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Rethinking Sunscreen

Updated: May 7



Sunscreen has always been a topic of debate for me. With a longstanding belief that the chemicals contained in sunscreens could potentially pose more harm than the sun's rays themselves, I've historically steered clear of these products. Living in Mexico and spending years under the sun have only deepened my resolve. Yet, the ever-present risk of skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S. [3]. propelled me to delve deeper into the world of sun protection. What I discovered was both enlightening and surprising.



But First... The Importance of Vitamin D from the Sun

Ultraviolet (UV) exposure is the primary method for increasing serum vitamin D levels, which offers numerous health benefits [5]. Higher levels of vitamin D are associated with protection against cancer development, including melanoma [5] and the effects of flu like symptoms such as Covid-19. Latitude, season, skin color, and sun protection determine UV absorption and vitamin D production [5].


Optimizing Vitamin D Production

  1. Serum vitamin D levels less than 16 nmol/L increase morbidity through increased non-cutaneous disease [5].

  2. Sunscreen only minimally lowers vitamin D production, and increasing UV exposure without causing sunburn maximizes vitamin D production [5].

  3. Skin color, measured using the Fitzpatrick scale, affects vitamin D production, with darker skin requiring larger doses of UV radiation to generate the same amount of vitamin D as lighter skin [5].

Factors Affecting Vitamin D Synthesis

Factor

Impact

Clothing and UV avoidance

Decreases vitamin D production

[5]

Geographic location

Higher latitudes reduce UV radiation and vitamin D synthesis

[5]

Cloud cover

Clouds block UV radiation, reducing vitamin D production

[5]

Altitude

Higher altitudes allow more UV radiation penetration for vitamin D synthesis

[5]

Regular sunscreen use does not cause vitamin D deficiency, and studies have shown that sunscreen alone does not lead to vitamin D deficiency [5]. Vitamin D has been reported to induce apoptosis in many cancer cell lines, such as prostate, breast, and colon, and has protective benefits on the skin post-UV exposure [5]. It also regulates and suppresses the inflammatory response of respiratory epithelial cells and macrophages, potentially reducing death through cathelicidin and defensin induction [5]. Vitamin D supplementation may reduce death through cathelicidin and defensin induction, potentially playing a role in reducing severe COVID-19 infections [5].


Gary and I did extensive research into Vitamin D during the early days of Covid. Watch our video here

 

Beyond Chemicals... who knew?

At the heart of sun protection lies two primary types of sunscreens: mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreens, which I was unaware of until my research, utilize zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to form a physical barrier against the sun's damaging UV rays. This was a revelation for me, offering a potentially safer alternative to the chemical sunscreens that rely on organic filters like oxybenzone and avobenzone to absorb these rays. The distinction highlighted a new perspective on how we can shield our skin from the sun's harmful effects.


Mineral vs. Chemical Sunscreens

Mineral (or physical) sunscreens contain the active ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which create a physical barrier on the skin that reflects UV light. They don't absorb into the skin [8]. Mineral sunscreens offer the most protection because they create a physical separation between the skin and the sun's UV rays [8]. They have a chalky, white appearance that serves as a visual reminder to reapply them every 2 hours, especially after swimming or sweating [8].


On the other hand, chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays by changing their chemical structure to reduce sun damage. They contain ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone [8]. Chemical sunscreens wear off more quickly and need to be reapplied every couple of hours, especially in humid climates or when swimming/sweating [8].

There are also hybrid sunscreens that contain a combination of mineral and chemical active ingredients, allowing for a thinner formulation that rubs in better [8]. Additionally, certain clothing and hats with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) can provide physical sun protection [8].



Key Differences

  1. Application: Mineral sunscreens provide immediate protection upon application, while chemical sunscreens need about 20 minutes to absorb into the skin to be effective [9].

  2. Skin Sensitivity: Mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions, and are generally considered reef-friendly. Chemical sunscreens may cause irritation in some individuals, and some ingredients have raised concerns about absorption into the bloodstream and impact on coral reefs [9].

  3. Texture and Appearance: Mineral sunscreens can leave a white cast on the skin and may be less effective in hot/humid conditions. Chemical sunscreens tend to have a lighter texture and are easier to spread, making them more suitable for daily use [9].

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection, has an SPF of 30 or higher, and is water-resistant [9]. Ultimately, the key is to choose a sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, whether it's mineral, chemical, or a hybrid. Some protection is better than none [8].


 

Ingredients: Lets Take a Closer Look

Sunscreen is crucial for protecting our skin from harmful UV rays, reducing the risk of skin cancer, and preventing premature aging. However, concerns have been raised about the potential health impacts of certain chemicals used in sunscreen formulations. Below I outline some of these concerns and the chemicals involved.


Chemical Sunscreen Agents

Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing UV radiation, transforming it into heat, and then dissipating it from the skin. Some common chemical agents include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Concerns about these chemicals involve both human health and environmental impacts.


Human Health Concerns

  • Hormonal Disruption: Some studies suggest that chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate may have estrogen-like effects in the body, potentially disrupting normal hormone functions. This disruption can affect reproductive health and development, particularly in children.

  • Skin Allergies: Certain individuals may develop allergic reactions to ingredients in chemical sunscreens, leading to dermatitis or other skin irritations.

  • Systemic Absorption: Research, including studies by the FDA, has shown that some sunscreen chemicals can be absorbed into the bloodstream at levels exceeding safety thresholds. The long-term effects of this systemic absorption are still being studied.



These chemicals are systemically absorbed into the body and can be detected in the skin and blood weeks after use [6]. They should be avoided due to their potential endocrine-disrupting and toxic effects [7].


Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octisalate,

Octocrylene, Homosalate, Avobenzone



*** just like food labels, if you can't pronounce it - its probably not good for you!


Environmental Impact

  • Coral Reef Damage: Chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate have been linked to coral bleaching and damage evidenced by sunscreen bans in regions like Hawaii [2] [3] [4], cannot be ignored. . These chemicals can disrupt the growth and reproduction of corals, contributing to the decline of reef ecosystems.

  • Aquatic Toxicity: Sunscreen chemicals can accumulate in water bodies, potentially harming aquatic life. Fish and other marine species may be affected by the altered water chemistry resulting from sunscreen pollutants.


 

Mineral Sunscreen Agents

In contrast to chemical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to physically block UV radiation from penetrating the skin. These ingredients are considered safer for both human health and the environment.


Advantages of Mineral Sunscreens

  • Lower Risk of Allergies: Mineral sunscreens are less likely to cause skin allergies, making them suitable for sensitive skin types.

  • No Hormonal Disruption: Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have not been linked to hormonal disruption in humans.

  • Safer for Marine Life: Mineral ingredients are generally considered safer for coral reefs and aquatic ecosystems.


Recommendations for Sunscreen Use

  • Choose Mineral Sunscreens: Opt for sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for safer protection.

  • Check for "Reef-Safe" Labels: If you're swimming in natural bodies of water, choose products labeled as "reef-safe" to minimize environmental impact.

  • Apply Adequately and Regularly: Regardless of the type, sunscreen should be applied generously and re-applied every two hours, or more frequently if swimming or sweating.

  • Consult with Healthcare Providers: If you have concerns about sunscreen allergies or sensitivities, consult a dermatologist for personalized advice.

 

Go Natural and Nourish Your Skin

Natural Sunscreen Alternatives

When seeking safer alternatives to chemical sunscreens, several natural options can provide sun protection while nourishing the skin [10]:



  1. Sun-Protective (UPF) Clothing: Garments made with tightly-woven fabrics can offer robust, broad-spectrum protection from harmful UV rays, making them one of the best natural alternatives [10].

  2. Plant-Based Oils: Coconut oil can block around 20% of UV rays through the compound lauric acid while also nourishing the skin, but requires frequent reapplications [10].

  • Raspberry Seed Oil can provide up to 50 SPF protection from UVB rays and 8-10 SPF for UVA rays, in addition to anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits [10].

  • Carrot Seed Oil is a powerful antioxidant that can provide up to 40 SPF protection [10].

  • Olive Oil can provide an SPF of around 7-8, making it a common household alternative [10].

  • Wheat Germ Oil can provide up to 20 SPF protection and has skin-nourishing Vitamin E [10].

  1. Mineral Sunscreens: Zinc Oxide is a naturally occurring mineral that creates a physical barrier to block UVA and UVB rays, with SPF ratings of 30 and above [10].

  2. Other Natural Ingredients:

  • Shea Butter can provide a bonus level of protection with an SPF generally between 3-6 [10].

  • Aloe Vera can provide up to 20 SPF protection while also soothing and hydrating the skin [10].

Additionally, a good diet with foods high in antioxidants and healthy fats can help protect skin from sun damage [10].


 

My Personal Conclusion

My exploration into the world of sunscreen has transformed my skepticism into informed caution. Learning about mineral sunscreens opened my eyes to safer alternatives that align more closely with my health and environmental values. Proper sun exposure is crucial, especially when living in a sunny region like Mexico. While using sunscreen may prevent skin cancer, it's equally important to strike a balance that allows for adequate vitamin D production. Vitamin D offers numerous health benefits, including supporting the immune system, reducing inflammation, and potentially playing a protective role against severe COVID-19 infections and other flu like symptoms.

To optimize vitamin D levels, aim for brief, controlled sun exposure during the mid-day hours when UV rays are strongest. Seek shade, wear protective clothing, and apply a broad-spectrum, mineral-based sunscreen during extended outdoor activities, reapplying often. By being sun-smart and making informed choices about sunscreen and sun exposure, you can reap the benefits of vitamin D while minimizing the risks associated with excessive UV radiation.


 


References


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