What’s Behind the Rise of the Sunscreen Truther?

Earlier this summer a new meme, about what girls in relationships should be doing to make their boyfriends healthier, circulated online. The broad thrust fit in with the trad health protocol that often comes with seed oil avoidance: Get their men off of AirPods and fluoride, get them on magnesium, and throw away their sunscreen. By the standards of the esoteric health space, the post wasn’t super remarkable. But then it got reposted by “Dewy Dudes,” a podcast for downtown men who have skin care routines, and questions began to pop up. Namely, what’s wrong with SPF?

That people are going without sunscreen in the name of health seems, on first blush, very odd. It’s hotter than ever outside, and the standard advice from mainstream skin experts is often daily SPF use, not just on beach trips. Seeking out UV exposure seems, like cigarettes and littering, to be a vice we left behind decades ago. But if you dig deep enough online, or listen to enough podcasts—of both the downtown and scientific variety—you’ll notice people avoiding sun protection outright. On “Red Scare,” the idea of skipping sunscreen is already a couple of summers old. Andrew Huberman, the neurologist and podcaster, who is not himself a sunscreen truther, nevertheless called it a “third rail” of the health world on Joe Rogan’s podcast. (Huberman recently teased an episode of his own that will deal with these questions.)

Sunscreens generally work in two ways. Mineral sunscreens, like those with zinc, block the sun’s rays like a shield, and scatter them before they get under your skin. So-called chemical sunscreens go into the skin and absorb the UV rays themselves. (Both are chemically derived.) “When deciding between mineral and chemical sunscreens,” says Dr. Jenna Lester, a dermatologist at UCSF Health, “the best one is the one you’re going to use.” Strength and application recommendations vary, but the Skin Cancer Foundation’s website advises people to use sunscreen with a minimum SPF 15 rating, and apply it every two hours. This is about the baseline suggestion; Lester says for UV protection, 30 is “ideal.”

Parsing this advice can get complicated, and applying it can be frustrating. “Sunscreen is one of the trickiest products for people to find their match,” says Colleen Kelsey, a writer based in New York who has worked in the beauty industry. “There’s a lot of negative user experience. Ingredients in sunscreens can break people out, blending [with makeup] is an issue.”

Finding a good sunscreen in the United States can be especially difficult. Ben Friedlander, a music manager based in Los Angeles, includes sunscreen in his daily Dewy Dudes-adjacent skin care routine, but has found what’s in stores here severely lacking. “I don’t really use American sunscreens anymore,” he says. After going down a Reddit hole during the pandemic, he switched over to a facial sunscreen from a Spanish brand that he says works better than anything he could find locally. These sorts of superior sunscreens aren’t easily available to buy in America for regulatory reasons. The FDA classifies sunscreen as an over-the-counter drug, so there’s a long approval process for newer chemicals, like the kinds found in the European, Japanese, and Korean sunscreens that blend in better with makeup or into beards.

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