We’ve talked about the sun being a double-edged sword. Similarly, so is sunscreen. While sunscreen protects your skin from harmful UV rays in the short term, there are concerns about how the chemicals impact the body, and our environment, over time. It’s a catch-22 that’s enough to make you want to hide inside all summer!
But, we want you to enjoy the sun — safely — so here is some information that will guide you in making the best decisions for you and your families.
Sunscreen: The Good
The reasons to use sunscreen are compelling. It keeps UV rays from causing wrinkles and aged skin, it can help keep skin tone even, and most importantly, it protects against deadly cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more people diagnosed each year than all other cancers combined. That’s a sobering statistic.
Since the greatest risk factor of skin cancer is overexposure to UV radiation, it makes sense to do what you can to limit or counteract that radiation. Sunscreen protects the skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation, and is hailed by most doctors as the most important preventative measure to take against skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Foundation notes the following facts:
- Regular daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen can reduce the risk of developing melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer) by up to 50 percent.
- On average, a person’s risk for melanoma doubles if he or she has had more than five sunburns.
With knowledge like this, it’s easy to understand why sunscreen is important.
Sunscreen: The Bad
One of the negative consequences of using sunscreen is that it prevents the skin from absorbing the sun rays it needs to produce vitamin D in your body. With vitamin D deficiency being extremely common in America, bringing its own set of health concerns to the table, this is not a point to disregard lightly.
The reality for many is that even with using sunscreen, it is still possible to get some Vitamin D — but mainly because they aren’t using sunscreen correctly in the first place (by not using enough and/or not reapplying as instructed). However, if you spend enough time outdoors, you may still get enough sunlight to produce Vitamin D. On average, the body only needs 10-15 minutes 2 or 3 times a week to generate the necessary amount of Vitamin D. And no sunscreen blocks 100% of UV rays.
Nevertheless, this remains a concern for many, especially because there are numerous individual factors that determine if you’re getting enough vitamin D from the sun… and if you’re using sunscreen, you probably aren’t. Read more here about how to enjoy the sun and get your vitamin D, too.
Sunscreen: The Ugly
Here’s where things can get ugly: the long-term safety risk of the ingredients in chemical sunscreens. The FDA acknowledges the lack of conclusive safety data for these chemicals, which is concerning given the fact that they are absorbed into the body (having been found in urine, breast milk, amniotic fluid, and blood samples).
Several of these chemicals are believed to be hormone disruptors and adversely affect not just our bodies, but the environment. In recent months, Florida and Hawaii have moved to ban sunscreens containing two of the worst offenders, oxybenzone and octinoxate, due to the damage they are causing to the marine ecosystem.
Hormone disruptors are concerning because they either stop or mimic hormones in our bodies…and hormones are responsible for how our bodies function, regulating such things as:
- Body temperature
- Emotions / psychological health
- Immune system
- Stress response
- Reproduction and libido
Studies have shown that some of the chemicals used in sunscreens can increase the risk of endometriosis in women, weaken sperm in men, and lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys.
If any of our hormones are thrown off balance, it can have widespread and unexpected effects throughout the body. This is especially concerning for young children whose bodies are still developing.
Sunscreen: The Solution?
Armed with all of this information, what are the next steps to take? As with all things in life, the answer lies in balance, in acceptance that nothing in life is perfect, and in mitigating risk as much as you can.
Chemical vs. Mineral Sunscreens
There are two types of sunscreens, and the one that is currently under the microscope is chemical sunscreen (also called organic sunscreen). Chemical sunscreens are by far the more common, and — unless you’ve specifically sought out mineral sunscreens — are likely what you’ve been using all your life.
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing into your skin and then absorbing, breaking down, and releasing UV rays as heat through a chemical conversion. The active ingredients of this type of sunscreen are commonly oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. These are the chemicals discussed above that the FDA is requesting further safety data on.
By contrast, mineral sunscreens (also called physical sunscreens), act as a barrier that sits on top of your skin and deflects the UV rays so that they aren’t absorbed into your skin in the first place. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination.
Overall, mineral sunscreens are believed to be safer than their chemical counterparts. It should be noted, however, that mineral sunscreen is not without risk itself. For example, titanium dioxide is listed as a possible carcinogen if it is inhaled in large doses, and there is uncertainty about the safety of the microscopic size of the minerals (nanoparticles) of some formulations. Even so, based on available data, and when used as directed, a broad-spectrum mineral sunscreen appears to be the safer option.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a comprehensive lists of safer sunscreens. Check to see if your usual sunscreen is included. If not, we encourage you to select one from their list.
Don’t let sunscreen be your only solution.
EWG offers the following tips:
- Cover up as much as possible with tightly-woven, loose-fitting shirts and pants, and wide brimmed hats
- When outside, stay in the shade or bring an umbrella to sit under
- Avoid peak radiation time by going out in the early morning or late afternoon
- Wear UV-blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes
- Put on sunscreen only after you have done these things first. Don’t let sunscreen be your only protection.
Have your sunscreen and eat it too.
You may consider taking an even more holistic approach to sun protection. There are foods that can help your body increase its tolerance for the sun.
Regularly consuming an anti-inflammatory, high antioxidant diet can help strengthen your body’s response to UV radiation. In particular, start regularly consuming these foods:
- Watermelon, tomatoes, papaya, apricots, pink grapefruit. Lycopene-rich foods have been shown to offer significant protection against UV damage.
- Carrots, sweet potatoes, red bell peppers, butternut squash, leafy greens. Foods rich in beta carotene have been shown to increase the body’s sun protection after 10 weeks of consumption.
- Green tea. A powerhouse beverage, green tea has been shown to protect the skin, among various other health benefits.
- Broccoli. The sulphoraphane in broccoli protects skin against UV damage. (Broccoli extract also increases protection when applied topically to the skin.)
- Salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines, walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds. Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids help protect against sun damage.
- Pomegranates. This fruit has been shown to increase protection against UV damage.
- Dark chocolate. Make sure it is at least 70% cacao to reap the benefits of UV protection. Conventional chocolate won’t do it.
Of course, consumption of these foods should not replace external sun protection measures, but regularly consuming these foods is an easy way to supplement your sun protection efforts, with no worry of negative side effects.
You may also want to consider supplements that have been shown to increase UV protection, such as resveratrol and astaxanthin. Talk to your doctor to come up with a comprehensive plan.
Respect the sun
With all of the information out there, we hope this overview makes it easier to make an informed decision about the best plan for sun protection for you and your family.
At In and Out Express Care, we treat sick and injured people at our Hampton Roads urgent care clinics every day, but we love to see our community healthy and vibrant! We want you to enjoy the outdoors, safeguard your health, and protect our environment.
Stop in to see us today if you have concerns about sun exposure. Our friendly doctors will be glad to help.