Simply Sun Savvy

We are inundated with advice to avoid sun over-exposure in order to prevent skin cancer and aged skin. While it’s very true we should be respectful of the sun’s rays, it’s important to take a balanced approached to our relationship with the sun. After all, it is the most powerful provider of essential healing and growth energy in our universe. At the very least, sunlight is an important source of vitamin D – which is crucial not only for strong bones but also for the robust immune system you need to prevent cancer!

On the flipside, we must also be aware that some of the sun protection crèmes on the market are also linked with scary side effects, up to and including skin diseases. You might be surprised to learn that some commercial sunscreens contain ingredients that are proven in studies to mutate into toxic substances when exposed to sunlight. Because some of these mutagens could be carcinogenic, various sunscreen options may protect against sunburn while at the same time increase your risk of sunlight-related cancers.

Here’s what you need to know:

The two major rays we hear about are UV-A and UV-B. Keeping track of what they do is as easy as A and B: the UV-A rays are aging rays that penetrate deep into the skin and are mostly associated with wrinkling and skin again. The UV-B rays are the ones that cause your skin to burn.

To protect your skin with a product, your typical choices are sunscreens and sunblocks: sunscreens rely on chemicals to absorb harmful UV-B rays, while sunblocks form a physical barrier that prevents the rays of the sun from penetrating the skin. Sunblocks are the only form of sunscreen that are effective against UVA rays, and they usually contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. When you are shopping for sunscreen, be sure that your choice is a “broad spectrum” one, meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. You’ll want to do some homework, and learn to read labels – because that’s where you’ll learn all you need to know about a product.

The true cost of sunscreen:

Many of the ingredients used in sunscreen products are xenoestrogenic (say zeeno-estrogenic), meaning that they interfere with your natural hormones. Xenoestrogens are implicated in everything from low sperm count, infertility and breast development in males to infertility, weight gain, reproductive diseases and breast cancer in females.  In a study of common sunscreen ingredients, including benzophenone-3 (Bp-3), homosalate (HMS), 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC), octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC), and octyl-dimethyl-PABA (OD-PABA), animals exposed to these ingredients experienced an increased proliferation of MCF-7 breast cancer cells. Use of 4-MBC, OMC, and Bp-3 also resulted in an increase in the weight of the uterus, showing that these chemicals affect other reproductive organs, as well. Only one chemical, butyl-methoxydibenzoylmethane (B-MDM), did not result in estrogenic activity. So as you’re adding up your exposure to xenoestrogens, don’t forget to consider your sunscreen. (See Simply Beautiful Skin for more information on xenoestrogens.)

Here is a partial list of some of the dangerous sunscreen ingredients to avoid:

  • Diethylphthalate

  • 4-Methyl-Benzylidencamphor (4MBC)

  • Oxybenzone

  • Cotyl-Methoxy-Cinnamates (OMC)

  • Octyl-Dimethyl-Para-Amino-Benzoic Acid (OD-PABA)

  • Homosalate (HMS)          

  • Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and PEG derivatives

So what to do?

It’s important to find a balance that allows you access to the nourishing rays of the sun while at the same time being conscious of avoiding overexposure and burning. Enjoy carefree access to sunlight before 10am and after 4pm, when the sun’s rays are less intense. Wear light-weight palazzo pants, cotton tunics and a wide-brimmed hat for added coverage, especially during the middle part of the day. Look for sun glasses that offer both UVA and UVB protection for your eyes. (Sunlight is not only a factor in cataract formation, but squinting also leads to wrinkles!)

Because UV rays reflect off water and other surfaces, you’re not completely sheltered from intense rays even in the shade, and up to 80% of UV rays penetrate clouds. Avoid alcoholic beverages that dehydrate skin and promote burning when you’re outside, and instead sip on antioxidant-rich, iced green tea, proven in studies to protect cells from sunlight.

Of course, when you are boating, on the beach or enjoying summer sports, some form of skin protection is essential. Fortunately, non toxic options are available. Studies confirm that applying vitamin E to the skin protects against UV-B radiation, decreases the development of cancer, and helps to reverse signs of skin photo-aging. Vitamin C applied topically has proven to protect against sunburn, limit sun-induced DNA damage, and speed healing of sunburned skin. It’s also useful in delaying the onset of skin tumors, as well as in reducing wrinkling caused by UV-B rays. Research confirms that the green tea polyphenol epigallacatechin-3-gallate protects against oxidative cellular and genotoxic damage from UV-A radiation. You can also follow the lead of Hawaiians who have been using the natural sunscreen properties of coconut oil to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays for centuries!

Likewise, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are often used to block intense rays. These ingredients are often found in both cosmetics and sunscreen because it doesn't seep into the deeper layers of skin tissue and then pass into the bloodstream. According to new research, however, the form of titanium dioxide used in formulations is critical. There are two forms:  anatase and rutile. Recent studies have revealed the anatase form, typically used in sunscreens and paint, releases harmful free radicals into your system when exposed to light.  This light exposure can disrupt the DNA structure and therefore cause your skin to be more susceptible to outside threats.  What's worse is that the damage is triggered not only by natural sunlight, but also by indoor light, making you even more susceptible to these damages. On the other hand, the rutile crystalline form is an opaque version that is used as a colorant for cosmetics. Unfortunately, most cosmetics and personal care products do not label the form of titanium dioxide used, so be sure to contact the manufacturer. (Note: the manufacturer may not know what form they use, so have them do their research and follow up with you.) Avoid both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide in nanoparticle form, as the safety of these micronized minerals is questionable. (For more information, see Nanoparticles.)

Edible sunscreen

Like many of our beauty strategies, dietary choices have a major impact on your ability save your skin. Fruits and fresh vegetables are an abundant source of vitamins C and E, both clinically proven to protect us from the sun’s harmful rays. Harvard Medical School research also indicates that the antioxidant lutein found in dark green leafy vegetables can protect skin from some of the damaging effects of the sun.

Beta-carotene has been used for over thirty years to help repair sun-damaged skin. (Carotenoids are fat-soluble pigments that provide the oranges and yellows found flowers and foods.) Recent studies also show beta carotene helps to prevent DNA mutations triggered by sun exposure. Humans can’t synthesize carotenoids, so we have to get them from food. Carrots, mangoes and red peppers are familiar sources of beta-carotene, and you’ll want plenty of them in your sun protection diet. Beta carotene converts in your body to Vitamin A, which is also essential for protecting skin from damaging sun rays. Excellent food sources of vitamin A include fish oils, animal livers and herbs including paprika and alfalfa.

Other studies show that the green tea polyphenol epigallacatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) polyphenols in green tea have an ability to help prevent sun-induced aging, melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Other studies indicate that the omega 3 fat eicosapentaeneoic acid (EPA) reduces skin inflammation caused by UV rays and protects the skin at the cellular level. Be sure you are getting enough selenium from onions and garlic as well, since a deficiency of selenium has been linked to increased sun damage.

Whatever sun protection method you choose, don’t fall into the trap of believing that sunscreen allows you unlimited time in the sun or that reapplying extends the length of time you can soak up the rays—because it does not. Use sun sense!