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Reflections on ‘Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?’

January 14, 2019

Over the weekend I came across this article ‘Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?

It got me cheering happy cheers.

Then it got me thinking.

And by the end of the weekend I was back to feeling pretty ugh about it all.  Not that it matters what I feel in the big scheme of things as feelings are just personal and are often driven by attachment and bias but in this case I am going to talk about them.  I’m going to use my personal feelings to dissect the intricate and layered points served up in this article in order to form a relatable scaffold from which we can explore, together.  I’m going to do this because I’m a white girl living on Black Country therefore I burn easily,  I have some fear about skin cancer and I have had quite a lot of exposure to the actual science of sunscreens.  So, if you are ready, let’s go.

beach 2

Is sunscreen the new margarine?

One needs a catchy headline for an article and anyone who has spent any amount of time in certain health food circles will understand this reference – margarine is the devils work apparently.   There is a heady mix of science, urban myth and complete rubbish (my opinion) that underpins the argument that margarine is evil that plays to a very basic fear that we have developed of what I’ll call ‘science food’.   God gave us butter but Frankenstein created Marg – or something like that…

Margarine is a product of a chemical reaction between vegetable fats and hydrogen gas.  a bit of emulsifier is added, some antioxidants, vitamin (even vit D which in nature is actually found in some veg oils)  maybe and even a bit of colour.  Before you know it this is a ‘product’ created in a big factory where nobody loves anyone, everyone walks around like robots and somewhere in the corner the boss man (it was always only ever a man) sits in the corner counting their cash while we, the public, die of heart disease and clogged arteries or so the legend goes.

There are myths about this stuff being black, brown and grey, smelling and tasting rancid until ‘chemicals’ are added and then some.  The truth in this debate is to do with partial hydrogenation and trans fats, an issue that this article brought up and yes, it is probable that the Marg industry didn’t get on board with lowering trans fats quickly enough.  Trans fat levels now have to be listed (these are the bent chain fats that can clog the arteries) and you’ll find levels  in margarine sold today to be extremely low – around 0.1% max – so virtually trans fat-free, there is some info on trans fats here. It’s hard being a scientist in this day and age because while people do seem to have an appetite for new things and solutions, there is zero tolerance of mistakes or down-sides.  Now I’m not going to sit here and make out that corruption and self-interest or withholding truth can’t happen, more that all of that is somewhat encouraged by our un-trusting and un-scientific ways of thinking and our desire for everything to be a conspiracy rather than just a natural part of the scientific process.  Anyway…. The other reality is energy. Butter delivers around 3093kj of energy per 100g vs Nuttelex (a popular Aussie vegan margarine) which delivers 2430kg.  As the risks to health of carrying too much excess body fat are known it may well be the lesser of two evils (if that’s the way you look at it) to consume the lower fat option as a way of gradually cutting back calories, a 21.5% saving is not inconsequential and I’m sure that every little may help.  By the way a family member of mine was, for many years factory manager at a substantially sized margarine manufacturer and I did discuss the issues surrounding Marg with them.  It was always interesting yet not alarming. Anyway, enough said…

So that aside what next?

Ok so now we get into what I was excited about.  The premise behind this article seems to be that we have been fed a message to ‘wear sunscreen’ whatever we do, wherever we are, whatever colour our skin and we’ve largely heard that although not all of us take up the offer.  However, those of us that heard without doing carry guilt and humans are terrible with guilt, we don’t want to feel bad, flawed, lazy or sinful and this is especially true if we have within our care little people (children etc).  So, when we see an article like this that seems to say ‘sunscreen is bad, you are good to avoid it’ we breathe a sigh of relief immediately.  That’s where I got sad. Because it doesn’t say that at all.

The truth of the matter is that this article is pointing out some good facts.  Our skin does synthesise the very useful and biologically necessary (for health, wellbeing and (maybe) cancer prevention) vitamin D.  Wearing sunscreen like a second skin OR avoiding the sun under all circumstances are both ways in which you can severely restrict your body’s natural capacity to produce vitamin D.  I have talked about this before and have also pointed out the different pathways that vitamin D takes within your body.  Popping pills = different type of Vitamin D to what your skin produces, it goes first to the liver,  Sun-on-skin = optimal type of Vitamin D, gets used or excreted, rarely touching the liver.   Vitamin D is fat soluble and can become toxic in large doses and start causing trouble.  The reason that nature doesn’t give us that many foods that contain vitamin D is because we are only supposed to eat it in extreme circumstances or environments – the Northern European winter being one such circumstance.  The foods that do contain vitamin D are cold climate or sun-starved foods – wild grown mushrooms (grow best in darkness and damp conditions but produce Vitamin D when exposed to UV light),  Cod (hence why us Northern Europeans were spoon fed cod liver oil in winter, yuck!) and other oily fish, egg yolks (oK, they are eaten everywhere),  beef liver and a few other things besides (see here although I personally think they got it wrong with the supplement advise but I’m not a doctor).   So, the article’s point about sunscreen being a very real threat to our natural biology is correct, at least in theory…

In practice it is debatable as to whether any sunscreen could completely block Vitamin D synthesis, sunscreens don’t BLOCK all of the sun, even the best sunscreen lets some sun through so IF people were living a natural life (living mostly outdoors) even with lots of sunscreen on it could still be possible to get enough vitamin D through the gaps.  But this brings up another tangent,  us humans are diverse in our skins ability to convert vitamin D from sunlight, the darker the skin, the more sunlight is needed to allow for conversation to start, the lighter the skin the less sun is required to do the job.  This would be fine if we all lived in climates that matched our skin colour but we don’t.

Living Naturally. 

beach

OK so I’m not talking about buying ‘free from’ cosmetics here, I’m talking about living life outdoors and under the sun that suits us best.   The article does point out that people survived without sunscreen and comfortable inside jobs and housing for millennia which is true but I’d hazard a guess that, at least once-upon-a-time these people were also hairier than us and that, for at least much of history, lived, on average, for only a fraction of the time – 1/2 our life span at best for many.   I don’t want to dismiss the very real point of this article (and the bit that got me excited) about living more naturally, in tune and in touch with the weather, the sun and all that, but I do think it’s worth sprinkling in a little reality here.  While it may be natural for humans to modify their environment to increase their comfort, that doesn’t change their biology and need for environmental interaction.  Also the migration and movement of humans from continent to continent (even before planes, trains and automobiles) seems to be entirely natural in terms of human instinct, and desirable, in terms of human cultural evolution but biologically it has left people stuck as we try to fit our biological hardware to our alien environment – my experience of Australia being a case in point.

The bottom line here is that it is denying reality to come up with a one-rule-fits-all mantra for sunscreen use,  not only that it’s possibly quite racist – assuming that what’s right for white is right for all.

Cancer. 

Another thing I’m not an expert at is dermatology but cancer usually require triggers and for skin cancers it’s possible that UV induced DNA damage is one. The article rightly points out that there is more than one type of ‘skin cancer’ but what people may not realise is that not all skin cancers are linked to sun exposure, there is also a viral and genetic element.   However, if we just focus on the UV exposure part of the pie the risks of getting skin cancer logically increase with increased UV exposure, something that does directly correlate to  life span.  Our current average life expectancy is pretty high compared to that which our ancestors would have enjoyed.  A consequence of that could have been that many of our ancient ancestors simply died before their skin cancers could develop.

What about the pointer towards sun worshipers being less likely to die of skin cancer than sun avoiders?

The article points to reports that have found this to be true, that while sun worshipers got more melanomas, sun avoiders died more from their skin cancers.   There are lots of ways you could frame and then internalise that, some of which may miss the point entirely.  For me I immediately think like this.

So, why would people avoid the sun?  

Here are two simple reasons that may be relevant. I’m sure there are more.

a) Because they have a genetic condition that makes the sun damaging for them – albinism maybe?

b) Because they are a very pale skinned human.

What I think when I see data like this is that people who tend to worship the sun can tolerate it enough to worship it.  I like being outside but I hate being sunburned and so I tend to moderate my behaviour to avoid the down side.  I have a friend who would quite literally spend the whole summer on the beach and not feel burned.  She probably won’t die of skin cancer because she doesn’t burn, if I sat with her for a few summers I’d be in hospital.  I have another friend who was so pale she got sun burned walking across the street of the office for a coffee.  She may well get skin cancer before my sun-loving friend too.  That’s two of us vs one.

And, as the article pointed out they are only comparing death rates, not other things.  It doesn’t take much time walking around a crowded Australian city before you see someone with a chunk of head missing and it’s not all shark related.

Then there’s the notion that the people who use the most sunscreen get the most cancers.

I think (and again, this is only a thought, I don’t have data for this but do keep in mind that with enough time, money and resources one can find data to support anything) it could be likely that the people who buy the most sunscreen are the people who have the highest levels of fear about sun exposure because they have had the highest level of negative experiences before (burning etc) or the highest levels of fear about being judged or making the wrong decision based on the dominant social narrative of ‘wear sunscreen’.  They may be parents of young children,  have mainly inside jobs and have skin that is less accustomed to the sun so more likely to burn, have skin types or conditions as above or want to do ‘the right thing’ because of what they’ve read.   Without knowing more about this sunscreen purchasing group than that it’s hard to say but as people tend to make purchases based on wants or needs (and not that many sunscreens are marketed in a ‘want’ way) it’s likely they perceive a need.

On that point it is pertinent to bring up another point.  Sunscreen use  is usually not a sensory neutral experience.  Many sunscreens smell, some are greasy,  many feel heavy, some whiten the appearance of the skin, some stain clothing, I even have a hand print mark on my car left from a sunscreen greased palm when the kids were little,  some make you feel hotter and others are expensive.   Not everyone can tolerate such sensory inconvenience on their skin as an inevitable part of going out and about. Some will modify their behaviour to avoid putting themselves into ‘sunscreen is necessary’ type scenario while others will just take the risk. None of this is insignificant when it comes to trying to decipher data such as is presented above.  Feelings do matter. It is likely that those most adverse to the sensory aspect of sunscreen will also be wishing to avoid the negative aspects of sun exposure as prickly heat, sunstroke and burns are not pleasant either, the net result being complete behavioural modification.   Now we could extrapolate that still further, that feelings thing,  some people don’t feel part of the mainstream and don’t adhere to mainstream values and norms, they might feel deeply suspicious of sunscreen and seek to validate that suspicion with any ‘science’ that supports the notion that they are right to be wary.  So when the article beings a paragraph with the rebellious sentence opener:  ‘The idea that slavish application of SPF 50 might be as bad for you as Marlboro 100s” our sunscreen hating audience’s appetite for more blood is sated,  sunscreens are bad, there, says it on the page, there’s even a bold headline to prove it,  found easily by scanning ones eye through the article without having to read the detail.  The article does go on from there but I’m going to leave it at that and sum up under my own rebellious headline:

So is Sunscreen Only for Stupid People and regular People in Unnatural Situations?

Stupid = having or showing a great lack of intelligence of common sense. 

If you read through the original article and persisted through my verbose thoughts you may possibly have got to here with an air of  ‘what now’ about you.   My own personal conclusion was to pose the above question to myself and ponder if I was indeed right to be so dismissive of humanity and to say that ‘yes, sunscreen is only for stupid people – I originally just added the ‘people in unnatural situations’  to avoid sounding like a complete ass hole.   Only then I wondered,  how does one determine what that a stupid person or unnatural situation is?

What I was trying to capture in that was the idea that we are naturally equip, as humans, to live somewhere on this planet and that if we are in tune with that, we can make choices that give us the best outcomes while managing the down sides.  Whether we do that or not is another question. If we do that without considering all of the information and knowledge (scientific or otherwise) we have at our disposal IS stupid (to me at least).

There is a certain amount of stupid that came with me moving to Australia. I was NEVER going to turn black enough to protect myself from this sun so I would forever be in danger of damaging my skin and my health through sunburn/ sunstroke and getting some form of skin cancer – I go the clinic for my annual check so who knows what will show up in future.    However, to my mind, I only BECOME a stupid person if I fail to manage the risks that living with pale skin in a hot climate present and even then I should re-frame my response to ‘I would be a person who made stupid choices’ rather than seeing myself as a wholly stupid person.  Better for the self-esteem hahahahaha

Products such as sunscreen can help me bridge the gap when I can’t (see, element of choice here) avoid the sun either entirely or in another way and I’m likely to have already achieved an optimal biological dose of rays.  For me, sunscreen could be one of the tools I use to help me live more naturally in an environment that is unnatural for me.   Other tools being clothing, behavioural modification, diet and general health etc. However, if I try to replace my brain with a bottle of sunscreen and just apply it and move on, I’m liable to a) still burn – sunscreen isn’t sun block so if I’m outside long enough the sunscreen will let enough light through to burn me, b) end up with a deficiency in my vitamin D levels, especially if I over-do the sunscreen when spending the vast majority of my time indoors and c) potentially waste lots of money on unnecessary sunscreen.

I know that saying things and people are ‘stupid’ is a bit immature but what got me feeling a bit sad about this article was the realisation that while the article is awesome and factually pretty good, it does come at the facts after dissing science which invites people to stay stupid by encouraging them to dismiss science/ scientists and so-called experts. To persist in the view that these people conspire against us only for profit or otherwise corrupt us.  I can see how easy it would be for people who are already primed to hate or distrust sunscreens could use this as validation that sunscreens are completely bad or useless when clearly they have their place.   Lastly I found the whole thing a little sad  because of the inherent racism that seems obvious to me now within the sunscreen world. The whole sunscreen industry has grown off the back of white people’s stupid behaviour – go on a tropical holiday, wear tiny swimwear,  stay in the sun all day = wear sunscreen – without really acknowledging or celebrating the reality of skin of colour.  I believe that if we had embraced human diversity in the first instance we would have not only found it easier to relate to the science behind sunscreens but we would have also found it easier to form a connection between us and the natural world, a more natural way of living.  Instead we are now in a position where black people living in white climates are being sold sunscreen that they most probably don’t need.  Oh my god!

 So is Sunscreen the New Margarine?

Yes it is, but only because like margarine, people would rather stay stupid,  sticking to their hatred and mistrust of science rather than looking to see what potential solutions science can offer us for what are real problems – Butter  doesn’t spread straight from the fridge and white people can’t take too much UV.

Humans are naturally curious so let’s harness that and grow as that’s what science is really about.

Amanda x

PS: In spite of what it might seem like after reading this I really did like the article I’ve repeatedly quoted. It’s got us all thinking..

 

 

 

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Shiela Burgos permalink
    January 20, 2019 4:56 am

    Hi!

    This article is very interesting. I’m Asian and have yellowish skin stone and I can’t really remember a time in my life that my skin burned (or maybe I just never tried to spend too much time in the sun that I’d end up burning). However, because every beauty advice would always say that a sunscreen is essential, I started using sunscreen when I feel that I’d spend a bit more time under the sun.

    Recently, I’ve been pondering on whether or not I should make my own sunscreen (using uncoated non-nano zinc oxide) but upon reading one of your articles, I think it would not be a very good idea unless I am willing to spend hundreds of dollars to have my product tested. If I would end up making an ineffective product, it would just be a total waste of money and time and effort.

    In the end, my quest in searching for “more natural” products has left me even more confused. I would like to ask– in your personal life, what kind of sunscreens or sun protection products do you use or recommend (if you don’t want to recommend any brands, at least some ingredients and their relative percentages) when you have to spend longer hours under the sun?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      January 21, 2019 1:05 pm

      Hi there, sunscreen does have its uses and it can be a great way to prevent photoageing which I’m sure nobody wants, especially as it comes with its own set of health issues. So I’d not throw out the sunscreen, more just re-think our relationship with it. I personally use whatever takes my fancy at the supermarket. I go with brands who use the more sophisticated filter technology rather than the cheap benzophenone EHMC , 4-MBC blends but that’s about it. I use sunscreen when I have to, most of the time though I have SPF 20 foundation which I wear over an antioxidant rich day cream, sun hat, scarf for my chest which burns easily then sun avoidance. That’s it.

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