Celebrity Chef Sparks Controversy by Declaring Sunscreen 'Poisonous'

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Celebrity paleo chef Pete Evans, an avid surfer, called sunscreen “poisonous,” igniting online debate. (Photo: Getty Images)

In an age when skin cancer is on the rise and there are more sunscreen options than ever around to fight it, it may sometimes feel verboten to speak out against the stuff. But that didn’t stop Australian celebrity paleo chef Pete Evans from doing just that — and from being challenged, in return, by some skin cancer survivors.

The controversy arose out of an exchange between a fan and Evans — author of a number of books, including The Paleo Chef and the highly criticized 2015 Baby Yum Yum (which advocated DIY infant formula made partially of bone broth) and the star of many Australian cooking shows — during one of the chef’s frequent Facebook Q&As. The fan’s question was “What do you use for sunscreen?” and this is how Evans, an avid surfer, responded:

“Generally nothing, as I keep an all over tan all year and don’t stay out for super long periods in the sun. Read ‘The Healing Sun’ by Richard Hobday for a great common sense view of our relationship with the sun. When I go surfing like I did this morning in Fiji, when I was in the sun for 4 hours, then I use a product called Surf Mud which is as good as it gets for shielding from the sun. 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.”

Related: 98% of Millennial Women Know Skin Cancer Is Deadly. So Why Are They Still Tanning?

His comments, while widely praised by many of his fans, also drew sharp criticism, particularly from those who have experienced the scare of skin cancer. Melanoma survivor and advocate Jay Allen tweeted a photo of his surgery sutures (below) and noted, “I might have avoided stage 3 #melanoma use ur voice to inspire not false comments.” Australian radio host Mark Colvin did the same. Others simply declared him a “bozo,” called his comments “dangerous,” or asked: “What’s next for Pete Evans? He doesn’t support stopping at red lights?” On Facebook, one former fan noted, “All the healthy foods in the world won’t help if you develop melanoma! Any respect that I had for you has dropped to zero since your statements about sunscreen. How irresponsible can you be, Pete?”

After catching wind of the media attention, Evans posted a follow-up comment on Facebook, which had since been seen more than 14,000 times.

Related: All Sunscreens Are Not Created Equal: Check This Guide Before You Step Outside

“Nope, I’m not hiding from the Sun, I’m respecting it, by not staying out long enough to burn and yup I’m wearing a non toxic sunscreen specifically for surfing too!” he wrote. He went on to blame the media and the “misinformed” for twisting his words “to create fear and drama” but instead only helping by spreading the message further. “Read labels folks, learn about what’s in your food, what’s in your sunscreen, your skincare, your haircare, your water and most importantly, please wise up as to what you’re putting on or into your precious children!” he wrote. He continued in his own defense on Monday, noting on a morning radio show in Australia that his comments had been “taken out of context” and that he is “just trying to share the truth.” He added, “I never said ‘don’t use it’, I just said ‘choose wisely.’”

So, does Evans have a point? That depends on whom you ask. According to a recent sunscreen report by the Environmental Working Group, many products can be dangerous, whether because they provide inferior protection or because they contain chemicals linked to hormone disruption, skin allergies, or unknown health risks. “The bottom line message is that the FDA sets weak rules for skin protection from sunscreen, and as a result, we see worrying marketing trends and products that are overpromising,” EWG senior analyst Sonya Lunder told Yahoo Beauty when the report was released.

But Dr. Henry Lim, chair of the dermatology department at the Henry Ford Medical Center in Detroit and president-elect of the American Academy of Dermatology, calls Evans’s statements “irresponsible.” He points to a recent series of long-term studies out of Evans’s native Australia — a country with one of the highest rates of melanoma in the world, second only to New Zealand — which clearly showed that people who used sunscreen regularly developed skin cancer at significantly lower rates.

“The science is very good there,” Lim tells Yahoo Beauty, adding that while sunscreen is only one “photoprotection” available to people, along with shade, clothing, and hats, it’s quite an effective one. While chemicals in many sunscreens are “always controversial,” Lim says, those findings are based on studies of mice, and people would need much higher doses to produce the same negative effects. He adds that because the FDA has deemed the chemicals safe, it’s “not a realistic concern.” Finally, Lim says it’s untrue that burns are more problematic than tans, as Evans suggested.

“It’s a myth — when your skin is tan, damage has already occurred,” Lim says. He adds, however, that he would not advocate slathering on the sunscreen and then sunbathing for hours — concurring, at least on this point, with the chef.

“The purpose of sunscreen is not to be able to lie in the sun, and not to allow you to increase your time outside, but to be able to enjoy time outside with added protection,” he says. “And once again, it’s just one of the methods of photoprotection out there.”

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