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7 surprising things to consider about “natural” products

One thing that really gets my goat is how people who don’t understand chemistry and biology in the least like to make grand claims about “natural” ingredients. The latest is this article about sunscreen from Natural News, 7 surprising things you’re not supposed to know about sunscreen and sunlight exposure, which takes as its premise that anything natural is necessarily good for you. Reading this piece is like a lesson in shoddy argumentation techniques, but it provides a useful lesson in how to cast a skeptical eye when manufacturers use the word “natural.”

#1) The FDA refuses to allow natural sunscreen ingredients to be used in sunblock / sunscreen products

Note the inflammatory verb: refuses. Actually, the FDA provides a process to file claims that any natural product has medical properties, but someone has to do the research. That means someone has to pay for the research. And supplement companies are very happy to take in your money, but not so happy to have to prove that their claims are true. I’d like to see the multi-billion dollar supplement industry start to prove their claims rigorously, because that’s the way to prove that you’re not just selling snake oil.

Also, one of the problems of so-called “natural” products is that they are not stable — they change over time. One of the most important properties of a packaged sunscreen is that it be shelf-stable and, very importantly, stable enough in your hot car and sitting in a drawer. Most natural products won’t pass this test (which is a very good reason not to put money into testing them). For example, I read a claim that green tea provides some sunscreen protection. Have you ever brewed years-old tea? Yuck! It degrades, as all natural things do. (Of course, chemical compounds of all sorts break down, which is why you should be careful to replace old sunscreen regularly.)

#2) Nearly all conventional sunscreen products contain cancer-causing chemicals

I could counter this with the same claim: nearly all natural compounds contain cancer-causing chemicals. Go ahead, try to prove me wrong. This is a broad, unprovable statement. Yes, many compounds, natural and synthetic, cause cancer when you force-feed them to lab animals. Whether they are causing cancer when used correctly by a large population of people is something much harder to study. If people using sunscreen are getting cancer from the sunscreen, that data can be gathered and analyzed, and should be.

#3) In a nation where over 70% of the population is vitamin D deficiency, sunscreen actually blocks vitamin D production

First of all, the 70% is highly debatable. New studies have come out showing what seems to be vitamin D deficiency in a large percentage of people studied, but those studies also point out that they are really not sure how much vitamin D we need.

Also, you need to look further past this statement. Up to 80% of Americans are considered overweight. Overweight people have a layer of fat under their skin, which absorbs the vitamin D and keeps it from being distributed in the body. How much of the vitamin D deficiency is actually just a by-product of the obesity epidemic? Furthermore, now that close to 50% of Americans have dark skin, fewer of us actually use the sun to manufacture vitamin D in our bodies.

Finally, how much sun exposure is necessary for proper vitamin D manufacture? My Northern European ancestors spent months in cold and dark, with their skin covered by thick clothing. They clearly weren’t making any vitamin D at that time. Their descendent is now living in California, where the native population had dark brown skin. I clearly don’t need to spend very much time outside my house getting sun exposure equal to what my ancestors got in a year.

#4) You can boost your internal sun resistance by changing what you eat

It’s likely that there’s some truth to this, but it’s hardly a substitute for other sun protection: No one with my skin is going to suddenly start manufacturing more melanin by eating fresh vegetables. If I ate the absolute perfect skin-protecting diet for a year, do you really think I’d be able to go out in California sunshine and not get burned to a crisp? If you believe that, I have a bridge to sell you! Arguments like this simply assume that we are stupid.

#5) UV exposure alone does not cause skin cancer

Cancer is complex. Nutrition is complex. Life is complex. So yes, this statement is technically correct. But we do have enough data to know that people who get skin cancer have certain things in common. The highest correlation is with getting blistering sunburns. Avoiding blistering sunburns is the number one way to take yourself out of the pool of possible skin cancer sufferers. Of course, I’m sure if you found a large group of people who had never gotten any UV exposure, you’d find that some percentage of them would get skin cancer. But that doesn’t mean that you should just throw out the sunscreen and let yourself burn.

#6) Not all “natural” sunscreen products are really natural

I appreciate this point. The word “natural” is not regulated and can be applied to any box or bottle no matter what it contains. But I take issue with what the writer thinks is natural. So anything starting with the prefixes methyl, propyl, butyl, etc. is unnatural? But micronized zinc oxide is natural? What exactly is natural about taking a mineral from the ground and processing it till you make it into a clear cream?

This argument also rests on the supposition that natural is equivalent to “good” or “healthy.” But if everything “natural” is “better,” then should we start adding peach pits to our smoothies? Yum, cyanide! How about munching on rhubarb leaves? And let’s start giving our babies soft lead toys to suck on. Socrates really loved that hemlock shake, and I’m sure it was the added chemicals that really killed him!

Reasonable people know that “natural” is basically an empty term. What we need to know is whether something is safe, and safe is much harder to prove than natural. The longer we study things, the more we learn. So something that might look safe now might be proven to be unsafe in the future. That doesn’t mean that the scientists of today are somehow trying to hurt you. It means that we learn as we grow, which is… natural!

#7) Many “chemical free” sunscreens are loaded with chemicals

Here’s a fact that any educated person should know: all of life is made of chemicals. Chemical names can be given to any natural compound. Just because I call it dihydrogen oxide doesn’t mean drinking it will give me cancer. In fact, I bet you’ve ingested it today and assumed it was healthy because it was “natural.” The natural outputs of fermenting fruit and other natural compounds have many of the scary prefixes the writer mentions (ethyl! propyl! butyl!) and are as natural as nature can provide.

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Let’s face it: The data on sun exposure and sunscreen is not all in yet. Our understanding has changed radically in the last thirty years, and will continue to change radically as more research is done. Many of the things the writer of this article claims may turn out to be true, but that doesn’t mean that they are proven true now. What we now know about skin cancer is pretty straightforward:

1) If you get blistering sunburns in childhood, you are much more likely to get skin cancer. Therefore, do whatever you can to keep your kids from getting blistering sunburns. As of yet, no other strong correlations have been proven.

2) Some amount of sun exposure is fine and probably healthy, but that doesn’t mean that any amount of sun exposure is healthy. Look at your body, your family history, and your reactions to sun exposure, and make healthy decisions.

3) The easiest way to lessen risk is to avoid it. If you want a 0% chance of dying in a car accident (a much higher risk to all of us than skin cancer, by the way), don’t leave home. If you are in a high risk skin cancer group, and you want to lessen your risk of skin cancer, use whatever methods you can to avoid too much sun exposure. Get your kids long-sleeved swim shirts, make them wear hats on the playground, wear long sleeves and hats on sunny hikes, and use sunscreen appropriately.

4) All cancers are best treated through early detection. Learn what risk group you and your kids are in. Learn what sorts of changes to watch for. And consult a medical professional (not your health food store employee) if you are concerned about any change in your skin.

We should all support dedicating money to studying the causes of skin cancer and studying new and less dangerous ways to lessen our risks. But in the process, don’t let the word “natural” turn you into a thoughtless consumer of so-called “natural” products. Mother Nature invented tigers, cobras, and black widow spiders. She’s not out to protect your children.

That’s your job.

Follow-up article: In Defense of “Natural”

Posted in Culture, Health.


2 Responses

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  1. Resa says

    Thanks for being a voice of scientific reason against the ongoing tide of “natural”. One thing that drives me wild is “natural” vitamins. Sure, it’s much better to get your vitamins from food, but how is one refined vitamin more “natural” than another? They’re both heavily processed and reconstituted into little pills. That’s not even close to what “nature” intended. 😉

  2. Suki says

    Hi Resa, Thanks for your supportive comment. I completely agree: people seem not to understand that highly processed “natural” chemicals are the same as lab-created chemicals. It says a lot about the state of science education in our schools and even more about the power of wishful thinking. People *want* nature to be good and life-affirming, but nature is what it is. Good and bad don’t apply. — Suki



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