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Choosing a Safer Sunscreen

Once upon a time, I laid out with my friends in my backyard and slathered baby oil all over myself to get a glowing tan. Say what?!! Yep, that was me in my teens. Of course we all know better now. Or, do we? More than 2 million Americans develop skin cancer each year (NCI, 2013). Surprisingly, there are over 400 sunscreens on the market today, yet only a dozen are actually considered safe and effective.

What is a sunblock or sunscreen?

Sunblocks are mineral-based and provide a physical barrier between you and the sun. They are not absorbed, but rather sit on the skin. Sunscreens, however, are absorbed into the skin and a chemical reaction takes place in order for them to be effective. The ingredients in chemical sunscreens can be downright toxic to your body. For example, one common chemical is oxybenzone, which absorbs ultraviolet light and is believed to cause hormone disruptions and cell damage that may provoke cancer. Also found is retinyl palmitate, a synthetic form of vitamin A, in many sunscreens and face lotions. FDA-sponsored studies have linked it to skin cancer.

What do we need to filter out and why?

The Earth is struck with UVA and UVB rays. But UVB rays make up just 3 to 5 percent of the ultraviolet spectrum striking the earth. UVA rays are more numerous and penetrate deeper into the body than UVB. They can cause a different type of DNA damage (Cadet, 2009). Most sunscreens only filter UVB rays. It’s important to read the label and determine if your brand filters both rays.

How do I protect myself?

  1. Use Physical Barrier Sunscreens – We need the sun to provide us with energy and the conversion of Vitamin D, but if you’re going to the beach or pool or will have prolonged exposure, you’ll want to take some steps to protect your skin. Look for a brand that contains physical barriers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both filter out UVB and UVA.
  2. Protective Clothing & Gear – Wear a hat to protect your scalp, eyes and the thin skin on your face; sunglasses with dark or polarized lenses are helpful in preventing glare; long sleeve “rash-guard” swimsuits and those with dark colors and tight weaves can provide a physical block. I don’t advise buying clothes with added chemical sunscreens.
  3. Antioxidants! Fresh, raw fruits and vegetables can provide your body with the necessary nutrients needed to fight the free radicals caused by sun overexposure. Astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant, can be taken in supplement form for several weeks, which can shield your body from UV damage.

How do I choose an effective brand?

The one major drawback of mineral-based sunscreens is the tell-tale ghostly white look. They can also stain your clothes. There are several brands that the Environmental Working Group has tested for safety and efficacy and some are better than others at blending in and not leaving the white marks behind. Visit their website and see if your brand is safe.

It’s also important to note that choosing a sunscreen based solely on a super high SPF factor can be misleading and give you a false sense of protection. After about 2 hours, the effectiveness of chemical sunscreens wears off and not only stops working but actually interacts with the sunshine to cause free radicals and oxidation in your skin, which cause cancer!

Ultimately, you want to flip your bottle over, read the ingredient label and avoid oxybenzone, parabens, retinyl palmitate (a synthetic form of Vitamin A), and artificial fragrance.  Choose those with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Some of my favorite sunscreens are Dr. Mercola’s, Green Screen, CA Baby and Beauty Counter.

Do you have a favorite natural sunscreen? Let me know!


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