The Truth About Sunscreen
Ah, Summer! School’s out. It’s vacation time when family and friends come together for fun in the sun. Grab the sunscreen and chase your kids around, trying to get them to hold still long enough to slather it all over their squirming little bodies. Hang on a minute, just what the heck is in that sunscreen? We want to protect our kids from the damaging effects of sun exposure, but let’s take a closer look at how sunscreens work so we can make an informed choice about what we’re putting on our children’s skin.
Sunlight & Health
We’ve been taught to fear sun exposure, skin cancer and all that, but sunlight in the right amounts can be a powerful force for healing and supporting health. Sunlight plays an essential role in human health. We need sunlight to produce Vitamin D and to regulate our circadian rhythms, which influences sleep cycles and stimulates metabolism. Recent studies show a link between morning sunlight, body weight and more efficient metabolism. Sunlight is used therapeutically to treat insomnia, depression, seasonal affective disorder and skin conditions like acne, psoriasis and eczema. Basking in the sun even produces pleasurable opioid endorphins which can have strong addictive qualities. No wonder people throughout history have worshipped the sun.
But there’s a dark side to being out in the sun. Excessive sun exposure causes a number of damaging effects to the human body:
- Damage and/or mutation to DNA
- Depletion of the body’s antioxidants
- Destruction of collagen in the skin
- Premature aging
- Skin hyperpigmentation
- Painful sunburns
- Skin cancer
That’s some nasty stuff! And shockingly, none of it has anything to do with the sunlight you can see. All the negative effects of sunlight are due to the sun’s invisible high-frequency ultraviolet (UV) rays.
The solution is to enjoy the sun in moderation. If you or your family members are going to be out in the sun, it’s essential to protect yourselves, especially if you’ll be in direct sun for more than about 15 minutes a day. Protect your eyes with sunglasses and areas of exposed skin with sunscreen or clothing. Sunglasses are easy. Any pair sold in the U.S. is going to protect you since they’re regulated by the FDA and are required to conform to safety standards. In other countries, as long as they have a CE mark and/or say they block 100% UV, you’re good to go. Even modern clear prescription eyeglasses are commonly UV protective, so if you wear prescription glasses, you’re going to be fairly well-protected. Just remember to always wear some sort of UV eye protection. Unlike the skin, the eyes gain no benefit from UV radiation under any circumstances.
If you’re tan or a person of color, don’t think you’re protected. Experts say black skin doesn’t have an SPF higher than about 4, and with dark skin you’re still susceptible to the damaging effects of UV rays due to the destructive reactions of UV radiation on the melanin pigment in dark skin.
How Sunscreen Works – SPF
Sunscreen, sunblock, sun lotion, tanning lotion–whatever you wanna call it–the SPF is where things get complicated. For starters, SPF (Sun Protection Factor) ratings listed on products refer to protection from UVB rays only, not the equally damaging UVA rays which account for nearly 95% of the UV light that reaches the earth’s surface and passes deeper into our skin. The most important phrase to look for in a sunscreen is Broad Spectrum or UVA/UVB. Also, the SPF rating itself can be confusing. For example, SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB, more than 2X that of SPF 8, but SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB even though it’s twice as high as SPF 15! In Australia and the European Union, it’s currently illegal to label any sunscreen higher than SPF 50 because there’s no point using anything higher. Regardless of the SPF, sunscreen is only effective for about two hours, so make sure to reapply if you’re in the sun for longer than that.
Which Type Of Sunscreen Is Best
Sunscreens come in two main forms: chemical-based sunscreens which absorb UV rays, and mineral barrier-based sunscreens which block UV rays. We do not advocate chemical sunscreens for a number of reasons. Although they do have one thing over the mineral-based barrier products — they’re invisible on the skin, while the mineral-based sunscreens often leave a white coating. But that coating is how they work. Think of them as a form of liquid clothing.
The problem with chemical sunscreens is that the active ingredients have been shown to:
- Absorb directly into the bloodstream
- Disrupt hormones
- Directly damage DNA on their own and also cause DNA damage upon exposure to UV light
- Increase free radical production
- Cause skin rashes
Not exactly stuff we recommend you put onto (and thus into) your body, and certainly not your children’s bodies. Some of the most notorious active ingredients to avoid are:
None of those ingredients exists in nature and the human body is not meant to have them circulating in the bloodstream. And to make matters worse, because several of these active ingredients are only effective against UVA or UVB and they become unstable when they absorb UV radiation, many chemical-based sunscreens contain a mix of two or more synthetic active ingredients to provide effective sun protection. Not to mention, the companies that use synthetic active ingredients in the first place aren’t the type to then use organic calendula and aloe for the inactive ingredients. Instead, they make the rest of the formula out of ingredients like Acrylates (petrochemical compounds), Dimethicone Copolymer (key to making silly putty), and various polyethylene glycol polymers such as PEG-30 Dipolyhydroxystearate. The PEG compounds are in many skin care products because they act as trojan horses, enhancing the penetration of all other ingredients into the skin–and thus our bodies.
Thankfully, there are mineral-based sunscreens, of which there are two main types: titanium oxide-based and zinc oxide based. Both are naturally occurring, inert, hypoallergenic minerals that won’t clog pores and provide broad spectrum protection against UVA and UVB. Due to concerns about the toxicity (and phototoxicity) of titanium, and a much longer history of safe use of zinc-oxide (so safe in fact, it’s a key active ingredient in diaper cream for babies), we recommend zinc oxide-based sunscreens as the safest and most effective sunscreen option. Since zinc oxide is so effective, any good zinc oxide-based sunscreen is simply zinc oxide as an active ingredient in a base of natural moisturizing emollients and antioxidants.
The only real issue is a cosmetic one–your skin will be covered in a layer of white lotion. This is a small price to pay for safe and effective sun protection. But if it gets in the way of you or your family using it in the first place, then what’s the point? Fortunately, there are a couple of solutions to the cosmetic issue. There’s tinted zinc oxide sunscreens are available which basically look like makeup foundation and there’s nanosized zinc oxide sunscreen formulations that rub in quickly and leave little or no visible residue. However, the cosmetic benefit of transparency comes at the expense of a slight loss of UVA protection, so keep that in mind. And while there is some speculation about the possible dangers of absorbing nanosized particles of zinc oxide, the evidence so far shows very little is absorbed. And remember, unlike titanium and those nasty synthetic chemical sunscreen ingredients, zinc is an essential mineral nutrient and zinc oxide is a form the body can recognize and excrete without much trouble. Just don’t plan on using your sunscreen as a zinc supplement for your family!
DIY Sun Protection: Make Your Own Sunscreen
What can you do if you’re concerned about the health effects of sunscreens, or you just have very sensitive skin and don’t trust putting anything on your skin that you wouldn’t feel comfortable eating (a way of thinking we definitely promote!)? One option is to do what the ancient Greeks, Polynesians and West Africans have done for generations, which is to put stuff you actually do or can eat onto your skin, specifically olive oil, coconut oil, and shea butter. These oils do protect the skin, but only to a small degree, they are the equivalent of about SPF 4–basically a way of instantly getting the protection a good dark base tan would provide, but overall better as tanning lotions than actual sunscreens.
A better option would be to use a homemade Vitamin C sunscreen (look for a recipe in part 2 of the sunscreen series). Topical Vitamin C may be the single best way to protect your skin from the sun. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient and absorbs directly into the skin to leave no coating. It effectively absorbs both UVA and UVB while allowing your skin to produce Vitamin D, which even the best natural sunscreens block in the process of blocking UVB. Not only that, but studies show Vitamin C can reverse the damage from previous sun exposure (including wrinkles and hyperpigmentation). Vitamin C is also essential for collagen production, which UV light damages.
Internal Sunscreen: Foods & Supplements to Protect from the Inside Out
Regardless of what type of sunscreen you use or how often you use it, we recommend loading up on protective, antioxidant-rich foods and beverages (like berries and green tea), as well as nutritional supplements. Three scientifically-studied supplements have been shown to protect the skin from sun damage and increase the time it takes to get a sunburn:
These supplements are easily available and there is a growing body of research to back up their use as effective “internal sunscreens.” We recommend daily use whenever you expect to be out in the sun, in addition to topical sunscreen.
If you happen to be out in the sun for several hours or for some reason didn’t protect yourself and manage to get sunburned, don’t freak out! Sun damage is cumulative, and there are several ways to heal and minimize the damage to your skin. Since it’s been shown that a large portion of the damage from the sun actually occurs after sun exposure, you still have a chance to protect yourself from the worst.
The first step is to stop the inflammation and pain by using cool compresses with cold water and apple cider vinegar to soothe and remove heat from the skin. After soothing the inflammation with a cool compress, mix some Vitamin C powder with water and slather it on the affected areas. You can also use aloe vera gel afterward (mixing Vitamin C with aloe gel tends to liquify the aloe gel), coconut oil, shea butter, jojoba oil and/or Vitamin E oil to heal the skin and prevent it from drying out and flaking off.
Next, make sure to load up on…
- Antioxidant vitamins (A, E, and C)
- Minerals to support the body’s own antioxidant enzymes (selenium for glutathione, magnesium for catalase, and zinc and copper for superoxide dismutase)
- Protective phytonutrients (anthocyanins, carotenoids, bioflavonoids) from colorful fruits and veggies
A great way to get all those nutrients into your system ASAP is to drink a delicious smoothie made with frozen berries and green veggies, and take a high quality multivitamin/mineral supplement along with it.
One final piece to note is that numerous medications, some herbal supplements, and several foodshave photosensitizing effects that can make the skin more susceptible to UV radiation and the damage it causes. If you or your loved ones are taking any medications that mention increased light sensitivity as a side effect, or if you’re eating lots of foods high in chemicals called psoralens (found in high amounts in figs, celery, parsley, parsnip, and citrus fruits), it’s extra important that you protect yourself from the sun.
So, to summarise:
1. Sunlight can be very healing and helps the body to create an essential vitamin, Vitamin D.
2. No more than 15 minutes a day of summer sun exposure is needed to realize the benefits of sunlight.
3. Protection from the sun is very important throughout a lifetime, as sun damage is cumulative.
4. The safest and most effective ways to protect yourself and your family from sun damage is through sunglasses, clothing, homemade Vitamin C sunscreen or zinc oxide-based natural sunscreens, increased intake of antioxidant vitamins/minerals/phytonutrients, and most importantly, limited sun exposure.
5. Be extra vigilant protecting your skin and minimize sun exposure when taking photosensitizing medications, herbal supplements, or foods.
6. If sunburn occurs, load up on antioxidant nutrients as soon as possible, take steps to reduce inflammation on sunburned areas, and apply topical Vitamin C, aloe vera, and healing/protective natural plant oils.
(See Part 2 in our series “The Truth About Sunscreen” for recipes and product recommendations)