As a teenager, I had a boyfriend who insisted that sunscreen was just a marketing gimmick to sell a product nobody really needed. For some reason, his denial of the valid use of sunscreen made me irrationally irate. So one day at the beach, I decided to put SPF on one-half of my upper chest to prove a point. In my defense, my brain was not fully formed and my decision and impulse centers still had some wiring to organize. Of course, I ended up with a lopsided burn that will probably come back to haunt me years from now. Stupid boyfriend. Don’t worry, I dumped him and started making smarter choices.
So, as I proved at my own embarrassing expense, sunscreen can be effective and valuable for preventing painful burns when we are exposed to long periods of intense sun. Especially for fair-skinned people such as myself. A bad burn, or even a regular dose of excessive exposure can can cause the DNA of our cells to mutate into skin cancers, damage the cells that produce our pigmentation leading to “age spots” or “sun spots” and will break down the collagen and elastin of our skin, prematurely weakening the integrity of the skin, causing sagging and wrinkles. Skin damage is going to happen to some degree anyway, if you are fortunate enough to live a nice long life. It is something to accept and not obsess over.
However, if you have some interest in preventing skin cancers and minimizing visible accumulative damage, a little effort can go a very long way.
Here is what you need to know about sunscreen:
- Most of them have nasty ingredients that have high absorption rates through the skin and are toxic when combined with sun exposure. They act as carcinogens, irritants, allergens, or hormone disruptors.
- Many sunscreens have been blocking the good vitamin D3 making rays (UVB) and letting in the bad skin cancer causing rays (UVA). It now makes sense why skin cancer rates have risen to over one million cases a year. Sunscreens weren’t protecting from the rays that cause cancer.
- UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin’s dermis and are more harmful than the UVB rays, which tend to stay on the skin’s surface and help our body make vitamin D3. Because UVB rays will stay on the surface of the skin, they are responsible for burning the skin. As a result, it was the UVB rays that were incorrectly blamed for causing skin cancers. Unless a sunscreen is classified as “Broad Spectrum” it will only block UVB and not the UVA rays.
- SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The number of an SPF refers to the amount of time skin can go before burning, or it’s ability to deflect UVB rays. Theoretically, applying sunscreen with an SPF of 50 would allow beach-goers to bare their skin 50 times longer before suffering a sunburn. Someone who would normally redden after 10 minutes in the midday sun could stay out for 8.5 hours before reapplying. Clearly, this is misleading. High-SPF products may give people a false sense of security, tempt them to stay in the sun too long, and suppress sunburns but increase the risk of other kinds of skin damage. The FDA is considering limiting SPF claims to 50+, as is done in other countries. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends that consumers avoid products labeled with anything higher than SPF 50 and reapply sunscreen often, regardless of SPF.
- Two European studies have detected the commonly used ingredient, oxybenzone, and other sunscreen filters in mothers’ milk, indicating that the developing fetus and newborns may be exposed to these substances (Schlumpf 2008, Schlumpf 2010). A 2010 of the University of Zurich study of Swiss mothers by Margaret Schlumpf found at least one sunscreen chemical in 85 percent of milk samples. Many commonly used chemical ingredients have been shown to cause hormone disruption or skin allergies.
Great…. now what?
- Avoid spray-on sunscreen. Even though the Food and Drug Administration has expressed concern about the safety and efficacy of spray sunscreens, companies continue to turn them out. Given the ease of applying them on squirming kids and hard-to-reach areas, these super-popular aerosolized sunscreens may seem like a dream come true. But they may pose serious inhalation risks. They certainly make it too easy to apply too little or miss a spot.
- Mineral-only sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to rate well in toxicity studies. They are stable in sunlight, offer a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet radiation (UVA and UVB) and don’t often contain potentially harmful additives.
- The EWG reports there are currently no sunscreens on the market that meet all the requirements of being: safe, long lasting, effective and somewhat pleasant to wear. Because of this, EWG does not recommend sunscreens as the first defense against the sun. They suggest that the best sunscreen is shade or to be covered with sun protective clothes and use sunscreens only when needed. Here is the Environmental Working Group database for finding the least toxic sunscreen options. They rate products from 1 to 10. 1 for least toxic ingredients and 10 for the most toxic.
I hope this helps to condense the overwhelming amount of information about sunscreen and SPF. I am protecting my face most of the year to stay ahead of those UVA rays but letting my arms and legs absorb the sun as long as it isn’t too intense for too long. I have already had some nasty burns as a kid and hopefully will be prepared enough to avoid any more in the future. Check out the info I shared in Summer Skin Part I about how to healthfully enjoy the sun.
Below are links to the resources I borrowed this information from if you want to learn more:
Summer in Portland is a glorious time! It can also be an intense time for our skin. The lack of sun we experience for the majority of the year leaves us vulnerable when it finally arrives in full force. I see a lot of sunburns in Portland when the sun suddenly appears in all of its blazing glory and our skin hasn’t had any time to prepare for it.
How do we enjoy the healing benefits of sunshine while minimizing its accumulative damage? The benefits and downsides of sun exposure are equally compelling. I think understanding some basic facts about the sun and your skin can go a long way towards finding a healthy balance.
Here are the awesome benefits of sunshine:
- Moderate sun exposure increases levels of the natural antidepressants serotonin and endorphins in the brain that can help relieve Seasonal Affective Disorder and other forms of mild depression and lethargy.
- Occupational exposure, such as farmers, fishermen, and people who receive regular weekend sun exposure are associated with decreased risk of melanoma.
- A group of researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that a compound called nitric oxide that helps lower blood pressure is released into the blood vessels as soon as sunlight touches the skin.
- Sun exposure improves sleep quality. Melatonin is synthesized by your pineal gland and is profoundly affected by light and dark, and proper exposure to the bright sun during the day is important for maintaining your internal circadian rhythm.
- And of course sunlight helps us manufacture an extremely important nutrient – Vitamin D – which is essential for many body functions such as:
- Healthy immunity
- Healthy mood
- Targeted support for over 2000 genes
- Healthy bone formation
- Healthy glucose metabolism
- Musculoskeletal comfort
- Heart health
- Healthy skin
Learn more in this article from Harvard Health Publications.
For a more detailed review of vitamin D, check out this article at Jenn Reviews.
Now for the not so awesome facts:
- Sun damage is the most obvious factor in the visible signs of aging and unfortunately, we don’t get a fresh set of skin cells with each skin cycle. Your cells are copies of copies of copies. So how your skin ages depends on the quantity of cellular damage you accumulate throughout your entire lifetime. The cells that produce pigment age faster depending on how hard they have to work to provide you that bronzed glow. They can break down and start dumping enough pigment for 40 skin cells all in one spot or not deliver any at all resulting in “age” or “sun spots” and those random white spots. In addition, UV radiation activates enzymes that break down your collagen and elastin, the protein fibers that make your skin firm and tight.
- Both UVB and UVA rays damage the cells’ DNA, potentially causing mutations that may lead to the non-lethal squamous cell cancers. With conflicting research, the Jury is still out on how much influence UV radiation has on basal cell or the potentially lethal melanoma.
- We are not getting any sunlight-induced Vitamin D most of the year! Except during the summer months, the skin makes little if any vitamin D from the sun at latitudes above 37 degrees north (that means all of the US except the most Southern states).
So how much sun is safe?
This depends on how sensitive your skin is. I have a friend who is allergic to even small amounts of sun. I am very fair and can stand direct summer sun for about 10 minutes before I can hear my skin sizzling. Yet there are many whose heritage allows their skin to tolerate a lot of sun. During the summer months, the UVB rays are the strongest between 10am – 2pm (a good time of day for a refreshing indoor sauna visit).
As a general rule for most people, 10-15 minutes of direct sunlight on unprotected skin during these hours will be enough to manufacture about 10,000 – 20,000 IU of vitamin D3. Get just enough sun to turn your skin slightly pink. Darker-skinned people will have to get more sun to optimize their vitamin D levels.
It takes about an hour for the cholesterol on your skin to convert to D3 and then to be absorbed. So if you work out in the sun and then take a shower, you might be washing off all that precious vitamin D you just manufactured on your skin. If you can, wait at least an hour before rinsing off.
Suggestions for giving your skin some extra love in the summertime:
- Get some moderate exposure, but protect your face. Let’s absorb our Vitamin D and boost our endorphins through our arms, torso and legs and minimize the accumulative damage on our face. Why not? It seems like a reasonable compromise to me.
- Cleansing – Even if we are using the least toxic options for sunscreen, you don’t want to go to sleep without flushing your skin out so it has an optimal opportunity to breathe freely and prevent potential congestion on the skin. Use a cleanser that doesn’t make you feel tight and squeaky clean.
- Water and oil – Your skin naturally protects itself by secreting water (perspiration) and oil (sebum) onto the surface of your skin, which combines to form your skin’s protective acid mantle. Few people realize that this protective layer helps protect the moisture balance of the skin while creating a defensive barrier from pathogenic elements. So don’t scrub and strip your skin with harsh cleansers, instead reinforce it with pure plant waters and oils that are naturally infused with phytonutrients. These combat the oxidative damage of UV and pollution while supporting the acid mantle. We are particularly obsessed with the plant hydrosols and serums of the organic skin care line evanhealy
- Diet and hydration – Cellular health is greatly supported by a diet rich in plant foods and hydration. Take advantage of the seasonal fresh fruits and veggies over the summer months to feed and nourish your cells. Minimizing the amount of inflammatory foods in your system also allows the body to focus on regular maintenance, versus always fighting a fire. If you are curious about this I recommend a book by local Naturopath Jessica Black, ND “The Anti-Inflammation Diet and Recipe Book”.
- As for SPF – this is a hotly contested topic and there are a lot of different opinions out there. It is a subject unto itself. Please check out Summer Skin Part II where I break down how to find the healthiest option for preventing burns and protecting your skin.
Enjoy the season!