Updated: Mar 29
It’s the beginning of summer again, a time that most of us are eagerly waiting for. It’s that time of the year where we begin to relax, plan outdoor gatherings with friends and family, look forward to a holiday, and (if we’re lucky with the British weather) also catch a nice sun tan to make us feel more vibrant. BUT before entering the sun we can’t forget to cover ourselves in sunscreen as it is well known that by doing so we are reducing the risk of sunburn, wrinkles and the highly feared skin cancer.
Or are we?
Contrary to what many of us believe, sunscreen may not be as effective at reducing our risk of cancer at all. In fact, a 2007 meta-analysis of 17 studies on the use of sunscreen and reduction of developing melanoma (with malignant melanoma accounting for 75% of skin-related cancers deaths) failed to show that using sunscreen would reduce the risk. More worryingly, some data suggested that for populations living in latitudes above 40 degrees, there was an increased risk of skin cancer in those who used sunscreen regularly.
Most sunscreens effectively block UVB rays which is what causes our skin to ‘burn’, however their effect in blocking UVA rays (which are longer and more penetrative to skin) is limited. Consequently, we might avoid the skin becoming red and sore but the skin is still exposed to harmful rays, we just don’t see it! In addition to this, the blocking of UVB rays with sunscreen significantly reduces the synthesis of vitamin D3 (the active form) in the body. Unlike most vitamins, very little vitamin D is found in foods and we rely almost solely on sun exposure to get enough of this vitamin. Vitamin D plays a critical role in immunity, muscle function, bone growth, brain development, not to mention the protection against mood disorders, autoimmune conditions and cancer and therefore, if we are using sunscreen daily and not supplementing with vitamin D, we might be putting ourselves at a greater risk of developing these conditions.
The other concerning factor is that most conventional sunscreens contain known toxins. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an independent non-profit organisation, recently released their investigation of 500 popular sunscreens, concluding that only 39 of them were deemed safe (full report available here). They found that the majority of products contained known carcinogens, neurotoxins, hormone disruptors and ingredients linked to birth defects. The fact is that anything we put on our skin, which is our largest organ, will be absorbed into our bodies and as the saying goes:
‘If you can’t eat it don’t put it on your skin’.
Check Your Sunscreen for these Ingredients:
Para amino benzoic acid
Still unsure whether your current sunscreen is safe, please look it up here on the EWG’s database.
So How Can We Protect Ourselves?
There are a number of actions we can do to ensure safe sun exposure.
EAT TO PROTECT
Eat plenty of fruit and vegetables – especially orange, red and dark green coloured - carrots, cantaloupe, tomatoes, kale, spinach, squash, collard greens – which are rich in carotenoids (also giving them their deep colours) that can protect against harmful UV rays.
Eat a diet rich in vitamin C - powerful antioxidant which we (unlike most other animals) are unable to synthesise ourselves – citrus fruits, peaches, mangoes, broccoli, bell peppers, red chillies, spinach, strawberries, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts – which can help to protect against sunburn.
Other supportive nutrients that boost antioxidant activity and skin integrity include:
Vitamin E – almonds, olive oil, avocado
Omega 3 fats - oily fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds
Selenium - sea food, Brazil nuts, meat, poultry, sunflower seeds.
DRESS TO PROTECT
Wear lightly coloured clothing for natural sun protection.
Wear a sun hat.
Wear sun glasses to protect eyes against UV rays.
EXPOSE TO PROTECT
We should aim to get at least 20 minutes unprotected sun exposure daily during the summer months. To begin, start with 10-15 minutes daily to build up a gradual protection.
Avoid being in the sun between 10AM and 2PM when it is the hottest and the sun is the strongest.
VITAMIN D TO PROTECT
Ensure you get enough vitamin D through:
Diet (organ meats, oily fish, shell fish and egg yolks).
Sufficient sun exposure (20 minutes daily in direct sunlight with at least 85% of body exposed).
It has recently been highlighted that in the UK alone more than half of the population may be deficient in vitamin D, and supplementation may be necessary. If you are unsure about your vitamin D status, see your GP and ask to be tested.
Any sunscreens labelled over 50 SPF are best avoided - they either give a false sense of security as you may not get visibly burnt but UV rays will still penetrate the skin and cause damage and they are often loaded with harmful chemicals. We are also less likely to re-apply as frequently with the high SPF sunscreens. We are better to wear a SPF between 15 and 30 and re-apply every 2-3 hours.
TOO YOUNG TO PROTECT
Infants under 6 months of age are advised by the American Academy of Paediatrics to avoid ALL standard sunscreens due to their absorbent skin and the unknown long term effects on developing organs. It is safer to use natural sun protection such as sun hats, light clothing and keeping them in the shade whenever possible.
A NATURAL SUNSCREEN TO PROTECT
Spend a bit more and purchase an organic, mineral-based and paraben-free sunscreen. These usually contain zinc, or titanium and are not broken down in sunlight and therefore less likely to be absorbed, reducing the risk of disruption to the body’s hormones. They can also be more effective at blocking UVA rays than non-minerals. The EWG lists the following brands among the safest to use: Alba Botanica Sun: Mineral Sunscreen, Fragrance-Free, SPF 30; Aubrey Organics Natural Sun Unscented Sensitive Skin/Children Sunscreen, SPF 30+; Aveeno Baby Natural Protection Mineral Block Face Stick, SPF 50; Badger Sunscreen, Unscented, SPF 30+, California Baby No Fragrance Sunscreen Lotion, SPF30+; Climb On! Mineral Sunblock SPF 30; Karen's Botanicals Simple Sunblock Lotion, Unscented, SPF 30; Loving Naturals Sunscreen, SPF 30+; Sun Putty Face, SPF 30; Vanicream Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, SPF 30.
If you DO burn in the sun there are a number of nutrients that can soothe pain and redness along with aiding the healing process including aloe vera, coconut oil and vitamin E cream.
Remember that any of the advice listed above is to be used as a general guidance and never as a substitute for medical advice.
Lots of love,
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