July 4, 2014

Sun Safety: Stay Healthy this Summer with Non-toxic Solutions. ~ Dr. Jennifer Weinberg


Summer is a great time to enjoy the outdoors and soak up some sunshine!

Unfortunately, sunlight includes rays of invisible ultraviolet (UV) lights of varying wavelengths which can contribute to sunburn, accelerated skin aging and skin cancer.

While UV damage from the sun can lead to cellular damage and skin cancers, there are also health benefits which we derive from balanced sun exposure. Spending time in the sun has been shown to contribute to our health by providing:

  • regulation of alertness and sleep-wake (circadian) cycles
  • increased subcutaneous fat metabolism
  • pain-reducing (analgesic) properties
  • vitamin D production, an important fat-soluble vitamin that is linked to decreased risk of many types of cancer, autoimmune diseases and other chronic health conditions.

To safely enjoy the sun and receive these health benefits while preventing overexposure and damage, there are some important considerations:

Emerging research suggests that sunscreens may not protect against the majority of skin cancers, and many contain chemicals and toxic ingredients.

Sunscreens have been shown to reduce the risk of squamous-cell carcinoma (SCC) but not necessarily the more common basal-cell carcinoma (BCC) and malignant melanoma according to an American Cancer Society Review (Greelee 2001).

To avoid too much sun exposure, there are some less toxic and more effective steps you can take.

Use clothing, hats and shade as the best protection against sun damage.

All fabrics block UV radiation to some degree and there is also special sun-protective clothing available that provides greater protection.

Incorporate natural dietary skin support. Certain foods and nutrients may help reduce the risk of damage from sun exposure:

  • Vitamin A in the form of beta-carotene is found in foods like carrots, chlorella, spirulina, grass-fed beef liver and sweet potatoes and helps prevent and repair UV damage to the skin.
  • Astaxanthin is a carotenoid pigment found in microalgae and seafood which consumes this algae like salmon, shellfish and krill. Like beta-carotene, astaxanthin is used in our cells to prevent free-radical damage that occurs with sun exposure.
  • Fresh, unprocessed, whole foods like fruits and vegetables provide a wealth of antioxidants, essential omega-3 fatty acids and anti-inflammatory compounds which help keep our skin healthy.
  • When choosing a sunscreen during times of prolonged sun exposure, look for the safest options by keeping these tips in mind.
  • Avoid “nano” formulas: While these zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nano formulations help reduce the white film left on the skin, tiny nano particles may have a toxic effect when absorbed through the skin. Instead, look for Non-Nano Zinc Oxide sunscreens.
  • Avoid retinol and retinyl palmitate: Vitamin A is commonly used in sunscreens as an anti-oxidant to slow skin aging. Unfortunately, these forms of vitamin A have been shown to speed up the development of skin lesions and cancers when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight (NTP 2009).
  •  Avoid toxic chemical ingredients

According to the Environmental Working Group, two-thirds of sunscreens analyzed did not work well or contained potentially hazardous ingredients, including:

  • Benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone): Oxybenzone is commonly used to absorb UV light but it is also believed to cause hormone disruption and cell damage.
  • Fragrances: Synthetic fragrances should be avoided in all personal care products including sunscreens. These chemicals such as parabans, phthalates and synthetic musks are linked to endocrine disruption, reproductive impact and even cancer.
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC)
  • 3-Benzylidene camphor O
  • Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC)
  • Padimate O

Avoid spray and powdered sunscreens: These may be convenient, but they release toxic substances into the air when sprayed which we can then breathe into our lungs with unknown health impacts. Choose a cream or lotion formulation for more controlled application.

Reapply: Research suggests that all sunscreens regardless of SPF should be re-applied every 60-90 minutes since they break down and become less effective over time.



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Apprentice Editor: Emma Ruffin / Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr

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Dr. Jennifer Weinberg, MD, MPH, MBE