Sun Safety: Exposure, Sunscreen & Natural Protection Strategies

Sun Safety: Exposure, Sunscreen & Natural Protection Strategies by Nina S. Stout, Board Certified in Holistic NutritionTM

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Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in the US with over 8,500 new people being diagnosed every day in the US. (Guy, 2015) There is a growing body of conflicting data that makes it difficult to know the best way to handle sun exposure and sunscreen use. Limiting sun exposure and wearing protective clothing are highly effective in preventing skin cancer, but as a second line of defense, it’s important to know what sunscreens are the safest and most effective. The Environmental Working Group website provides a valuable reference tool for evaluating the ingredients in sunscreens for their effectiveness and potential toxic components.

There are two types of ultraviolet light: UVA & UVB. Both can cause skin cancer. The UVA rays cause the most skin damage, photo-aging of the skin and skin cancer. UVB’s promote Vitamin D production in the body, but they also can cause sunburn.

When it comes to sunscreens, the best choice is a broad spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF for UVB rays, and either a mineral or chemical component to block UVA rays. (EWG, 2016)

SPF (Sun Protection Factor) provides UVB protection. The SPF # indicates how long you are protected from getting a sunburn. If without any protection, you’d normally get a sunburn in 10 minutes, an SPF 30 extends that by 30 times. So with a sunscreen of SPF 30, you could last 300 minutes (5 hours) before starting to get a sunburn. It is also important to consider factors like time of day/sun strength, water exposure and perspiration which can alter SPF efficacy; in other words, it’s not an exact science. There is no evidence that higher SPF provides greater protection, and, in certain countries outside the US there are laws limit labeling claims (“SPF 50” is the highest in the EU and Japan, and in Canada “50+” is the highest) to avoid unrealistic expectations. (EWG, 2016)

There aren’t very many good ways to block UVA rays other than to keep skin covered; otherwise your choices include mineral based sunscreens (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) or chemical based sunscreens which have been shown to cause hormone disruption. (EWG, 2016) The Environmental Working Group promotes mineral sunscreens as the safest and most effective, but endorses these chemical UVA blocking ingredients:

  • Avobenzone (3% for the best UVA protection): a chemical based UVA blocker that is approved by EWG, and a good alternative to the mineral based formulas; look for it without oxybenzone.
  • Mexoryl SX (ecamsule): endorsed by EWG, but not widely available in formulations. When shopping for sunscreen AVOID these ingredients:
  • Oxybenzone: a chemical based UVA blocker; EWG’s recent report urges parents to avoid using this on children due to “penetration and toxicity concerns.”
  • Vitamin A (retinol or retinyl palmitate) an ingredient found in most sunscreens (added because it is an antioxidant), has been shown in some studies to have photocarcinogenic properties, meaning that when exposed to sunlight it is likely to promote the growth of cancerous tumors on the skin. (National Toxicology Board, 2012)

Do the Research! The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep site provides a searchable database of sunscreens taking into account factors such as efficacy and safety. You can search to find the top sunscreens, and, also, see how your products stack up. (

A sun tan may provide some sun protection: as a defense against UV radiation, the skin produces a brown pigment known as melanin. This is what gives the appearance of a sun tan. The melanin absorbs UV radiation and dissipates the energy as harmless heat, preventing UV radiation from damaging the skin. Thus, melanin may act as a potent form of protection from the sun’s rays. Recent studies call for additional research that could provide a better understanding of melanin’s photoprotective properties. Suntan from UVB rays stimulates melanin and has been shown to provide modest protection from DNA damage induced by sun exposure. (Miyamura, 2011) It is important to be aware that UVA-only indoor tanning beds do not induce melanin synthesis, and, therefore, do not confer any sun protection. (Nilsen, 2016) In other words, going to a tanning booth to get a base ‘tan’ before taking a trip to Florida in the winter is purely cosmetic and does not provide protection once laying on the beach in the sun. Plus, the UVA rays are known to be the most damaging to the skin.

What about Vitamin D? “Since sun screens absorb, block or reflect UV rays, they can interfere with the body’s ability to synthesize vitamin D.” (DePaulo Correa, 2015) In addition to factors such as what type of sunscreen is applied, the thickness and completeness of the layer applied,

Protecting your skin from the inside out: Studies have shown that astaxanthin, a carotenoid naturally occurring in food such as krill and salmon, increases the skin’s resistance to both UVA and UVB light (Nakajima, 2012; Imokawa, 2014) Consider oral supplementation or look for a sunblock containing astaxanthin and apply topically. Most important of all, a healthy, whole foods diet consisting of fruits, veggies and good fats lends antioxidants and omega 3 oils for skin health and natural sun protection. (Xavier, 2016; Malagoli, 2015) Interestingly, omega 3 fatty acids have been shown to elevate the sunburn threshold. (McCusker, 2010)

The most effective strategies for protecting oneself from the harmful effects of the sun not only benefit the skin, but support overall health and wellbeing. Choosing mineral based sunscreens free from hormone disrupting chemicals helps reduce the toxic burden of 21st century living as does eating a well-balance Mediterranean-type diet. Boosting Omega-3 fatty acids whether by choosing foods that contain them or by nutritional supplementation is a sun protection strategy that is easy to adopt and impactful to health in many ways. The science clearly supports the connection between some of the most healthful foods and the skin benefits they confer. Diet and lifestyle choices are commonly tied to the prevention of conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, but it took many years before this thinking became mainstream. Of course, preventing skin cancer by minimizing sun exposure is a well-accepted strategy, but combining this with specific dietary interventions as mentioned above provides a comprehensive, holistic approach.

Time of year, time of day, latitude, skin type, exposed body area or health conditions of the patient all affect the amount of vitamin D that may be synthesized by any one person. (DePaulo Correa, 2015) Researchers agree, all these factors must be taken into consideration when exposing skin to sunlight so that a person is not overexposed to harmful UV radiation that may impact risk factors for melanoma. Having regular blood tests done to measure vitamin D levels is important to one’s health. Generally, a combination of safe sun exposure and vitamin D3 supplementation is considered beneficial, especially when vitamin D levels are low.


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