Americans have a long-running love affair with sunscreen. These days you can choose if you want a lotion, a spray, or a mist. After a trip down the makeup isle you’ll be getting SPF just from powdering your nose. And who needs SPF 30 when you could have SPF 90? It almost seems like we’ve become “afraid” of the sun—but is it sunscreen we should be afraid of?
At least 75 percent of our body’s vitamin D supply is made when a type of cholesterol in the skin is exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light. When you hide from the sun, you’re much more likely to become deficient in vitamin D, appropriately known as “the sunshine vitamin.” Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and bone mineralization—a deficiency that causes rickets (bowing of the legs and stunted growth) in children, and osteomalacia (a condition known as “soft bones”) in adults.
Optimal sunlight exposure depends on many factors, including an individual’s genetic heritage. Darker skinned people require more sunlight exposure than those with lighter skin to synthesize the same amount of vitamin D. This fact alone demonstrates why a “one-size-fits-all” sun exposure prescription just will not work for everyone.
Being out in the sun for at least 30 minutes while wearing sunscreen will not prevent vitamin D deficiency. Since sunscreen absorbs the ultraviolet rays that are needed for our bodies to synthesize vitamin D, constant sunscreen use has been found to decrease vitamin D levels in the blood.
Chemical sunscreens absorb UVE radiation, but not all prevent UVA light—which penetrates the farthest into the skin and is involved in the formation of melanoma. UVA light suppresses the immune system, specifically causing a loss of Langerhan’s cells, which are designed to keep the skin healthy and protect it from free-radical damage, bacteria, and other pathogens.
Over 15 years ago Canadian researcher and chemist Hans Larsen, M.Sc., ChE., agreed that chemical sunscreens may help promote the formation of skin cancer. Larsen explained that most chemical sunscreens contain benzophenone or its derivatives (oxybenzone, benzophenone-3) as their active ingredients, and in an article in the International Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, Larsen wrote “Benzophenone is one of the most power free-radical generators known to man.”
It doesn’t help that people using sunscreen usually stay in the sun longer than others who don’t because they develop a false sense of security when they’re not getting sunburned. While sunscreens do prevent burning and protect against the formation of actinic keratoses—believed to be a precursor of one type of skin cancer—it hasn’t been proven to protect against melanoma or basal cell carcinoma—the most prominent forms.
Furthermore, a recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that topical vitamin A—a common ingredient in sunscreen—may speed the development of cancer. A one-year study by the FDA concluded that the tumors and lesions of lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream developed up to 21 percent sooner that the control group after both groups were exposed to nine minutes of maximum intensity sunlight daily.
So what can you do to practice “safe sun?” Multiple studies have found a link between melanoma prevention and omega-3 oils. In fact, an Australian study yielded a 40 percent drop in melanoma among those who ate a regular diet of fish.
I recommend adding daily omega-3 rich Super-EPA (1-3 daily), and Flax Seeds or Chia Seeds (2-4 tablespoons) into your daily regime for a diet high in skin protective essential fatty acids.
In addition, many studies have suggested that increasing your intake of antioxidants is a very important strategy for preventing skin cancer and lessening the damage to skin caused by sun exposure. Take a broad-spectrum antioxidant and make sure your multi contains Beta Carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E, Selenium, and Zinc. Proanthocyanidins found in cranberry juice, berries, pine bark, and grape seed extract are also top notch for skin health.
When you are purchasing and using sunscreen, choose one that contains zinc oxide. Zinc is a mineral helpful for skin health and healing. It is a key component of that old standby calamine lotion. As for titantium dioxide, the other commonly found ingredient in sunscreens these days, I’m really unsure. This is a strong chemical that is not “native” to the body.
Chemical sunscreens—such as those that contain benzophenone—work by absorbing UVB rays. Inert minerals—such as zinc oxide—work by reflecting UVA and UVB rays away from the skin instead of absorbing them. This difference makes physical sunscreens much safer to use than their chemical counterparts.
Whether you choose to use sunscreen or not, limit your exposure and always avoid getting burned. As the sun comes out and we venture back outside, start with a few minutes each day and slowly build up your tolerance.
Dr. Anne Lousie Gittleman