In the last post, we talked about some natural remedies to heal and soothe a sunburn. However, for the sake of skin health, prevention of the burn is the best medicine but there’s been some misguidance in the past in reference to appropriate sun exposure and sunscreen. So let’s discuss.
On the timeline of human existence, commercial sunscreen is very new, as is the idea that the sun is generally harmful and is something to be feared and avoided. So what did people do before sunscreen and fear-mongering? Simply put, they listened to their bodies. Our skin has vitamin D receptors and so when our ancestors were exposed to the sun, they would reap the benefits and produce vitamin D and melanin. Then once their body reached its limit, their cells would send a signal out and give the message “Hey it’s time to find some shade.” And somehow, skin cancer/damage was not sky high back then.
Why is that?
Vitamin D actually protects you from melanoma and other cancers. (It also has a host of other benefits, but let’s just stay in this lane for now, shall we?) So to connect the dots here, first there was no such thing as sunscreen. Everyone was basically fine. Then sunscreen comes into our lives, we are told to slather it on and fear the sun to avoid skin cancer…and cancer rates increase. Sunscreen blocks our body’s ability to produce vitamin D, as well as know when you’ve had enough sun which could lead to an overexposure of UVA rays (the cell damaging rays, which we will talk about next).
Sun and its Rays
UVB rays – These are the rays that are responsible for your tan/burn, and also for that “ok that’s enough sun” signal. When you’re exposed to natural outdoor sunlight, sans sunscreen, the UVB rays will penetrate the skin and trigger melanin to be produced, which protects the skin as a natural sunscreen. This melanin is where your tan comes from as it sort of “breaks up” the rays that come in. The amount of melanin produced depends on your frequency in the sun (and genes). The more melanin you have in your skin, the higher the protection, hence the “base tan” you’ve likely heard of, but there’s always a limit to how long it can protect you. Once it reaches that limit, that’s when a burn is upcoming and that signal is sent out to cover up.
UVA rays – These are the rays that are much more damaging. They penetrate deeper into the skin and can truly damage cells in the form of wrinkles, or in more serious (and ever-increasing) cases, skin cancer. The important thing to know here is that there’s no signal sent out to let us know when we’ve had enough, so we need to get that signal from the UVB rays, which is blocked by sunscreen.
So think about that for a moment. If we load up on sunscreen all the time, which would interrupt that signal we should get from the UVB rays, we are exposing ourselves to excessive UVA rays causing too much damage – leading to increased rates of skin cancer. The idea that we are fine as long as we aren’t burning is a potentially dangerous concept. You may be thinking “I have a broad spectrum sunscreen so it blocks the UVA rays too.” Well, yes and no. Sunscreens have more of an effect at reducing the UVB rays, but even with UVA rays, it’s only a percentage that’s left out. The other unfortunate truth about UVA vs UVB rays is that UVB rays are blocked by windows. So if you’re sitting in your room at home enjoying some sun through those sky lights…that’s all UVA rays.
There is still a time and a place for sunscreen necessity though, and choosing a safe one is key.
Chemical vs Physical Sunscreens
Chemical sunscreens – These sunscreens use chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate to absorb the sun’s rays by way of a chemical reaction in the skin. This is why it’s advised to apply the sunscreen 15-20 minutes before sun exposure, to allow time for the chemicals to be absorbed in the skin. According to EWG, these ingredients also act as hormone disruptors and have high rates of skin allergies. Many of these ingredients have also shown to pass into breast milk. Unfortunately these sunscreens are the ones most widely available, lining the drug-store shelves.
Physical sunscreens – Also known as mineral sunscreens. These sunscreens use ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that sit on the skin to immediately get to work and reflect the sun’s rays and act as a physical barrier. Titanium dioxide is a bit less effective than zinc oxide, but still a better choice than the chemical sunscreens. *Physical sunscreens are often white when applied.
Other sunscreen cautions
Some sunscreens also have questionable ingredients such as retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, (also found in some commercial beauty products) that can increase the production of skin tumors and lesions when that area is exposed to sunlight.
Spray sunscreens can be dangerous, even spray mineral sunscreens. While I can understand the convenience of a spray sunscreen, especially as a mom of young excited-to-play kids, they’re not worth the risk not only to my own family, but to anyone near by who may be exposed to the off-spraying as well. There are serious inhalation concerns with all spray sunscreen ingredients, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
My personal favorites
I love this sunscreen face stick! It is so easy to apply and actually goes on clear so there’s nothing left behind, except the delicious orange-chocolate scent. Yum!
Most zinc based sunscreens go on (and stay) super white. An example of one, although a very reliable brand, is Badger. This one from Beautycounter actually goes on clear!
I’m personally more of a lotion person for larger areas, but I learned recently from an article I found that in zinc based lotions, the ingredients can actually separate over time and are difficult to mix up. If you go with a lotion, be sure to replace each season to ensure a fresh product. Fortunately, this is a safe body stick option I feel comfortable recommending.
Another reputable brand, as I mentioned above, is Badger. They have both lotions and sticks, as well as products specifically for babies and kids.
Check out this post at Kitchen Stewardship for more tested recommendations. Her family has tested over 80 different sunscreens!
Eat Your Sunscreen!
Ok, don’t actually eat your purchased sunscreen product. But just like with anything related to skin health, your diet does make a difference and can set your skin up for sun exposure success (or failure) from the INside!
Foods to avoid
- Refined carbohydrates like bread, pasta, crackers, pretzels
- Damaged fats and oils like vegetable oils, canola oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil
Foods to include
- Healthy fats – animal fats, tropical fats, monounsaturated fats like avocado, and omega 3 fats like wild caught salmon, grass fed meats
- Foods rich in vitamin C – citrus fruits, leafy greens, peppers, whole-food supplement
- Foods rich in astaxanthin – strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon (Isn’t it interesting that nature has provided these foods most abundantly in spring and summer?), wild caught salmon. Astaxanthin is an antioxidant and is also available in supplement form.
- Water – hydration is everything
- Foods rich in vitamin E – nuts, seeds
So, in the words of Liz Wolfe from her book Eat the Yolks in the section of responsible sun exposure: “Get sun, but don’t burn.” Simple and eloquent. I like it.