;)

  10. Ann says:

    This is a tough one–I live in Hawaii, where the sun (and its effects) are particularly intense. I've competed in a couple of ocean swimming events and the races plus the training mean lots of sun exposure. I have started noticing the effects of sun exposure on my skin (esp my face) in a relatively short period of time, but I would never give up the amazing experience I've had swimming the North Shore of Oahu with some amazing competitors this summer… so I say yes, sometimes the risk is worth the reward. However, I'm "retiring" from open water swimming for the rest of the year and sticking to indoor workouts for the immediate future. Perhaps I'm vain but the sunspots and tan lines are starting to bring me down! Thanks for this post, Ben.

    1. Ann, that is an interesting strategy: choosing some of the year to take on the "Risk" and then avoiding it at other times. This seems like a good way to avoid long term chronic exposure and give the skin a chance to heal!

  11. Tony says:

    I found this post very interesting. Unfortunately as a longhaul pilot my "travel risks" are a fact of life, circadian disturbance, cosmic radiation exposure, limited dietary choices while working, the side effects are numerous. I then choose to take a bike with me and ride for long hours whilst abroad exposing my fair skin to sunscreen/uv and body to chronic exercise. The reward for these risks are a variety of "once in a lifetime destinations" to ride in regularly and I know mentally having the bike as a "comfort blanket" whilst away from my family for a large percentage of my time helps enormously. Life is a pure "risk v reward" equation that we attempt to balance every day and it's not easy!

    1. Tony, I have coached a few pilots for Ironman triathlon, and it is a tough gig indeed. You're right that the adventure aspect is pretty dang cool, but you are correct – pilot take on lots of risk. I think some people think you just have a sexy job of flying a big plane and going cool places, but it can be tough sometimes I know!

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