Anti-Sunscreen Influencers Want to Fry Your Skin

Lifestyle

This summer, like many before, a lot of people won’t wear sunblock. The difference you might notice this year is just how many are proudly posting about it.

James Middleton is a fitness coach in the U.K., with a wellness brand that reaches about a quarter of a million people on Instagram. While impressive in its own way, this makes him neither a dermatologist nor an oncologist. But on Twitter last month, Middleton urged followers to dispense with sunscreen, arguing that the vitamin D produced by the human body when exposed to sunlight “make it almost impossible to develop an autoimmune disease.” (That sounds like hyperbole because it is; the benefits of vitamin D supplements are often overstated.)

“Think about it for a minute,” Middleton wrote. “They [pharmaceutical and health care companies] need you to believe that the sun is bad.” He included a pair of images from a TikTok video that made a similar point, suggesting that corporate interests have invented the myth of “dangerous” ultraviolet radiation from the sun in order to sell you a product — in this case, topical creams and sprays that prevent sunburn and skin cancer — that you don’t really need. It’s all a scam! Go forth and sizzle to a crisp!

That Middleton is blaming an amorphous “they” for the supposed sunscreen racket puts him squarely in a conspiratorial mindset — and he’s hardly alone. Across online natural health communities, influencers are peddling the lie that the sun doesn’t cause cancer, while arguing that it is, in fact, the use of sunscreen that can make you ill. Sometimes, this notion is connected to romanticized concepts of traditional (or “trad”) lifestyles, coupled with the assumption that our ancestors didn’t use sun protection. (They did.) Those who espouse “clean living,” meanwhile, may count sunscreen as a contaminant alongside supposedly harmful substances like seed oils, which have also been falsely characterized as “toxic.”

Others who advocate against sunscreen are prominent misinformation peddlers like Dr. Joseph Mercola, who identifies unhealthy chemicals in sunscreen to push his own alternative products. Mercola has gone so far as to dismiss as a “myth” the well-established link between UV radiation and skin cancer, despite his website previously hawking a sunblock formula made with green tea.

The surge in medical misinformation brought on by Covid-19 and the vaccines designed to limit its transmission have opened the door to broader paranoia regarding Big Pharma and the FDA, which regulates sunblock products and continues to develop guidance on their safety and effectiveness. The mere existence of that ongoing research, coupled with incidents like a 2021 recall of certain sunscreens after they were found to contain low levels of benzene, a carcinogen also found in car exhaust, allows bad actors to spread the lie that sunblock kills more than the sun itself.

It also helps their narrative that skin cancers are on the rise, though according to studies, a range of different factors probably play into this trend, including “increased outdoor activities, changes in clothing style, increased longevity, [and] ozone depletion.” Dermatologists also point out that the rise of air travel to sunny locales has elevated our sun exposure. And tanning beds, which first took off in the late 1970s, also take some of the blame: according to one review in JAMA Dermatology, more people develop skin cancer from indoor tanning than get lung cancer attributable to smoking.

Yet the data is overwhelmed by a particular blend of internet-fueled ideologies known as “conspirituality.” This is where quack pseudoscience meets quasi-religious beliefs about how our bodies work, and suspicion of any chemical substance (whether in vaccines, pills, or lotions) is addressed by the pre-modern wisdom of the ages. Such influencers not only encourage you to think of the sun as exclusively nourishing and sustaining, like a benevolent god, but also tell you that sunblock inhibits your production of vitamin D, even though the evidence indicates a negligible effect on this process.

Of course, whether you think of sunscreen as an unnecessary solution to a fake problem or an insidious plot to make us fear the outdoors, the end result of too much sun exposure is likely the same: reddened, painful, peeling skin after a day at the beach or long hike. Perhaps these symptoms can be mitigated by also forgoing deodorant and toothpaste, and eating plenty of beef liver, though probably best to trust the actual health experts here. If you’re going to scorch anything this summer, it should be on the grill.

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