Shedding Some Light on Sunscreens

Should you be exposing yourself to the sun for the sake of Vitamin D or covering up to prevent wrinkles? Is the sun safe or is it cancer causing? Since too much sun causes a burn, how should you protect yourself?

The answers are not easy.  The sun is safe and healthy, in the appropriate doses, depending on your skin type. The sun also gives off radiation, which may cause skin cancer and photo-aging. Remember that sun damage may not be obvious, especially if you are young. But UV light may reveal what is lurking beneath the surface.

Early morning and late afternoon sun is safest for exposure to avoid burning, as you probably know. Light skinned people absorb more of the wavelength that produces Vitamin D, but they are also more susceptible to burning and photo-ageing. Mid-day sun is more effective for Vitamin D synthesis. Human skin can make its own Vitamin D, when exposed to the UV spectrum of light.

Since part of the planet sees very little sunlight most of the year, Nature has provided Vitamin D from nutritional sources such as fatty fish and fish oil. Note that in Nature Vitamin D is always paired with Vitamin A, which is why I think that fatty fish and fish oil are your best dietary sources. Cataplex D from Standard Process can also be used, and is safer than high dose synthetic D. Synthetic Vitamin D has been associated with a higher risk for kidney stones and I have seen stones in 2-3 of my patients on high dose liquid D. The safe dose for Vitamin D supplementation is no more than 800 IU’s per day.

One of the ways to protect your skin from cancer due to sun exposure is to make sure that you are eating plenty of healthy fats. Traditionally skin cancer rates have been low in Mediterranean countries where olive oil is a dietary staple. Organic butter contains Vitamin A, and may also be protective.

When it comes to sunscreen, Nature also provides some answers. The best sun protection is physical barrier. Any clothing is protective. Special shirts are not needed. Any cloth that is woven tightly enough will do. Hats help, but if you are around water, or exposed to intense sunlight, wear sunscreen also.

Zinc and titanium oxide are mineral barriers to the sun’s damaging rays, and are not toxic to the body. Remember that skin is a two-way street, so any chemical you put on your skin is going to get absorbed. For a guide to the difference see here.

Being light-skinned, from Irish/English descent, I have always burned badly, so finding safe, non-toxic sunscreen has been a lifetime challenge. In my twenties I met a woman who had incredibly gorgeous skin in her 40’s, after spending her life on the Isle of Mann, located between England and Ireland.  She had rarely being exposed to sunlight and the difference in her face was dramatic. So, I abandoned all attempts at sun bathing and I attribute that as a major factor in how my skin looks today.

Physical barrier/mineral sunscreens have the great disadvantage of being mainly white, which can give you the fresh Geisha look when applied to your face. I counter that by either mixing in a little foundation to cut the white, or I apply powdered mineral make-up on top of the sunscreen. The sunscreen can act as a primer, so that the mineral make-up does not sink into the wrinkles. There are tinted physical barrier sunscreens that also fill the bill.

The Environmental Working Group has a complete guide to various types of sunscreens for all your needs. Check it out here.

I suggest avoiding chemical sunscreens. I doubt we know enough about the long-term effects. We already have so many chemicals in our environment that we cannot control, so it is a wise idea to control the ones that you can. And there are so many choices in physical barrier sunscreens today, that there is no reason to choose chemical products. The Mineral/physical barriers may withstand sweat and water games better than the chemical screens.

Let me know your experiences and your favorite sunscreens and I will share with others.