We all have skin in the gameLet's start by reminding ourselves that our skin is not, as some think, just an envelope filled with organs. It's an organ unto itself, the largest, in fact, in our bodies. And it interacts constantly with all of our other organs. So we should be very picky about what we put in it and on it—especially when, in the case of sunscreen, we put it all over large parts of ourselves.
When sunscreens go beyond the call of dutySunscreens are complex chemical compounds that often do more than we want them to. So for every ingredient in every sunscreen, we have to ask very pointed and specific questions:
- Will the chemical penetrate my skin and reach living tissues?
- Will it disrupt the hormone system?
- Can it affect the reproductive and thyroid systems and, in the case of fetal or childhood exposure, permanently alter reproductive development or behavior?
- Can it cause a skin allergy? Or damage?
- What if it is inhaled?
- Are there other toxicity concerns?
The rulebook has very few "rules"Unfortunately, we can't count on sunscreen makers to take our best health interests to heart:
- Producers aren't required by law to safety test ingredients or finished products
- Labeling laws are so lax that ingredients lists may not include everything or may misstate certain elements
- Product claims are not subject to review, so manufacturers have no obligation to be accurate when they describe a product’s benefits
- Few restrictions limit which chemicals can be used in sunscreens
What could possibly go wrong?Well, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, tested more than 1,400 sunscreens. Guess how many met the EWG's realistic, reasonable, safety standards? Only 5 percent. Guess how many contained ingredients known to be potential contributors to skin cancer? A damning 40 percent. And how many didn't adequately protect skin from the sun's damaging rays—in addition to containing potential health hazards? A frightening 80 percent. Moreover, the Danish Environmental Protection Agency recently reviewed the safety of active ingredients in sunscreens and concluded that most ingredients lacked information to ensure their safety.
- Sixteen of the 19 ingredients studied had no information about their potential to cause cancer
- None of the ingredients provided information to determine the potential risks of sex or thyroid hormone disruption—even though published studies suggest that several common sunscreen chemicals do exactly that
The dark side of sunscreensIf you need convincing that some in the sunscreen industry are more interested in selling than protecting, say hello to The Skin Cancer Foundation, which chases and accepts donations from many sunscreen manufacturers. Here's their latest position, italics mine:
Rulebook says "no"Let's get to the action points—your do's and don'ts when choosing a sunscreen. If the label says any one of these, don't buy it:
Rulebook says "yes"Here, it does get simple. Look for a product containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, the primary ingredients in what are sometimes called mineral sunscreens And look for wide-spectrum sunscreens, which protect against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 30 or higher. Ignore conventional wisdom that says to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside. Hold off, and get at least a few minutes of sun exposure on bare, clean skin— no lotions, creams, or cosmetics of any kind. Start with just a few minutes of exposure each day to avoid burning. Gradually increase the amount of time, but don’t go beyond 20 minutes. If you plan to remain outside, move to the shade or dress for protection—a wide-brimmed hat, a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt or top, and loose-fitting pants or a skirt. If you're well covered, you're well protected. No sunscreen needed. If you want to stay outdoors uncovered, use your sunscreen, and remember to reapply it every couple of hours. It can be removed by sweating, swimming, or even rubbing your skin. And don’t forget to protect your eyes when you’re outside. I recommend sunglasses equipped with side panels to shield your eyes from UVA and UVB rays. Exposure to sunlight has been linked to cataracts. Finally, let's head off any confusion if you're wondering about those hundreds of after-sun products. Use 100% aloe gel (many aloe products also contain skin-drying alcohol, avoid those) or extra virgin coconut oil. It's all you need.
Protect yourself from the inside outAntioxidants and healthy fats in your diet or as supplements are for super skin health. Count on these wonderful menu items to reinforce your body’s own sun-protective mechanisms:
- Carrots and other yellow-orange fruits
- Salmon, shrimp, and algae
- Tomatoes (especially when cooked in a small amount of oil), pink and red grapefruit, and guava
- Citrus fruits and most vegetables
- Sweet potatoes, milk, and eggs
- Green leafy vegetables, raw nuts, and wheat germ
- Fatty, cold–water fish, such as cod, herring, and anchovies
- Astaxanthin: 4 to 6 mg one to three times daily
- Lycopene: 10 to 30 mg daily
- Vitamin C: 500 to 1,000 mg three times daily. If you develop loose stools, decrease the dosage
- Vitamin E: 400 IUs daily of a product made from mixed tocopherols and the natural form of vitamin E (d-alpha tocopherol), not the synthetic form (dl-alpha-tocopherol)
- Omega-3 essential fatty acids: 1,000 mg twice daily of a purified, molecularly distilled product. Be sure to read the label and make sure you’re getting 1,000 mg of omega-3s and not just 1,000 mg of oil.
- Katie. "Think Before You Slather! Why Sunscreen May be Harmful!" Wellness Mama. Updated July 9, 2018. Last accessed July 17, 2018.
- Reisch, Marc S. "After More Than A Decade, FDA Still Won’t Allow New Sunscreens"
- Published May 18, 2015. Chemical & Engineering News. Last accessed July 17, 2018.
- “Sunscreen use in winter? Sunscreen while we sleep? Has the world gone mad?” Sunlight Institute. Published November 16, 2017. Last accessed July 17, 2018.
- "The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens" Environmental Working Group. Published NA. Last accessed July 17, 2018.
- Griffin, R. Morgan "Sun Safety: Sunscreen and Sun Protection" WebMD. Published NA. Last accessed July 17, 2018.
- Connealy, Leigh Erin. "Should You Wear Sunscreen? Know the Risks" Newport Natural Health. Updated May 13, 2015. Last accessed July 17, 2018.