Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how much marketing has influenced my life. Especially growing up, what toys I “should” like, what clothes I “should” wear (hello, Abercrombie + Fitch and Hollister), even what foods to eat. Do you ever think even today as an adult how so much of that influence when you were young has led to the choices you make today or the products you buy without any second thought?

Sunscreen is one of those topics that I believe many of us really don’t think about. In 99.9% of my clients, all generally check the box that they regularly use sunscreen- and rarely do I get a question on why this could be harmful.

To me, it’s one of those things that has been ingrained in us so deeply that we don’t even consider asking WHY we have been told to use it- To prevent skin cancer, of course!mm To slow aging on our face, of course! It’s even in most tinted moisturizers that a lot of women wear daily and it’s an essential in our beach bags, especially with little kids.

But have we ever stopped to wonder how this amazingly, incredibly designed human body was made “faulty” to not be able to handle the sun? Or how our ancestors somehow managed to survive all those decades and centuries of life without SPF 50?

Little Lesson on Sun Rays: UVA + UVB

The “big issue” (or so we’re told) is that the UVB rays that come from the sun burn our skin and are responsible for triggering skin cancer. The problem is that UVB rays are ALSO responsible for synthesizing Vitamin D in our skin, which is the main way we receive Vitamin D (there are only trace amounts in certain foods, mainly fatty fishes and eggs).

  • It’s estimated that over 50% of our population (and again, about 99.9% of all my clients) are deficient in Vitamin D
  • Even using a low SPF of 8 can decrease Vitamin D synthesis by 95% and an SPF of 15 by 98%

Yes, we know that sunscreen may help us prevent skin cancer, but low vitamin D has been linked with bladder, breast, colon, lung, ovarian, and yes, even SKIN cancer. So while we are using sunscreen to help us prevent one type of cancer, we in turn may be putting ourselves at greater risk of developing a slew of other cancers.

And the even worse part? The more deadly forms of skin cancers are from UVA rays, which many sunscreens do NOT block. Aka most sunscreen choices aren’t even blocking the more harmful rays that are the ones actually preventing cancer.

What does SPF Really Mean?

Many assume that the higher the SPF the better, but it is just a time-based indicator- SPF 15 buys you an extra 15 minutes in the sun before you start to burn, but it’s relative based on your skin type, how quickly you burn, etc. Also, most people that use higher amounts only apply once thinking the higher coverage number guarantees them coverage all day and don’t re-apply.

The Vitamin D Epidemic

Okay, so forgetting about sunscreen for a moment, I want us to think about modern life. We wake up (indoors), go to work (indoors), go to events, workouts, dinners, commitments (usually indoors) and eventually go to bed (indoors). When we do go outside, we then slather ourselves in sunscreen to “keep ourselves protected” from the sun, which we rarely see in the first place.

What makes matters worse are those that live in colder climates who only have exposure to good, sunny days less than half the year. For them (me included) my one shot at Vitamin D production comes in those 4-5 months that I can get outdoors and make it/store it for the winter…that is, if I go outside without sunscreen to block the rays that make it.

What’s more? A study from Sweden in 2014 found that sunbathing (aka NOT using sunscreen) actually decreased all-causes of death. It found that those who avoided sun exposure had a 2x greater risk of dying in comparison to those with greater skin exposure.

Two Types of Sunscreen: Chemical + Physical

Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays while physical sunscreens just block the rays. In the US, sunscreen makers only have 8 ingredients to choose from (in contrast to Europe who has 27). Here is a breakdown of these chemicals and the risks that each may pose:

  • Oxybenzone:
    • In ⅔ of all sunscreens on the market
    • Risk: endocrine (hormone) disruptor, skin allergies/sensitivities, causes oxidative damage to our cells, and a congenital birth defect known as Hirshsprung’s Disease that prevents babies from passing stool
  • Octinoxate:
    • Often found in more “natural” sunscreens
    • Risk: Thyroid hormone disruption in children, reproductive issues, contact dermatitis, increased risk for growth of breast cancer cells
  • Avobenzone:
    • Risk: acts as an obesogen (aka making us fatter!), when combined with chlorine during swimming it can become even more toxic
  • Homosalate:
    • Risk: Endocrine disruptor with estrogen-like properties
  • Others to avoid: Octisalate, Octocrylene, Avobenzone

Better Options for Chemical Protection

For chemical protection, the best two ingredients to use are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Both are minerals that will sit on the top layer of your skin and will reflect/scatter both UVA and UVB rays. The downside is that they tend to be the more pasty/white looking sunscreens- which is why people turned to alternate chemical options for less of a white look.

  • In general, look for products with at least 15-20% zinc oxide as the one and ONLY active sunscreen ingredient.
  • It’s estimated that for every % of zinc oxide it provides 1 SPF. So a product with 5% zinc oxide will be comparable to SPF 5.

Some companies that make clean versions include:

Another Linkage: Vegetable Oil Intake + Skin Burning

Not trying to complicate things further for you, but there is indication that your DIET may have an impact on how you burn- and I can personally attest to this.

Like many others with marketing claims, a few years back I went heavy into anti-dairy and joined the “plant-based” movement with gluten-free, dairy-free, nut milks, nut butters, etc. all in the name of health. I rarely used butter or animal fats and was using a lot of processed ingredients that had a label of “healthy” but weren’t exactly healthy at all…aka very processed.

Almond milk with a long list of ingredients, gluten-free crackers with canola or sunflower oil, salad dressings with similar oils, etc. were my go-to foods.

Fast forward to the past few years, the last two specifically, where I have really transitioned our family to mostly butter, ghee, olive oil (when not cooked, just cold/room temperature) and occasional avocado oil from Primal Kitchen or Chosen Foods.

I have been outside daily for 2-4 hours at a time working on my garden in a tank top and shorts and I have yet to even really get a tan- and definitely have not burned one bit. I am actually a bit mad that I am not tanner given how much time I’ve spent outside, but I’m also really impressed at what a difference this is from past years. I did burn when we went on vacation in February, but that was a full day out on a tiki boat in the middle of the ocean in full sun after a winter indoors (LOL), but since getting consistent sun exposure since early May my skin has adapted and I haven’t used any form of sun protection- at all.

Just another factor to consider that what you’re eating may have an even greater impact than just the sun alone!

My Personal Recommendation: Get Smart Sun Exposure + Only Use Chemical Barriers for long days

What I’m not recommending is to run freely, naked outside for 8 hours after you haven’t been outside in the sun all winter or even all summer as of yet. Obviously be smart about your choices, but I encourage you to weigh your pros and cons each time you are going outside. Here are some tips to think about:

  • Try to get early sun exposure in the day:  Early sun isn’t as strong as later day sun and can help “train” your skin to be better at receiving the sun as the summer goes on. Plus, early sun also triggers your body’s cortisol response and circadian rhythm helping with both daytime energy AND nighttime sleep.
  • Use physical barriers like clothing and hats on longer days in the sun: If you are sensitive, try to opt for hats, long sleeves, etc. first before chemical sunscreen.
  • Don’t wear sunglasses: Another hit, I know. But sunglasses stop the optic nerve in the eyes from sensing the UV rays which alert the brain to make more melanin in the skin- this helps us to not burn as badly. When blocking the UV rays, you prevent the body from producing a tan- the body thinks it is still in the dark and leaves you more susceptible to burning.
  • Lastly, pick a safer chemical sunscreen: I do have some on hand in case we need it, but I have yet to put any on my daughter this year and she has been outside with me every time I have been, also in shorts and a t-shirt or tank. If we do end up at the beach, I’ll bring my BeautyCounter sunscreen with us just in case, but I won’t start the day off with it. I crave Vitamin D more than sun protection!

I hope this helps you be smart with your sun this summer- remember, winter Vitamin D levels are stored in the summer months!