Even if you’re not accustomed to getting medical advice from shopping bags, you might be alarmed by a message that’s been spotted on bags from yoga store Lululemon: “Sunscreen absorbed into the skin might be worse for you than sunshine.”
The short answer is that while people have raised legitimate questions about possible harmful effects of sunscreen, the harms that come from too much sun exposure are clear, known, and often deadly. There’s no contest.
In fact, researchers are aware of consumers’ simmering fears about sunscreen and have looked closely at the evidence on both sides. In a 2011 study on “sunscreen controversies,” a team of doctors from Memorial Sloan-Kettering did a thorough review of previous research in order to answer the three main questions people have about sunscreen:
- Does it protect against skin cancer? (Yes.)
- Does it cause Vitamin D deficiency? (No.)
- Are toxic chemicals in sunscreen harmful to human health? (No.)
Vitamin D is indeed important. But fair-skinned people get a daily dose in just 15 minutes — something even vigilant sunscreen application isn’t likely to interfere with.
The researchers also take care not to dismiss concerns about some ingredients, like oxybenzone, in sunscreens. They discuss at length the growing body research around the effects of such compounds, which have been tied to changes in hormone activity, among other things.
But while caution is not unfounded and there is still more work to be done, most evidence suggests that when used on human skin in appropriate amounts, these ingredients are safe.
Importantly, there’s a cost-benefit analysis required here. Sunshine is good within reasons, of course, but we know the many very real and very dangerous effects of overexposure to the sun, while we cannot conclusively say anything about how sunscreen itself may be harming people in practice.
After reviewing all the evidence, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering researchers conclude that the benefits of sunscreen far outweigh any risks. “Our research revealed that topical use of sunscreen protects against squamous cell carcinoma, does not cause vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency in practice and has not been demonstrated to adversely affect the health of humans,” they write.
A follow-up study published in July 2014 came to the very same conclusion.
In other words: Sunshine is worse for you than sunscreen, not the other way around.
When we reached out to Lululemon to ask about the anti-sunscreen advice on the bags, which have at other times admonished shoppers to “wear sunscreen,” they sent us this statement:
Thanks for reaching out for clarification. The manifesto design that goes on our bags is a collection of statements that are ever-evolving and intended to spark conversation that is relevant at the time. To clarify, the manifesto design on our webpage is the most up-to-date and has been used on our most recent release of manifesto print bags.
The company has certainly succeeded in sparking conversation, but consider this a friendly reminder that health advice is best sought from doctors, not yoga bags.
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