As soon as the weather gets warmer all you hear about is covering yourself head-to-toe in sunscreen to protect yourself from burns and skin cancer. Many beauty and skin care products are also made with sunscreen. There exists a current belief that sun exposure = skin cancer and that sunscreen = skin cancer protection. For me though, sunscreen is my last resort. I just don’t use it, unless I’m in a very hot climate and unable to get out of the sun (such as on a long boat trip drinking rum punch).
The sun isn’t all bad for us anyway. The sun’s rays interact with our skin to produce vitamin D, which we need for optimal bone and muscle health. When we apply sunscreen, it blocks the skin’s ability to produce vitamin D. Since it’s impossible for adults to get enough vitamin D from food alone, mid-day sun exposure on bare skin is important. In my opinion, due to the media touting the bad effects of the sun’s rays, I feel that too many people are not getting enough sun. Plant sources provide us with vitamin D2, however vitamin D3 is more beneficial for us. Good sources of vitamin D3 are few and far between with fish being the highest sources (according to Boston University researchers, 3.5 ounces of wild salmon contains just under 1000 IU’s of vitamin D).
During the winter months in Canada, we can only obtain miniscule amounts of vitamin D from the sun. So my protocol is to take vitamin D3 drops in the winter months – about 8000 IU daily. Through years of experimenting and testing my blood serum vitamin D levels, as long as I am regularly taking these drops, my blood range falls with a healthy functional range. In my opinion, oral vitamin D is far inferior to vitamin D from the sun, so during July and August, I take much less vitamin D; however, I aim to expose myself to moderate and safe sun exposure mid day (about half hour) – until my skin turns an ever-so-tiny amount of pink. I use the shadow test – if my shadow is shorter than I am, this is the time I am absorbing the most vitamin D from the sun – however be careful because this is also the time skin will begin to burn, so limit this sun exposure, depending on the fairness of your skin.
My Concerns with Sunscreen
The most common sunscreens contain chemical UV filters, which may mimic hormones and cause skin allergies. Typical active ingredients include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Oxybenzone is added to nearly 65 percent of non-mineral sunscreens and can cause allergic skin reactions (Rodriguez 2006). It is also a weak estrogen and can have potential anti-androgenic effects. The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has detected oxybenzone in more than 96 percent of the American population. While you can avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone, you are exposed to the other active ingredients listed above as well. Further, most sunscreens contain ingredients that act as penetrating enhancers so the product can adhere to your skin better. Because of this, chemicals are absorbed into the body and can be measured in your blood, breast milk and urine samples.
Banana Boat boasts that their Kids sunscreen is Paediatrician tested, ultra gentle and has no added fragrance. However, if you’ve been following the news lately, Health Canada is investigating reports of babies being burned by Banana Boat sunscreen. The EWG ranks Banana Boat as a high-hazard product with moderate concerns of developmental and reproductive toxicity, moderate concerns of allergies and immunotoxicity and low concerns of cancer. Under high concerns, EWG lists biochemical or cellular level changes, organ level toxicity, multiple additive exposure sources, contamination concerns and irritation to skin, eyes or lungs.
Alternatives to Chemical Sunscreens
Regular sunscreen is my last resort of protection. When I must wear sunscreen, I opt for a mineral sunscreen that is made with zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
The EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens is a good resource to find a sunscreen that fits your needs.
Can Food Increase Sun Tolerance?
Yes! It absolutely does for me. Much of my natural sun protection comes from eating a highly anti-inflammatory diet. I have been following the ketogenic diet for about 18 months now. This means I eat a ton of healthy fats and I do not eat any sugar and extremely low carbohydrates (under 35 grams per day of carbs). As a result, I notice that I am able to tolerate much more sun without burning – even during the midday sun. Over the past year and a half, I have noticed that my sun exposure has significantly increased, despite not wearing sunscreen. On two occasions over the past year, I went down south in the winter and was able to stay in the sun for a significant period of time without burning. Diet plays a big role in protecting skin from damage, including UV damage – AS WELL AS helping to prevent wrinkles!
Which foods are protective? Some examples of foods that I eat to build up my epidermal armour are:
- Healthy saturated fats (coconut oil and avocado)
- Anti-oxidants such as lycopene (tomatoes, with cooked tomatoes containing higher amounts of lycopene than raw), beta carotene (sweet potatoes and carrots) and vitamin E (almonds).
- Omega 3 oils (supplements are great and also cold water fish).
- Some teas (white and green teas are the highest in polyphenols, which protect your skin from UV rays. Matcha green tea is one of the most powerful for this).
- Dark chocolate – I love the Bulletproof chocolate, which contains 78% dark chocolate and healthy fats derived from coconut oil.
- Greens (broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables for example, can protect your skin from sun damage).
- Olive oil (I use about 4-5 T per day of this yummy oil)
Avoid the following foods (or at least reduce as much as possible), as they decrease sun tolerance:
- Junk foods and processed foods
- Vegetable oils
Rodriguez E, Valbuena MC, Rey M, Porras de Quintana L. 2006. Causal agents of photoallergic contact dermatitis diagnosed in the national institute of dermatology of Colombia. Photodermatol Photoimmunol Photomed 22(4): 189-192.