We’re kicking off summer this Memorial Day weekend, so it’s no surprise that questions have been floating my way about sunscreen. Apparently the word is out – what you put on your skin is as important to your health as what you put in your mouth!
So, what’s the safest sunscreen out there? In the past I’ve had to gulp and blush a little, admitting to not having a solid answer.
See, I don’t wear much sunscreen. I have dark skin and can count the sunburns I’ve ever had on one hand.
Gasp! Boo! Hiss! Bad answer, right?
A few years ago I had a table at a local farmer’s market. At lunchtime, nurses would fill the square, drinking sodas and smoking cigarettes. I kid you not. They never, ever came over to find out what my health coaching table was all about. I don’t say this to give nurses a bad name – definitely not! Just this particular crowd wasn’t into me. I could hear them whispering – one said loud enough for me to perfectly hear, “Hmph! Health coach yet she sits out in the sun all day.”
Wow. Ok. Back that can of Coke in your hand.
(And, hello, I was sitting in shade.)
But it brings up the point that I want to make first and foremost:
To be healthy, do we need to avoid the sun?
Um, I don’t think so. Sun makes us feel good – something so many of us are sorely lacking. Seasonal affective disorder, anyone? Related to this, the other thing we are sorely lacking is Vitamin D. Good ol’ Vitamin D is getting a lot of press these days as everyone and their mother tests extremely low for it. This vitamin is produced by sunlight interacting with cholesterol in our skin. (See, cholesterol is not an enemy either!)
Anyway, when we are inside all day on the computer and slather on the SPF for our few minutes outside, it makes sense that everyone is sadly deficient in this vitamin. And there are very few good dietary sources – cod liver oil and organ meats being an exception.
Overall, I’m quite sure the sun is more good than bad for us. Inside on the computer? Not so much. As with all things, moderation is key.
But, hello, what about sunburns and skin cancer?
You know how everyone started eating fat free foods in the 90′s, yet obesity rates continued to rise? It’s like that – we use more sunscreen products than ever before, yet skin cancer rates are higher than ever.
So what gives?
I’ll be damned if I have the full answer, but I can say this:
- Sunscreens are not the end-all, be-all when it comes to sun protection. I think people use too much, and stay in the sun much too long thinking they are safe. I mean, everyone still seems to get burned, despite shelling out $87 at Target on a myriad of creams, sprays and lip balm. Especially when it comes to those high numbered SPFs – they give a false sense of how protected you really are. Like eating a box of fat-free Snackwell’s cookies every day and thinking you are not going to get fat.
- I’m just gonna throw this out there…being that a nutrient-poor, processed food diet contributes to just about every health issue…why not skin cancer? I’ve read many anecdotes from those who have changed their food to a more traditional, whole food diet claiming that they don’t burn as easily. From the Weston A. Price website: “One theory holds that sugar consumption exacerbates the tendency to sunburn rather than tan.” Hmm. I can’t prove it, but it’s a darn interesting thought.
- I was curious to learn that Vitamin A (“retinyl palmitate” or “retinol palmitate” on ingredient labels) is added to many sunscreens yet government studies have shown that Vitamin A applied to sun-exposed skin can increase development of skin tumors. Vitamin A causes skin cancer? Yet it’s an ingredient in sunscreen? Um…is this like serving salted peanuts at a bar – some kind of twisted marketing move?
- Finally, I always hesitate to feed my skin definitely dangerous chemicals over the possible danger of sunlight. A walk down the street? No way. If I’m going to be in an open field on the equator at noon…well, SPF wins out. But by all means, I want to avoid some of the biggest offenders on the ingredient lists, like Benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone) and 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC). These chemicals are known to disrupt hormone and thyroid function. (There’s a great chart with lots of info at the bottom of this page.)
So, let’s get to it.
Because I know you want answers.
My 6 safe and healthy sunscreen recommendations:
1. Um. Sorry I have to say it.
Trees! A truly natural, chemical-free way to protect yourself from the sun. What a novel idea, huh? Save yourself from direct, glaring sunlight with the glorious built-in shade protection Mother Earth provides.
2. Mmmmmm lasagna
Know what food is known to naturally protect your skin from sun damage? Cooked tomatoes. Think tomato paste. Tomato sauce. It’s all about the lycopene. Olive oil is also cited as having skin-saving properties, as well as green tea.
3. Is there any problem coconut oil cannot solve?
I have not tried this myself but there are a lot of people out there who swear by coconut oil when it comes to sun protection. Have you heard of this? The idea is not to lube yourself up right before a big beach trip, but rather “season” your skin by using coconut oil on it daily. Over time, you build up a resistance to the sun. (I’m thinking…coconut oil makes a fantastic moisturizer anyway, so it’s worth a careful try.)
4. Timing is everything
Forget SPF. How about just looking at the clock? If you can time your outdoor activity to be in the morning or late afternoon hours, you’ll miss that midday period when the sun is most intense. It’s almost too easy.
5. A sun protective wardrobe
Wear a hat. Sunglasses. And a shirt with SPF! Special sun protective clothing is usually made from polyester, spandex or nylon – ok, ok not the most natural fibers. We’re definitely talking about some chemicals here, but wouldn’t it be better to wear chemicals than to rub them directly into your skin over and over? The SPF protection mainly comes from a very tightly woven fabric. I bought my son a sun protective hat and beach shirt – my only concern is…won’t he be hot?? If you don’t want to buy special SPF clothing – just wear your long winter coat all summer long! Sun ain’t gonna get you in there!
6. A carefully chosen sunscreen cream
According to the EWG, most sunscreens (and I’m paraphrasing here) are loaded with crap and don’t work as well as they should. Additionally, spray SPF is an inhalation hazard – in fact, they’ll soon have to display FDA-mandated warnings like “use in a well ventilated area”. Basically, creams are the way to go. Steer clear of oxybenzone – choose active ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide instead.
In their 2012 guide, a top ranked sunscreen for effectiveness and safety was Kiss My Face Natural Mineral Sunscreen with Hydresia, SPF 40. And even that contained some questionable ingredients linked to cancer, allergies/immunotoxicity, ecotoxicology, and contamination concerns. But it’s not expensive, widely available and definitely a better bet than some other products out there.
In short, practice moderation.
I’d rather avoid the noon sun, wear a hat and avoid hormone-disrupting, cancer-causing chemicals on my skin on most days. But that’s just me. Hey, you asked!