The sun is central to life on earth. Sunlight is required for plant photosynthesis and it is also vital for optimal health in humans. UVB rays in sunlight convert cholesterol found in your skin into vitamin D, a lack of which causes many physical problems ranging from joint pain to hormone imbalances to cancer.
Every organ system in your body requires an adequate level of vitamin D to function properly. Healthy exposure to sunlight is actually the very best way to ensure healthy vitamin D status. There is also evidence that sunlight is beneficial in maintaining a vigorous immune system, building strong bones, and helping in the prevention of cancer and heart disease.
Having said that, with less natural protection provided by our atmosphere, we need to be careful how much sun is too much. Harmful UVA and UVB rays from the sun can cause major damage to our largest organ, the skin, including burns, brown age spots, red, scaly skin, dry skin, wrinkles, premature aging, and ultimately skin cancer.
If your skin doesn’t produce enough protective melanin pigment or if you get too much exposure to the sun before enough pigment can be manufactured and dispersed, the ultraviolet rays of the sun can kill skin cells. Even a light sunburn that produces only a little redness destroys the top layer of your skin, similar to being burned with a hot iron. Serious burns received when you are younger can manifest later as more intense health challenges.
The Risks of Using Sunscreen
We are warned to take precautions when spending time in the sun such as using a high SPF sunscreen lotion. While this may sound like a good idea, there is now significant research which shows that commercially produced and marketed sunscreens may be a big part of the skincare problem. Among other things, used as directed, sunscreen shuts down the body’s production of Vitamin D.
Further, most of the active chemical ingredients found in commercial sunscreens are synthetic, estrogenic, and are potent endocrine disruptors. Many of the more natural products use omega-6 rich vegetable oils, including soy, which disturb the healthy balance of fats and leave the skin more prone to oxidation. Even “healthy” mineral sunscreens contain nanoparticles which have been linked to accelerated aging of skin, cancer, and environmental toxicity. Nanoparticles are considered unsafe to inhale and their small size may make them able to travel to the brain and other parts of the body where they cause further damage.
The evidence that sunscreen is required to protect us against skin cancer is weak. Skin cancer rates are rising over 4% annually, despite the fact that we wear more sunscreen and spend less time in the sun. More than two million Americans develop skin cancer annually, and some studies have found an increased risk of melanoma among countries that use more sunscreen. Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. The good news is that most skin cancer can be prevented.
Chemical Ingredients in Sunscreen
Multiple chemical sunscreen ingredients have been identified as potentially harmful including oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, retinol palmitate, PABA, octyl-methoxycinnamate, benzophenone-3, 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor, nano or micronized mineral particles and homosalate.
The way that sunscreens produce damage to your skin is that the chemicals found in these lotions increase the number of free radicals that are generated in the layers of your skin. This damage or inflammation is exacerbated by the sun, causing even more wounding and accelerated aging. The chemical ingredients themselves can get into your bloodstream and do harm to other parts of your body.
Octocrylene is a good example. Octocrylene is a clear, slightly oily, and odorless compound that is found in about 65% of sunscreens. It can seep into the lower layers of your skin, where it can interact with UV rays from the sun, creating unnecessary free radical production.
Another potent ingredient, oxybenzone, was found in a recent study to be a probably cause of endometriosis. In a study of 600 women, those with the highest levels of oxybenzone in their urine had a 65 percent increased risk of endometriosis. Oxybenzone, like BPA, is a chemical that mimics estrogen. Endometriosis growth is fed by estrogen. In fact, multiple commercially used UV filters have an estrogenic effect on the body. A study in the journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology found that mixtures of these chemicals had more potent synergistic estrogenic effect than each chemical alone had.
The highest levels of oxybenzone detected in the urine of women in this study occurred during July and August, months when sunscreen typically has a higher usage rate. This is regarded as proof that these sunscreen ingredients can be readily absorbed into the bloodstream.
Sadly, these chemicals don’t just affect the person using them. They end up getting into wastewater and also into natural waterways where people who wear sunscreen swim. These chemicals resist degradation in the environment and end up affecting wildlife, particularly amphibians, where alarming rates of reproductive defects have been increasingly found.
Our cellular DNA is vulnerable to damage caused by free radicals. If not stopped by antioxidants, free radicals are allowed to create ongoing impairment, which can contribute to skin problems and the development of skin cancer.
A European study found that when applied frequently (as directed by many brands) such as three times a day for 5 consecutive days, the skin had absorbed enough chemicals that the skin itself became resistant to UV light. We do not have research on the potentially harmful implications for this but at the very least natural vitamin D production is seriously inhibited.
Additional Problematic Ingredients
Some of the inactive ingredients found in sunscreens also have damaging effects. The ingredient retinyl palmitate or retinol, usually listed as vitamin A on the product, can promote the development of skin tumors when it is exposed to sunlight.
Fragrance is another example. Fragrances can be included in “natural” products and often contain dozens to hundreds of unlisted chemical components, some of which are hormone disruptors or possible carcinogens.
Spray-on sunscreens offer a whole new set of challenges that come with their convenience. The aerosol provides easy access for the chemicals to enter your lungs as well as your bloodstream—so their use becomes a double whammy and intensifies the toxic effect of using sunscreen.
How to Protect Your Skin Naturally
There are many solutions to being able to spend time in the sun safely. As mentioned above, in order to have a healthy body, it’s important to make sure and get some time in the sun. If you build up exposure gradually over time and give your skin a chance to produce more melanin, you may not need to do anything more special, but if you are prone to burning, there are some easy precautions you can take.
Watch the Time
The sun is most dangerous between the hours of 11 am and 3 pm. So if you’re going to be in the sun, you can try to schedule sun time earlier in the day or after its peak appearance. Even if you are using a natural sunscreen, it’s a good idea to be careful about how much intensity for a prolonged period you subject your skin to.
If you go in the water, remember that the water does not protect you from harmful sun rays, so you need to include time in the water as part of time in the sun and if you use a natural or homemade sunscreen, reapply it after you have been in the water.
Note that the sun’s rays are still potent on cloudy days because ultraviolet light can penetrate clouds.
Use Protective Clothing
While it was once thought that only UVB rays were considered to be the only dangerous rays, recent studies have shown that UVA rays can be dangerous also. Most sunscreens only protect against UVB rays.
A great way to protect your body and especially your face from both UVA and UVB rays is to make sure you cover up with some protective material. Wear a wide-brimmed (4 inch) sun hat made of canvas to protect your face and eyes and choose clothing made of dark, tightly woven material to cover your arms and legs. Once your clothing becomes wet it loses some of its protective capacity.
Don’t Forget Often Missed Body Parts
Too often, people forget to protect sensitive spots like the lips, the top of the ears, top of the feet, under the chin, the hairline, the décolletage, the nose and the hands. The Skin Cancer Foundation says 80 percent of skin cancers occur on the head, hands and neck.
Some medications, particularly tetracycline and diuretics, can make skin extra sensitive to sun exposure and increase the risk of sunburn. Talk to your doctor if you have specific concerns.
Enjoying adequate restful sleep is important for your body to give it time to regenerate healthy cells. The growing trend of eating processed foods and being sleep-deprived contribute to our body’s inability to overcome the increasing load of toxins that it faces on a daily basis.
Maintaining moisture in your skin is essential to sun protection. Properly hydrated skin retains pliability and prevents damage. Remember to drink lots of water when the weather is warm. Coconut water is especially replenishing. Using a healthy lotion (or coconut oil) with natural ingredients immediately after bathing helps the skin retain moisture. Use warm water rather than hot for showering and baths and try not to spend too long in the shower. It may seem counterintuitive, but extended exposure to water can actually dry out the skin.
Eat a Healthy Diet
Sunburn is actually a type of inflammation, and therefore, a healthy diet can have tremendous impact on how the body responds to inflammation. Dietary improvements can result in improved overall health as a side benefit as well. A healthy diet rich in antioxidants and nutrients can help the body protect itself against free radical damage.