With summer here, you may be thinking of restocking your sunscreen supply. On the surface, the idea of sunscreen makes sense. Skin cancer is the most common cancer. In fact, half of all cancer in the United States is some form of skin cancer, with melanoma being the most serious.
But cancer isn’t the only threat lurking in those UV rays. In addition to skin cancer, extended sun exposure can lead to dilated blood vessels, heat stroke, heat rash, wrinkles, changes in the texture of your skin, freckles and dry skin.
Given this, it may come as a surprise to learn that you need some unprotected sun exposure. When exposed to sunlight, your body manufactures vitamin D, and more and more research has shown that vitamin D is a critical part of overall health.
Even more surprising to you may be the fact that the majority of products on the market designed to protect you from the sun can actually be hazardous to your health.
Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid
When it comes to sunscreen, one of the first things people look for is the SPF (skin protection factor), as well as the spectrum of coverage that the product offers. The SPF indicates how long the product will protect you from getting sunburned, while the spectrum of coverage tells you if the sunscreen absorbs/blocks UVA or UVB rays.
UVA rays are more likely to lead to premature aging of your skin, while UVB rays are more likely to cause sunburn. For this reason, your best sunscreen option is to find a product that offers “full spectrum” protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
Once you’ve found a full-spectrum product with a higher SPF, you need to take great care in reading the sunscreen ingredient list. More and more research is showing that many of the top sunscreens available may be great at protecting you against external damage from the sun, but are causing damage internally.
There are several questionable sunscreen ingredients, but the five worst offenders are:
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), including octyl-dimethyl PABA
- Benzophenones, especially benzophenone-3
- Cinnamates, namely octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC)
- 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC)
PABA is one of the most common ingredients in sunscreen, but can cause and itchy rash for many people. If you have sensitive skin or if you get a rash after applying some skin products, avoid any product containing PABA.
The next four ingredients on the list (benzophenone-3, OMC, homosalate and 4-MBC),have all been found to contain estrogenic properties when absorbed through the skin.
This means that they not only disrupt hormone production, but they can also negatively affect brain development and reproductive function. Of the four, 4-MBC is the worst offender in this regard.
And get this: These chemicals — particularly 4-MBC –have been found in fish from lakes where hoards of sunscreen-slathered people also swim. This means that the fish on your plate could contain the very same harmful chemicals you just put on your skin.
While more research does need to be done in this area, the findings are worrisome enough to warrant avoiding these ingredients. We are exposed to all kinds of toxins every day, and a higher risk may be associated with cumulative exposure.
Fortunately, there are sunscreens that don’t contain these potentially harmful ingredients. Instead, they rely on zinc oxide as a natural sunblock. While zinc oxide can often be chalky, many recent formulas pair it with natural oils and antioxidants, such as coconut oil, grape seed oil and green tea.
And speaking of antioxidants…
Protect Yourself From the Inside Out
In addition to protecting your skin from the outside, there are a variety of nutrients you can take that will amplify the protective benefits of your skin from the inside too — namely vitamins C and E. Research studies have shown that these antioxidants will provide you with added protection to prevent UV-light induced inflammation, dryness and damage to the skin.
One study in particular found that volunteers who took vitamin C and vitamin E every day for 50 days were able to protect themselves from sunburn more effectively than those volunteers taking one or no antioxidants.
Enjoy the Sun Safely
While sun protection can appear confusing on the surface, hopefully this article has helped put the issue into perspective. First and foremost, yes, you do need some unprotected exposure to sunlight, ideally every day, to help you from becoming vitamin D deficient.
Aim for 15 to 30 minutes, depending on your skin tone and geographical longitude. The farther north you are and the darker your complexion, the longer your exposure can be. Just don’t exceed 30 minutes unprotected. If you are fair skinned and/or live closer to the equator where the sun’s rays are stronger, 15 minutes is your best bet.
When looking for a sunscreen to use after your 15 to 30 unprotected minutes, read the ingredients carefully and choose a product that uses zinc oxide rather than the five sunscreen ingredients listed above. And be sure to apply the sunscreen correctly.
According to a June 2002 article from the Archives of Dermatology, most people only apply 20 percent to 60 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen.
You need to apply the equivalent of one teaspoon of sunscreen to your chest, back, face, neck, and each arm and leg if these parts of your body are going to be exposed to direct sunlight. Despite your good intentions, you will still burn if you don’t put enough on. Extra sunscreen never hurt, especially on your face, neck and ears.
Lastly, take 1,000-3,000 mg of vitamin C a day, in divided dosages, and 1,000-2,000 IU of vitamin E a day to keep your body protected from the inside out.
And, if after all of these precautions you still end up with a sunburn, aloe vera will help to take away the sting and cool your skin. Another effective remedy is to mix 1/2 cup of baking soda with 1/2 cup of cornstarch in a bath of lukewarm water. Soak as long and as often as possible.
Keep an Eye Out for Skin Cancer
While I’m on the subject of sunning safely, I’d like to make one last point about skin cancer. Early detection of skin cancer equals a 95 percent chance of it being cured. So be sure to regularly check your skin for abnormal or changing spots.
Keep an eye out for:
- A spot that has changed in color, size or shape over several weeks or months
- A pimple or bump that won’t heal
- Spots that are irregularly shaped
- Spots that are more than one color (can be black, brown, red or blue)
If you notice any of these signs, talk with your doctor as soon as possible. Better to be safe than sorry.
 Schlumpf M et al. 2001. In vitro and in vivo estrogenicity of UV screens. Environmental Health Perspectives 109(3):239-44.
 Fuchs J and Kern H. Modulation of UV-light-induced skin inflammation by D-alpha-tocopherol and L-ascorbic acid: a clinical study using solar simulated radiation. Free Radic Biol Med. 1998;25:1006-12.
 Schneider, J. The teaspoon rule of applying sunscreen. Arch Dermatol. 2002 Jun;138(6):838-9.