Why I Don’t Use (Or Need) Sunscreen

In my early thirties, I had a spot of skin cancer removed from my back. I was surprised at the diagnosis because I hadn’t sunburned my back since college, but the dermatologist told me skin cancer can show up many years after the sunburn that triggers it. I’ve never had another skin cancer, but I’m scheduled for a just-in-case visit to a dermatologist every 18 months or so.

During my most recent visit, the dermatologist informed me that the recommendation on sunscreen protection has been updated: we’re now supposed to apply SPF 50 sunscreen instead of SPF 35. Kind of like this, I suppose:

I responded to her advice by simply nodding. Truth is, I haven’t worn sunscreen in years. Back in the day, I slathered myself with the stuff because one of Woody Allen’s lines applied to me: “I don’t tan; I stroke.”

But after changing my diet and ditching the frakenfats in favor of real fats, I found I just don’t burn like I once did. I’m now the Bizarro Woody Allen: I don’t stroke; I tan. If I spend four hours doing farm work on a sunny afternoon, my arms and face get a little browner and that’s it. Kind of like this, I suppose:

Seeing how the change in diet changed my skin’s reaction to sunshine got me thinking, of course. Why would the sun be dangerous to humans in the first place? It makes no sense. We didn’t evolve indoors, and we didn’t evolve wearing SPF 50 sunscreen. We need sun on our skin to produce vitamin D naturally.

I also don’t remember skin cancer being a big issue when I was a kid in the 1960s. Out of curiosity, I went looking for information on rates of skin cancer over time. Here’s a quote from an article on sunscreens:

Americans are being diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, at steadily rising rates. According to the National Cancer Institute, the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970s, from 7.9 per 100,000 people, in 1975, to 23 per 100,000, in 2016.

Hmmm … rates of melanoma have tripled since the 1970s, despite all those warnings to slather on the sunscreen. And what else has changed since the 1970s? … let me think for a moment … oh, I’ve got it: we’ve been ditching animals fats in favor of “heart healthy” vegetable oils.

That’s just an association, of course. But it’s one that makes biological sense. The fats you eat become the fats in your skin. If those fats never existed in the human diet and produce inflammation, well, go figure … your skin doesn’t function as it should.

I didn’t exactly find a wealth of literature on diet and skin cancer when I went looking, but what I did find is interesting. Take this study, for example:

Samples of subcutaneous adipose tissue were taken from 100 melanoma patients and 100 matched controls in Sydney in 1984–1985 and were analyzed for constituent fatty acids. The mean percentage of linoleic acid in the triglycerides of the subcutaneous adipose tissue (PLASA T) of these subjects was substantially higher than that in a similar group examined in 1975–1976. In addition, the percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids was found to be higher in the melanoma patients than in the controls (p < 0.01), and there were significantly more controls than patients who had a low PLASA T (p < 0.01). Relevant literature is quoted and the suggestion is made that increased consumption of dietary polyunsaturates may have a contributory effect in the etiology of melanoma.

Fascinating. Compared to people just nine years earlier, people examined in 1984-1985 had substantially more plant oils in their subcutaneous tissue. (Hooray for “heart healthy” dietary guidelines around the world!) And the real clincher: the melanoma patients had a higher percentage of polyunsaturated fats, leading the researchers to conclude that increased consumption of dietary polyunsaturates may have a contributory effect in the etiology of melanoma.

In other words, eat your margarine and perhaps increase your risk of skin cancer.

There are also studies done on rats and mice, like this one and this one, demonstrating that hydrogenated vegetable fats and diet high in polyunsaturated vegetable fats accelerate the development of skin cancers, while omega-3 fats inhibit the process.

So after personal experience and a bit of research convinced me natural fats are a better protection against skin cancer, I stopped using sunscreen. I didn’t consider it harmful, just unnecessary.

Turns out it may be harmful as well. Here are some quotes from a recent article by Reuters:

The active ingredients of commonly-used sunscreens end up in the bloodstream at much higher levels than current U.S. guidelines from health regulators and warrant further safety studies, according to a small study conducted by U.S. Food and Drug Administration researchers and published on Monday.

The study of 23 volunteers tested four sunscreens, including sprays, lotion and cream, applied to 75 percent of the body four times a day over four days, with blood tests to determine the maximum levels of certain chemicals absorbed into the bloodstream conducted over seven days.

The study found maximum plasma levels of the chemicals it tested for – avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene and in one sunscreen ecamsule – to be well above the level of 0.5 nanograms per milliliter (ng/mL) at which FDA guidelines call for further safety testing.

You know how every time a study demonstrates that statins have nasty side effects, we always see quotes from doctors telling us to continue taking statins because the benefits outweigh the harms, blah-blah-blah? Same thing here:

The results in no way suggest that people should stop using sunscreen to protect against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, researchers said.

“The demonstration of systemic absorption well above the FDA guideline does not mean these ingredients are unsafe,” Dr. Robert Califf and Dr. Kanade Shinkai said in an editorial that accompanied the study in JAMA.

Okay, maybe there’s nothing unsafe about elevated levels of avobenzone, oxybenzone and octocrylene floating around in your bloodstream. But I’m pretty sure my ancestors didn’t chew on avobenzone plants, so I’d rather not take the chance.

Eat natural fats and get some sun … but if you’re fair-skinned, build up your tolerance over time so you don’t burn. I think that makes more sense than slathering the biggest organ in your body with chemicals that seep into your blood.

And as usual, my thanks to all the previous the USDA Dietary Guidelines Committees for producing dietary advice that ensures doctors of all types – from cardiologists to dermatologists – will never run short of patients.

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71 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Use (Or Need) Sunscreen

  1. Barbara King

    I noticed that I didn’t burn as quickly (very fair skinned) but I didn’t put together the dietary changes to the reason. Thanks for the info.

    Reply
  2. Bret

    Nailed it as usual, Tom. Our genes did not adapt to hundreds of thousands of years of evolution by giving us skin cancer with sun exposure. The very suggestion is scientifically illiterate. Welfare for the sunscreen industry and dermatologists.

    If cancer rates are rising, the question is not what natural stimuli are we being exposed to. The question is what unnatural stimuli.

    Reply
  3. Don

    Nice try, Tom, but we all know global warming causes everything, all the time. Resistance is futile because the science is settled.

    Reply
      1. June

        OK, I know you don’t believe in global warming because “before” they were insisting it was really global cooling. Brian Dunning on Skeptoid has done a podcast on this. It turns out that scientist have always believed that the increased use of fossil fuels is causing the planet’s overall temperature to increase, it’s just that in the 70’s a small group of scientists became convinced that a cooling action was outpacing the warming. And by small, I mean about 10% of scientist. It’s just that this was a very vocal 10% who got a lot of media attention and the media lapped it up. The vast majority of scientists have always believed that human actions are causing climate change.

        Also, the name was changed to ‘climate change’ because it more accurately describes what is happening and stupid people like US senators would bring a snowball into Congress and be like “Global warming, huh? Doesn’t look too warm to me today.”

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Correct, I don’t believe the planet is currently in a long-term warming trend. I believe the climate has always changed over time and always will. I also don’t believe scientists know enough about what influences climate to predict what the temperature will be in 50 years.

          As for the vast majority of scientists believing that humans are causing global warming …
          https://www.nationalreview.com/2015/10/climate-change-no-its-not-97-percent-consensus-ian-tuttle/

          Reply
          1. NicL

            Whether or not you believe in climate change is almost irrelevant, the climate is changing because it changes all the time. One thing I know for sure is that in 300 years time the world will still be here and will probably have healed itself, but how long we humans have to live as we go on our madness spree of killing everything that flies, stings, swims and walks on four legs, and especially this vegan madness that appears to be taking a vocal minority hold the way all minorities rule our lives, we will run out of water and wars will be about water not wealth.

            Reply
            1. Tom Naughton Post author

              I don’t worry that we’ll destroy the earth. I worry that we’ll destroy ourselves.

  4. Peter

    May work on phasing out the sunblock, but I know my mom gets sun poisoning – blisters and burns quickly if she is in the sun for too long. I tend to take after her side. My dad tans much more easily and my sister tends to take after him. Good info and worth considering, though. As we s l o w l y phase out the bad carbs, we’ll probably work on reducing the amount we use on our very white kids as well. That’s just been really really hard to do when I’m the only one pushing that way. 🙁

    Reply
    1. Sheryl D

      I suffered from this for over 20 years, since eating keto I don’t get it anymore.
      I don’t use sun protector just coconut oil or carrot oil. My skin doesn’t burn it just tans.
      I am faired skin too.

      Reply
  5. BobM

    After 5.5 years of being low carb, I have found something similar. However, it was possible for me to get red and peel, but it took work: two relatively full days in the sun with no previous exposure that year. (And it’s a miracle to get two sunny days in a row on a weekend for me to do this test.) But it wan’t anywhere near the way it used to be. So, like you, I don’t use sunscreen.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I wouldn’t go sit all day on a beach in Mexico and expect not to burn — after all, my ancestors were Irish. But an afternoon in the Tennessee sun doesn’t turn my skin red anymore.

      Reply
  6. Desmond

    After graduating from college, getting a job, and finding my own miniature apartment, I started to eat a high-carb diet. Not that I gave up meat, nor was I particularly low-carb prior to this. But I was on a budget and pasta, rice, and potatoes were cheap, easy to cook, and recommended by the Food Pyramid. And everyone knew PopTarts were fortified with a million vitamins, and “part of this complete breakfast.” By 25 I had kept gained weight, continued to have some acne, developed asthma, and had a melanoma spot removed. Now I am twice that age. Even following LCHF imperfectly, those old problems are pretty much gone. No going back.

    Reply
  7. Marg

    I noticed this, too, about 7 years ago, or 2 years after I started eating low-carb. I wouldn’t burn as easily, and could stay out in the sun for an hour without sunscreen, and just got a little pink at first, then it would turn into a tan. At the time I had also started a high-dose of Vitamin D to get my levels up, so I assumed that was the reason I wasn’t burning as much. I’ve noticed this effect for years. I still put on sunblock, but not right away, and not all the time—only when I’ll be out in full sun in the middle of the day for hours and hours. Being out on a cloudy day, or just out for an hour doesn’t affect me. Recently, I’ve been hearing others on a LCHF diet say the same thing, and I’m thinking you’re right, it’s likely the Omega 6 seed oils that causes sunburns. I don’t eat margarine, processed foods, and I don’t cook with canola or veg oil.

    Reply
      1. chris c

        Yes we must be separated at birth – you, me and a few thousand other people.

        I remember once when I was little getting badly burned – spent too long on the beach and my neck and shoulders peeled. Other than that I don’t recall many other problems with the sun – until I was older and suckered into low fat diets – can you believe I did a taste test of every margarine in the supermarket? The Horror. Then I would routinely burn rather than tan.

        Since low carb, and obviously avoiding the hearthealthyegetableoils, I have reverted to tanning rather than burning.

        A few months ago I broke a wine glass and cut my thumb rather badly – in the past it would probably have required stitches and definitely antibiotics or at least ointment. I was amazed how quickly it healed, and just recently I realised you have to look very hard to see which thumb it was.

        As Malcolm Kendrick has pointed out, sunlight not only generates Vitamin D but also nitric oxide which is beneficial to the arteries. Would be interesting to plot sunscreen use against CVD.

        Reply
  8. smgj

    I do sunscreen if I travel a lot further south (like from Norway to the Mediterranean), or do a daytrip by water without having sufficient tan beforehand. Otherwise I’ll usually pass on the sunscreen. I do have clothes, seeking shade is another possibility, or just putting on more clothes.
    Instead of the most harmful sunscreens there is also the zinc based ones.

    … and getting burned never did anybody any good.

    Interesting research on the topic:
    This may be of interest; a Norwegian cancer researcher advising responsible tanning (run it through google translate/translate in Chrome; it has become pretty decent translating Norwegian): https://www.nrk.no/livsstil/_-flere-bor-ta-solarium-1.12499340

    Another interesting researcher is Dr Seneff. She has studied the relationship between cholesterol, sun exposure, and the formation of vitamin d in skin (as opposed to through supplements).

    From this (https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/04/14/vitamin-d-cholesterol-levels.aspx) Mercola article:

    Dr. Seneff believes that high serum cholesterol and low serum cholesterol sulfate go hand-in-hand, and that the ideal way to bring down your LDL (so-called “bad” cholesterol, which is associated with cardiovascular disease) is to get appropriate amounts of sunlight exposure on your skin. She explains:
    “In this way, your skin will produce cholesterol sulfate, which will then flow freely through the blood—not packaged up inside LDL—and therefore your liver doesn’t have to make so much LDL. So the LDL goes down. In fact… there is a complete inverse relationship between sunlight and cardiovascular disease – the more sunlight, the less cardiovascular disease.”
    More in depth, and less tabloid here:
    https://globalhealthmakeover.com/vitamin-d-cholesterol-sulfate-sunshine/

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Interesting. So the experts tell us to avoid the sun, then take statins for the rise in LDL.

      Reply
      1. K2

        Hi Tom,

        The topic of cholesterol, sun, and Vit D has been swimming around in my head for a while. Although skin cancer rates and increased consumption of seed oils track over time, so does statin use, low fat diets and low Vit D levels. In my thinking, it all goes hand in hand. In very simplistic terms, the body uses cholesterol when the body is exposed to sunlight to make Vit D. If we do as told and avoid the sun, cholesterol isn’t “used,” we don’t make Vit D, and then there is a cascade of negative outcomes: high cholesterol (if that’s even a bad thing), low Vit D, increased osteoporosis, heart disease, diabetes, etc.

        I wasn’t sure if I was just making too many correlations, but I found a book quite on accident at the library, titled “Survival of the Sickest.” It discusses how the diseases or problems we deal with now at one time saved us. This is one example, i.e. cholesterol is used up in making Vit D, and in avoiding the sun, we set ourselves up for trouble. There is also quite an interesting chapter on diabetes and that having higher blood sugar at one time might have saved us because it would have kept our blood from freezing too quickly. That’s a very thumbnail summary of it, but the author, with cited research, makes a good case.

        Thanks again for your blog and work. I truly enjoy your writing and topics. Mostly I’m envious of your farm…I so want laying hens some day! 🙂

        K2

        Reply
        1. Tom Naughton Post author

          Those are excellent points. I don’t believe our bodies are programmed to kill us. As we wrote in Fat Head Kids, the problem is that our bodies were programmed for a different environment.

          Reply
    2. Derek

      I live in Scotland, get unprotected sun exposure during the summer (1 hr around midday), then for the last few years in Autumn have been going on holiday in the tropics.

      So then I tend to work up unprotected exposure around 10 – 11am each day, gradually moving closer to midday, and gradually lengthening the period (from 30 mins to an hour) over a week.

      No burning, and a tan which then tends to last for months. There is a distinct difference between the mild tanned skin colour when I arrive, and the deeper shade when I leave.

      This for a Caucasian – Native Brit.

      Oh – and I can burn, the first time I went there (25 years ago), I got burned on the first day by sitting out (in a T shirt) at around 3pm. That said, my diet has changed since then, which may have some impact.

      Reply
    3. Vicki

      Just so you know, Stephanie Seneff is a computer scientist. I’d take anything she rights regarding health with a very large grain of salt.

      Reply
      1. Tom Naughton Post author

        I’ve seen a couple of her lectures, one in person. The woman does her research.

        Reply
  9. DebbieC

    I live in Florida so we get pretty hot sun here, and I virtually never use sun screen. I am fair (Scottish and Irish ancestors) so I am careful. I’ll wear a hat, use a sun umbrella if I’m going to be at the beach. I might use some sunscreen if I were going to be out for hours and hours, but that rarely happens. Many years ago I read an article saying the chemicals in sunblock are worse for your skin than the sun, and the higher the SPF the more dangerous the sunblock is. It made sense to me at the time. So far so good 😉

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      I think that’s how to avoid sunburn: cover up if you’re going to be in the sun longer than your skin can tolerate.

      Reply
  10. Merlin Williams

    I noticed the same phenomenon in the summer of 2013. I’d been eating LCHF for six months at that point. I was walking around Toronto a lot in between matinee performances of a show I was working on, and had the sudden realization that I wasn’t burning. I haven’t used any form of sunscreen since then.

    Reply
  11. Lori Miller

    I don’t burn (much) here in Indiana, but I roasted in Colorado, even after ditching seed oils. My preferred sun protections are mineral makeup, a t-shirt, and shade.

    Reply
  12. Kathy from Maine

    Several years after I started low-carb eating, hubby and I went to the Keys and chartered a fishing boat for the day. I brought a towel, books, a few snacks, water, but completely forgot the sunscreen. Well, I wasn’t going to let it spoil my day. I spent the entire day in the sun on the ocean. The next morning the tops of my shoulders were a wee bit pink. That was it. I haven’t worn sunscreen since that time.

    I routinely spend 3 – 4 hours every Saturday afternoon mowing the lawn and tan gradually, never burn.

    It’s not the construction workers out in the sun all day long that get skin cancer (and I seriously doubt they apply sunscreen before leaving the house, and certainly don’t reapply every couple hours), it’s the fair-haired folk who never get any sun whatsoever, but go to Florida for a week and bake in the sun all day, slathered with sunscreen.

    I’ve always felt that the sun is natural and it’s good for you. What’s not good for you is to slather chemicals on your skin year around and reapply it frequently in copious amounts.

    Skin cancer didn’t become an issue until we were told to wear sunscreen daily, in the 70s. Doesn’t prove causation, but the association is suspicious.

    Reply
  13. Kathy from Maine

    PS: All that sun has done nothing bad to my complexion, either. I don’t have wrinkles, though I do a few very small “age” spots. I’m 64 and people are always mistaking me for being in my 40s. All the time.

    Reply
  14. Jennifer

    Do think the hole in the ozone layer might be an issue? Could that be a confounding variable? Jenn

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Hard to say for sure, but given what I’ve read in the studies I could find, I think diet makes a big difference. The good news is that the hole in the ozone layer is closing.

      Reply
  15. Ulfric Douglas

    A very important post.
    I came to those conclusions years ago, but it bears repeating : often.
    Not only do veg oils make the human prone to cancers, they actively cause cancers when heated to cooking temperatures … doh.
    You can bang your head on a desk now.
    I will not use sunscreen at all, sun is good. Let it get to you.

    Reply
  16. BW

    I’m right there with you! I’ve always been fair skinned and would joke that ‘I don’t tan, I burn’. But, the last few years after being low-carb I don’t really burn like I used to and actually had a tan last year (gasp!). I can easily spend a good hour out in the sun without sunscreen now where my limit used to be 20 minutes before I would turn pink. As an added bonus, I became allergic to the chemical sunscreens lately so I am very happy not to need to use them any more.

    Reply
  17. Irma

    Great post Tom!

    I, too, found that I burn less while low carbing.

    I have also discovered that Krill oil supplements contain astaxanthin, which is a natural sunscreen. I tested this out one summer by taking my supplement daily for at least 4 weeks before I went on my vacation river tubing. I used no sunscreen and had no burning, so I was super happy about that. So I do this every year now, just in case. Plus it contains Omega 3’s, so there’s that too.

    I fell into the trap of ‘cover up and stay out of the sun between 10 am and 2 pm!!” by well meaning friends and family. Consequently, I was so pale skinned for such a long time. Now I have to sit outside at noon in April to start building my base tan.

    Also your body can only make Vitamin D if you expose as much of your skin as possible to the sun during the 10 am to 2 pm time period. You only have to be out there for 10 minutes at a time, but you need the UVB rays to react with your skin.

    Reply
  18. Mike Arthur

    I used to burn superbad as a child. I was warned that I was going to get skin cancer if I keep getting sunburn. I have a massive amount of freckles from that. But low and behold once my diet changed I completely quit burning. Now I have a golden tan that everyone super jealous of. Haha.

    Reply
  19. Firebird7478

    As I was saying in your previous post, the media tells us two weeks ago to slather on that stuff. The following week they report that there are harmful chemicals in those sunscreens and last week they tell us not use homemade sunscreens but to keep using FDA approved sunscreens even though those sunscreens contain harmful chemicals. When I was growing up, we used Coppertone and it contained cocoa butter. As a teen, when we wanted to enhance our tans, we’d skip the blocker and use baby oil. We survived!

    In other news, eggs are good for you again.

    This week.

    Reply
  20. Björn Hammarskjöld

    As a biochemist I just noticed that sunscreen contains benzene derivates .
    How does benzene derivtes block the sun?
    Why are gas stations sell acrylate gas and not regular gas for home appliances?
    We and some authorities know since beginning of the twenties century that benzene derivates are carcinogenic . That’s why we should refuse regular gas for the lawn mower and other household appliances.
    Why should we slap a lot of benzene derivates on our skin but for increase the cancer incidence?
    Anyone remember that the American Child Bureau in 1931 recommended newborn babies to be naked and stay in the sun for a quarter of an hour every day during the first week, increase sun exposure time by 15 minutes each week until at the age of a month it was enough to stay in the sun for max an hour each and every day. How come there were almost no malignant melanoma in the US those decades? Without any sun protection?
    There is just one conclusion. UVB does not give malignant melanoma but sunscreen does.

    Reply
  21. Lori Miller

    So I spent about 15 minutes in the sun in a bikini top today (in the privacy of my back yard) for the first time in decades. I have to admit it felt good and perked me up.

    Reply
  22. Jerica

    Oh wow. I didn’t realise this was why I didn’t burn as much as some of my friends! Good to know and maybe I can share this info more.

    Reply
  23. Lauren Romeo

    I have lived in Florida most of my life, I used to use sunblock years ago, but I went very low carb in 2007 and haven’t had a sunburn since. I do use zinc oxide on specific area to decrease age spots…but none of the other types of sunblock. I also, take Vitamin D3/K2 because it is true as we age our skin makes less D3.
    Love your blog!

    Reply
  24. Don

    Totally off topic, but I’m working my way through your site by using the categories function at the bottom of the page. Is everything you’ve posted in one of these categories, so that by going through them, I’ll eventually read the whole site? There’s literally tons of good info here and links to other great sites. I don’t want to miss anything. Changing my family’s diet has become an obsession. I’m maddened by all the wasted years following bad, corrupted dietary advice. My older kids don’t really want to hear it but my younger kids will learn the truth. I’m really thankful I found your blog.

    Reply
  25. Dianne

    When I was a little kid (born in ’42) I’d develop a rash of some kind all over my chest and stomach each winter. The doctor would tell my mother to strip me down and put me out in the sun the first warm day that came along, and the rash would always disappear. I don’t know what the rash was, just tiny red bumps that did not itch, but sunlight was the quick and sure cure. These days the doc who prescribed that cure would probably be hauled up before the medical board or sued for malpractice.

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Yup, nowadays the typical doctor would want you slathered with sunscreen to walk to the mailbox on a sunny day.

      Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Very good post. I don’t think it’s cutting carbs per se that provides the protection, but eating natural fats instead of industrial fats.

      Reply
  26. BJ

    I’m a lifeguard – well, I was back in the 60’s. Funny thing – I went through this stage for a couple of summers where the sun gave me hives. I was determined to wear that lifeguard swim suit, so I just itched my way through it for a few weeks and it went away. I have NEVER used sunscreen/lotion of any kind. So I’m at the age where if it happens, it happens. Eat mostly low carb with LOTS of butter – a meal is not complete without butter or cream. FWIW…

    Reply
    1. BJ

      I forgot to say – I’m old as dirt now. Thought I put my age in the post above???? But I guess you probably figured that out anyway…

      Reply
  27. Joshua

    I think you’re definitely on to something. I think Vitamin D is also a factor. I started Vitamin D before I was started eating better fats, and it also made a difference. Maybe it’s absorbed better with sat fats/ O3? Some (non-epidemiological) science to back it up too.

    https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170706125020.htm
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30661440

    I find it bizarre that I can’t find any studies of vitamin D PREVENTING sunburn instead of just treating it.

    Reply

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