I have written several times in the past about both sunscreen and the importance of sun exposure for your health. While conventional wisdom has us slathering on sunscreen every single day of the year and preventing sun exposure, it is important to remember that sun exposure has many health benefits and that many commercial sunscreens are actually quite toxic and might be doing more harm than good. Since I have written in the past about the benefits of sun exposure, in this article I will focus on some of the chemicals in sunscreens that should be avoided.
Endocrine Disrupting UV Filters
Many sunscreens use chemical UV blockers like benzophenone and oxybenzone. These chemicals block UVB rays and are designed to be absorbed into the skin, which you might think is a good thing, but with closer examination anything that is absorbed into the skin is absorbed into the body. Oxybenzone, for example, was found in the urine, breast milk, and plasma of people who applied it, and was found in 96% of urine samples collected in the US between 2003 and 2004.
These chemical UV filters are unfortunately unstable when they are exposed to UV light. This makes absolutely no sense at all considering that we are wearing them in the sun. When exposed to UV light, the chemical blocks can form reactive oxygen species (ROS) which causes the very DNA damage that we are trying to prevent. This means that the use of chemical sunscreens could actually increase the risk of developing skin cancer!
It is also worth noting that these same chemicals are potential endocrine disrupting chemicals, meaning that, in several animal studies, applying these chemicals topically affects hormone levels.
Like most cosmetics, many sunscreen products use parabens as a preservative to extend shelf life. These substances are concerning in that they readily absorb them through our skin and are found extensively in our urine. In fact, parabens are now being found in the urine of newborn infants. The problem here is that parabens have been linked to many health conditions, including airborne and food allergies, DNA damage to sperm, and elevated stress hormone levels in pregnant women and their newborns.
Safe Sunscreen Options
Sunscreens can often do more harm than good. In addition to the chemical exposure, they prevent the inflammation caused by sunburn and allow us to stay longer in the sun. Sunburn is a great signal to us that it is time to get out of the sun!
I think that smart, time-limited exposure to the sun is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. The sun and even UV rays are important for our skin health, our bone health, and our mental health. The goal is to stay in the sun just long enough to NOT burn. We all have different skin tones and need to learn how to measure our own safe levels of sun exposure. It is best to build up your time in the sun gradually, and get into the shade or cover up when you have had enough sun exposure. It is healthy to get a tan, but you want to get out of the sun before you burn.
Physical barrier sunscreens are the best option. Remember the old zinc oxide that used to be popular with surfers that came in those nice, fluorescent colors? Zinc oxide is an excellent sunscreen because it sits on top of the skin and does not get absorbed into the body. It blocks both UVB and UVA rays and is not subject to oxidative damage. Unfortunately, it is white and this deters many people from using it. Watch out for nanoparticle zinc oxide, which does allow the zinc to be absorbed into the skin. This is NOT what you want as a safe sunscreen option.
Interestingly, eating a wide variety of antioxidants is a fabulous way to protect your skin from sun damage. The antioxidant properties of polyphenols, carotenoids, lycopene, and anthocyanins, all found in a variety of fruits, vegetables, coffee, and green tea are excellent for preventing oxidative damage all over the body, including the skin. So you could think of a healthy, whole foods diet as your edible sunscreen.
You could certainly take some of these antioxidants as a supplement for added protection. There is also astaxanthin, an extremely potent antioxidant that, when taken orally, can prevent sunburn and Nicotinamide riboside, a derivative of vitamin B3, that can also prevent the DNA damage done by the sun. Nicotinamide riboside has been shown to prevent skin cancers, not including melanomas.
Dr. Klearman has written many articles on this subject. Click here to find all the pertinent information and advice. If you have questions about this article or any of the recommended supplements listed below, please contact Dr. Klearman.