After being holed up in our houses all winter, it’s easy to want to spend every second we can soaking up the sun in the warm spring weather. You can almost hear your skin sing after being starved of vitamin D for the last 6 months. In these blissed-out moments, it’s easy to forget the power of the sun’s rays and the amount of damage they can do when overexposure occurs. They can burn skin, dehydrate it, cause wrinkles, sagginess, dark spots, moles, and are 80 to 90 percent responsible for one in every three cancers diagnosed worldwide. When UV rays hit the skin, they damage the DNA and cumulative exposure can slow down collagen production and skin cell turnover.
On the other hand, the sun also has massive health benefits. It is the best way for our bodies to get vitamin D, a nutrient that enhances the absorption of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphate and zinc. A lack of this vitamin has been associated with cancer, cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and autoimmune disease among others and it also helps with blood pressure and immunity. Sunlight can produce up to 10,000 IU of Vitamin D within 10 minutes of unprotected exposure to UV rays, depending on where you live.
The bottom line is to use common sense. Protection may not be necessary if you are going for a 15-minute walk early in the morning but it’s non-negotiable if you are hanging out at the beach all day.
Broad-Spectrum Protection (UVA/UVB)
The sun emits two different ultraviolet (UV) rays that reach our skin: UVA and UVB. While UVB rays are responsible for burning the skin, UVA rays damage it on a deeper level that can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. It also attacks collagen, leading to wrinkles and sagging skin. It’s important to look for a sunscreen that protects you from both forms of radiation so look for “Broad-Spectrum,” “Multi-Spectrum” or “UVA/UVB” on the label.
Chemical vs. Physical Sunscreen
Chemical sunscreens work by converting UV rays into heat. This type of protection can cause inflammation and is not ideal for people with sensitive skin, eczema or rosacea. They range in toxicity and ecological impact and some are easily absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. Examples are oxybenzone, avobenzone and octinoxate.
Physical sunscreens act like tiny mirrors to deflect light off your skin. They provide full-spectrum coverage and are non-toxic, making them ideal for all skin types. The ones that are approved for use in North America are zinc oxide and titanium oxide. There are some ecological and toxicity concerns with the nano-sized versions, which are produced to avoid whitening the skin. Look for ‘non-nano’ on the label.
Sun Protection Factor (SPF)
The sun protection factor (SPF) of a sunscreen is the measurement of how long you can be exposed to sunlight before redness appears on the skin. An SPF of 15 means you can be in the sun 15 times longer without getting burned than if you had no protection at all.
Ingredients to avoid:
Oxybenzone: This common petrochemical sunscreen is easily absorbed through the skin, which explains why it can be found in 97 percent of Americans according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It has endocrine-disrupting properties meaning it can interfere with hormonal functions in the body. It is also eco-toxic to aquatic life and is responsible for killing reefs by bleaching the algae.
To read more about the damage chemical sunscreens do to coral reefs, read this in-depth article by Snorkels and Fins.
Octinoxate: This ingredient has similar hazards to oxybenzone. It can be absorbed through the skin, is persistent and can be found lurking in our bodies and in breast milk. It is also a hormone disruptor.
Retinyl Palmitate: Studies have shown that this common antioxidant, found in a staggering one in four sunscreens, accelerates the rate at which skin tumors and lesions grow. There’s also evidence that retinyl palmitate can increase the risk of sunburn.
Non-Toxic Sunscreen Picks:
Goddess Garden: Developed by a mom for her skin-sensitive daughter, it is non-greasy and provides great zinc oxide coverage that minimally whitens the skin.
DeVita: This product flies off shelves – no surprise, since it has some top-notch ingredients in it such as rosehip oil and shea butter.
Green Beaver: A Canadian favorite with a wide range of certified organic sun care products for the whole family and affordable price tags.
You can find an extensive list of safe sunscreens at The Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide.
I’ve noticed some articles about making your own sunscreen online and this is definitely a case of doing it yourself going awry. The oil- and wax-based recipes are very greasy and the grade of zinc oxide you are going to find will make you look like a ghost. More importantly, these DIY creations have not gone through proper testing so you will not know what the SPF is, or if it even has one. You’ll likely end up investing way more money purchasing raw ingredients than just buying a safe sunscreen that has gone through the proper protocols.
In addition to wearing the right sunscreen, you can also wear protective clothing and hats as well as use shaded areas wherever possible. I’m still waiting for parasols to make a comeback! Being outdoors in the sunshine is one of life’s great pleasures, but being cautious about your skin is essential to your health in the long run.
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