For years, we’ve been taught to fear the sun’s rays and slather on sunscreen before stepping outside. However, mounting evidence suggests this advice may have been completely misguided. While excessive sun exposure can certainly increase skin cancer risk, the sun also provides a vital source of vitamin D—a nutrient most of us are deficient in. A nuanced understanding of both the benefits and risks allows for a more balanced approach to sun exposure and protection.

Applying-Sunscreen

Is Sunscreen Safe?

A comprehensive investigation by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) revealed a startling reality–nearly 4 out of 5 sunscreen brands fail to provide adequate protection against both UVA and UVB radiation.(1) Shockingly, some of the most popular brands like Coppertone, Neutrogena, and Banana Boat ranked among the worst performers.

But the concerns don’t stop at ineffective sun protection. Many sunscreens contain potentially hazardous ingredients that can be absorbed through the skin. These toxic compounds can act as endocrine disruptors, mimicking estrogen and interfering with hormone balance. They’ve also been associated with allergic reactions and concerning evidence suggests they can accumulate in the body over time. Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate), found in countless sunscreen formulations, has been linked to an increased risk of developing skin tumours and lesions when exposed to sunlight.(2)

Shocked-Woman-about-risk-of-Sunscreen-Use

Numerous studies have revealed a baffling reality—those who use sunscreen regularly may actually have a higher risk of developing skin cancer compared to those who don’t.(3) According to estimates, the use of sunscreens may contribute to approximately 150,000 new cases of cancer each year in the United States alone. These alarming findings have sparked a re-evaluation of our relationship with sunscreen and the need for safer, more effective alternatives.

The Vitamin D Dilemma

Perhaps one of the most paradoxical effects of sunscreen use is its impact on vitamin D production. Often called the “sunshine vitamin,” vitamin D is a remarkable prohormone our bodies naturally produce when our skin is exposed to UVB rays from sunlight. Despite its importance, it’s estimated that over 1 billion people worldwide are vitamin D deficient. This deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of numerous health issues, including:

  • Osteoporosis and bone fractures due to impaired calcium absorption
  • Increased susceptibility to infections and autoimmune diseases
  • Higher risk of cancers like breast, colon, and prostate cancer
  • Greater likelihood of heart disease and high blood pressure
  • Cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Depression, anxiety, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

When UVB rays from the sun hit our skin, they initiate a photochemical reaction that converts cholesterol into vitamin D3. This bioavailable form can then be used throughout the body. However, sunscreen effectively blocks UVB rays, inhibiting vitamin D production by over 95%!(4)

So where does this leave us? It’s clear that we need to rethink our approach to sun protection. While it’s true that excessive sun exposure can lead to skin damage and increase the risk of skin cancer, completely avoiding the sun or relying solely on potentially harmful sunscreens isn’t the answer.

Instead, we need to strike a balance. As consumers, we must educate ourselves about the products we use and consider alternative methods of sun protection. Here are some strategies to consider:

1. Opt for Mineral-Based Sunscreens

Ditch the toxic ingredients found in many sunscreens and opt for mineral-based formulas that utilize zinc oxide as the active ingredient. 

Unlike chemical sunscreens that absorb UV rays into your skin (and potentially your bloodstream), zinc oxide works by creating a physical barrier on your skin’s surface. This barrier offers true broad-spectrum protection, effectively shielding your skin from both UVA rays (linked to premature aging and skin cancer) and UVB rays (responsible for sunburns). Zinc oxide is naturally gentle on even the most sensitive skin, making it ideal for children and adults prone to irritation. It’s also considered safe for the environment, unlike some chemical sunscreen ingredients that can harm coral reefs and marine life. When choosing a zinc oxide sunscreen, opt for “non-nano” particle sizes. This ensures the particles are too large to be absorbed into your bloodstream, adding an extra layer of safety. 

Avoid sunscreens containing vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or retinol) because of the potential health risks associated with these compounds when exposed to sunlight and other potentially harmful chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate. When in doubt, you can always reference the Environmental Working Group’s SkinDeep database when choosing a product to purchase.

2. Invest in UV-Protective Clothing

Think of UV-protective clothing as wearable sunscreen. It’s a highly effective way to shield your skin from harmful rays, especially during prolonged sun exposure. Look for clothing with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) rating of 30 or higher. UPF measures the amount of UV radiation that can penetrate the fabric and reach your skin. A UPF 30 fabric blocks 97% of UV rays, while UPF 50 blocks 98%. When choosing UV-protective clothing, prioritize covering areas that are often exposed to the sun, such as your arms, legs, shoulders, neck, and ears. Consider wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses with UV protection, and long-sleeved shirts and pants made from UV-resistant materials. 

3. Build Your Own Internal Sun Protection

Gradual sun exposure allows your skin to naturally produce melanin, a pigment that acts as a natural sunscreen. This helps prevent sunburns and reduces the risk of long-term skin damage. Begin with just 10-15 minutes of direct sun exposure per day, preferably during the early morning or late afternoon when the sun’s rays are less intense. As your skin becomes accustomed to the sun, you can gradually increase your exposure time by 5-10 minutes every few days. Always pay attention to your skin’s signals—if you start to feel any burning or tingling, seek shade or cover up immediately.

4. Balance Omega-3 and Omega-6 Intake

Maintaining a healthy balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is crucial for overall health, including skin health. Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties and can help protect your skin from sun damage.(5) While omega-6 fatty acids are also essential, excessive intake, common in the standard Western diet, can promote inflammation and increase the risk of skin cancer.

Increase your intake of omega-3-rich foods like fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines), walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds. At the same time, reduce your consumption of processed foods, vegetable and seed oils (corn, soybean, sunflower), and fried foods, which are often high in omega-6s.

5. Don’t Be Fooled by Ultra-High SPFs

While it may seem counterintuitive, those ultra-high SPF sunscreens might not be offering the superior protection they promise.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology an SPF 30 sunscreen blocks approximately 97% of UVB rays, while an SPF 50 blocks around 98%. The difference in protection is minimal, yet SPF 50+ products often create a false sense of security, leading people to stay in the sun longer and potentially increasing their risk of UVA damage.

SPF primarily measures protection against UVB rays, which are responsible for sunburns. However, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the level of protection against UVA rays, the main culprit behind premature aging and skin cancer. Instead of focusing solely on SPF numbers, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that explicitly states it protects against both UVA and UVB rays.

6. Boost Your Internal Defenses

Protecting your skin from sun damage involves more than just external measures. A well-balanced diet rich in specific nutrients can enhance your skin’s natural defenses from within. Antioxidants play a crucial role in neutralizing harmful free radicals, with vitamins C and E, found in fruits, vegetables, and nuts, being particularly beneficial. Beta-carotene, abundant in orange and leafy green vegetables, may boost skin protection, while lycopene in tomatoes and watermelon has shown potential to guard against UV damage.(6) Other compounds like resveratrol from grapes, catechins from green tea, and selenium from nuts and fish also contribute to overall skin protection. While these dietary factors can significantly support skin health, it’s important to note that they complement rather than replace traditional sun protection methods like sunscreen and UV protective clothing. 

The sun is not our enemy; it’s a natural source of energy and a vital component of our well-being. So go ahead, soak up some rays – responsibly, of course!

References

  1. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news-release/2024/05/only-1-4-sunscreens-deemed-safe-ewg-offering-balanced-uva-and
  2. Cherng SH, Xia Q, Blankenship LR, Freeman JP, Wamer WG, Howard PC, et al. 2005. Photodecomposition of retinyl palmitate in ethanol by UVA light-formation of 18(2): 129-38.
  3. Lazovich, DeAnn, et al. “Sunscreen use and incidence of melanoma among young adults.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology 72.5 (2015): 830-837.
  4. Matsuoka, L. Y., et al. “Sunscreens suppress cutaneous vitamin D3 synthesis.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 64.6 (1987): 1165-1168.
  5. Kim, Hye-Lim, et al. “Protective effects of omega-3 fatty acids against UVB-induced skin inflammation by regulating NF-?B signaling in HaCaT cells and SKH-1 hairless mice.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences 19.3 (2018): 810.
  6. Stahl, Wilhelm, and Helmut Sies. “?-Carotene and other carotenoids in protection from sunlight.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96.5 (2012): 1179S-1184S.
General HealthThe Toxic Truth About Sunscreen: Are We Too Protected for Our Own Good?
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