Pete Evans v Australia: An Expert Tells Us If Sunscreen Is Really Full Of “Poisonous Chemicals”

The sun is an intrinsic part of the Aussie identity: the ‘slip, slop, slap’ slogan is embedded in our collective memory; we’ve known about the hole in the ozone layer since birth; and we’re all well aware that prolonged exposure can lead to sun spots, premature ageing, and of course, skin cancer. But Pete Evans has made some recent comments effectively questioning sunscreen’s use as sun protection, so we asked an expert to weigh in.

In a recent Q&A with his Facebook fans, Celebrity Chef and Paleo diehard Pete Evans told his followers about his somewhat controversial method of sun protection – that is, none. When asked by a fan about what he uses for sunscreen, he responded:

“The silly thing is people put on normal chemical sunscreen then lay out in the sun for hours on end and think that they are safe because they have covered themselves in poisonous chemicals, which is a recipe for disaster as we are witnessing these days […] We need to respect the sun but not hide from it either as it is so beneficial for us, but use common sense. The goal is always never to burn yourself.”

While Pete’s comments about prolonged exposure to the sun are logical in that people who wear sunscreen may believe they’re able to stay out in the sun for longer periods of time, and are therefore more likely to get burnt, it’s his comments about skipping out on regular sunscreen full of “poisonous chemicals” that have landed him in hot water.

Not surprisingly, upon seeing Pete’s comments, the Cancer Council weren’t impressed. Terry Slevlin, the Cancer Council’s Director of Education, told The Daily Telegraph that “the science is clear, increased exposure to UV radiation equals an increased risk of skin cancer and this is from people who have been researching this for decades.” And Saxon Smith, a councillor for the Australian Medical Association in New South Wales, told The Sydney Morning Herald: “Australia still has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and for someone with such a high profile to be talking such rubbish is purely irresponsible.”

So what’s Pete on about? Is sunscreen poisonous?

We spoke with Dr Natasha Cook, pioneer dermatologist at Darlinghurst Dermatology in Sydney, about all things sun and sunscreen, and whether the product Pete prefers to use when in the sun for longer periods – ‘Surf Mud’ – will actually protect us from the sun.

What exactly is sunscreen?

In a broader sense, it’s important to figure out what exactly is included in sunscreen before we go bashing on ol’ Pete here. Dr Natasha says there are two main types of sunscreens sold in Australia: the chemical absorbers and the physical blockers.

The most common and widely sold sunscreens are chemical absorbers, which contain organic carbon compounds. When sunlight hits skin covered by chemical absorbers, the skin absorbs the active UV rays and releases them safely. Physical barriers tend to be minerals – the most common are Titanium and Zinc – which work by putting a layer on your skin and physically deflecting or reflecting UV rays, making it all but impossible for the rays to penetrate the skin.

Those sound good – what’s the problem then?

Well there’s kind of two problems. Firstly, while physical blockers are potentially stronger, the formula doesn’t go on clear – think cricket-era Shane Warne – and as a result, many consumers don’t want to use them.


Photo: BBC

Many manufacturers have begun to make these particles smaller in an effort to make them go on clearer – and in the process, creating nanoparticles.

This is where people get a little turned off sunscreen – these nanoparticles aren’t required to be listed on sunscreen packaging, therefore it’s very hard to know whether they’re actually present. The concern about the nanoparticles is based around the fear that if these particles penetrate the skin, they will be harmful. As a result, it’s kind of caused a bit of a “nanoparticle scare campaign”, as Dr Natasha puts it.

So are nanoparticles poisonous?

Short answer: no. Dr Natasha is adamant that there is “absolutely no evidence” that proves that absorbing those nanoparticles is harmful to the human body. She went on to say that there’s a severe lack of evidence for Pete’s argument, and that the sustained success of chemical absorbers “far outweighs any potential perceived risk.”

The facts back her up: The Therapeutic Goods Association (TGA) – these guys regulate goods sold in Aus – performed a study back in 2013 that proved nanoparticles are safe. Speaking about whether these nano-sized particles could harm or penetrate layers of skin, they claimed that “on current evidence neither TiO2 (titanium dioxide) nor ZnO (zinc oxide) nanoparticles are likely to cause harm when used as ingredients in sunscreens.”

Talk to me about SurfMud

SurfMud is Pete’s sunscreen choice du jour – one that he’ll wear when in the sun for longer periods, like surfing for four hours this morning in Fiji. But is it actually effective?

According to their website, SurfMud is a home made and natural alternative to regular sunscreens – it contains 28% zinc oxide which they claim to be non-nano (basically, there’s no nanoparticles present). “We can’t tell you exactly how we make it, but we can let you know it involves a bunch of natural ingredients, some pretty cool equipment and a couple of surfers with a secret recipe,” says their front page. Along with the zinc oxide, that secret recipe includes a mixture of organic bees wax, mineral oil, natural lanolin, coconut oil, Australian clay and iron oxides for natural colour.


Photo: SurfMud

The one key thing to note about SurfMud is that it hasn’t been regulated by the TGA. In order for this product to be approved for sale by the TGA, SurfMud has to be produced in a TGA registered manufacturing facility. SurfMud say this is because “cosmetic and sunscreen laboratories can’t manufacture to our ingredient mix and consistency specifications.” Which is fair – but as Dr Natasha Cook puts it, if a global standards body like the TGA can’t regulate your product, it does make the product (and its effectiveness) a little questionable.

And because it doesn’t meet those standards, Dr Natasha says she wouldn’t recommend it. She says in principle, it sounds great (and zinc is a good idea!) but there’s just no guarantee if it hasn’t been passed through the proper processing for sunscreen. So if you want to be reassured that your purchase is one that will efficiently protect you from the sun, this might not be it.

So what should we use instead?

While physical blockers tend to offer a fuller spectrum protection, Dr Natasha would often prefer sunscreens that have a combination of both physical blockers and chemical absorbers. She’s a fan of physical blockers due to the fact that they’re often non-irritating, non-allergenic, great antioxidants and soothing to the skin.


Try these on for size:

For those who can’t tolerate zinc blockers everyday, Dr Natasha recommends the Cancer Council’s range of sunscreens as a great everyday alternative. Keep in mind: if you wear a makeup or moisturiser with SPF, it might not be enough coverage to keep you thoroughly protected during the day as many of us under-apply moisturiser. To be safe, Dr Natasha recommends wearing a full sunscreen agent over your moisturiser or under your makeup. Another recommendation from the Doc is the Shiseido sun protection range, as well as Ego Sun Sense.

The bottom line: any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen. Especially for us living here under the Australian sun. Find out what works well with your skin and always lather up.

Lead image: The Paleo Way

Rebecca Russo is a freelance writer, editor, community radio dabbler, occasional hiker and celebrity autobiography enthusiast. She has written for online publications including Junkee, AWOL, Fashion Journal and Tone Deaf. Find her online here.