The great sunscreen debate

"So, should you wear sunscreen or not? There are advantages and disadvantages to both."  Photo by   Giang, 2008.

"So, should you wear sunscreen or not? There are advantages and disadvantages to both."  Photo by Giang, 2008.

It is a challenge living in a society where a tanned complexion is the ultimate summer goal for many people, but like me, you’re as pale as can be and no matter what, by the end of the summer you’re only half a shade darker than you were in the winter. Another “perk” of being so pale is how easily you burn; thus the ritualistic application of sunscreen to avoid burns and the possibility of skin cancer.

Imagine my dismay when a friend told me she does not wear sunscreen because it does no more good than it does harm. And my friend is not the only person to believe this--there are some scholars who support this belief, including Frank Hart, a family physician and writer for Huffington Post. According to Hart’s article, while it is true that sunscreens help to prevent harmful UV rays from penetrating the skin and causing cancer, modern sunscreens are made with substances such as parabens that are linked to cancer and reproductive problems and thus, should not be absorbed into the skin.

The original sunscreen of the 1940s, invented by Franz Greiter, contained zinc oxide, which does not absorb into the skin. Instead, this type of sunscreen creates a “second skin” that protects the user without putting harmful chemicals into the body.

Furthermore, sunscreens can be damaging to the environment when we shower and wash the chemicals down the drain. When you swim in the ocean at the beach, some (if not all) of the sunscreen is being washed off into the water and may cause harm to marine life. Countless times I have gone swimming and noticed the sunscreen residue encircling me in the water.

So what are some alternatives to sunscreen? You can still purchase zinc oxide sunscreens that imitate the “original” sunscreen recipe, but these tend to be more expensive than your average drugstore sunscreen. You can also experiment with homemade sunscreens using zinc oxide, such as in this recipe. Just remember that DIY sunscreen is not as powerful as the store bought stuff--so don't stay out in the sun too long!

Restricting your time out in the sun is usually the best way to prevent sunburn. To make monitoring your time outdoors even easier, J. Justin Gooding and his team of Australian researchers are developing a paper-based sensor. This technology is made from titanium dioxide and food colouring. The titanium dioxide causes the food colouring to change colour after a certain amount of UV radiation has come into contact with it, which can be adjusted by filters for different skin types to increase accuracy. It is inexpensive and can be disposed of safely, however a “one time use” item such as this can be very wasteful in the long run.

So, should you wear sunscreen or not? There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The solution to this dilemma? Just don’t go outside… or if you do, remember not to be out in the sun for too long.