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Home > Blog > The Pros And Cons Of Sunscreen

The Pros and Cons of Sunscreen

Written by Dana Yarn, RDLD

sunscreenIt is that time of year where most of us include sunscreen into our outside activities, lathering on sunscreen to prevent the dreaded and painful sunburn. We’ve been told by dermatologists and health professionals for what seems like forever to routinely apply these products to prevent skin aging and, more importantly, skin cancer. Recently, however, experts are questioning if it is necessary to avoid the sun and whether or not sunscreen is actually healthy. Research continues to show how sunlight benefits our bodies, including the synthesis of vitamin D. We are going to explore ways to optimize the benefits of sun exposure while minimizing skin damage.

The pros of sunshine include:

The most common pro of sun exposure is the fact that our bodies need sunlight to produce a critical nutrient, vitamin D, which impacts nearly every system in the body.  Vitamin D plays a vital role in immune function, bone building, mood and cognitive function, and cardiovascular health. Research shows that nearly 60% of us have low blood levels of vitamin D, and 25% have a serious deficiency.

Although quality supplementation can help us overcome vitamin D deficiencies, not all of sunlight’s benefits can come in a pill. The University of Edinburgh has a study that proves regular sun exposure is a must. Researchers found that sunlight reacts with our skin to produce nitric oxide, which in turn naturally lowers our blood pressure.

Can you get too much of a good thing?

After years of protecting your skin, it may seem contraindicating to throw away the sunscreen.  What about the wrinkles and burns? The key is to balance our approach to sun exposure. Aim to get some mid-day sun exposure without sunscreen daily.  The amount of sun you need depends on where you are at, the type and color of your skin and how much skin you actually have exposed.   Those with a very light complexion should spend approximately 10 minutes in mid-day summer sun to produce adequate vitamin D. The darker skin tones require increasing minutes of direct sun. To reduce wrinkles, use sunscreen on faces and hands but make sure arms and legs receive exposure. Once you have gotten your direct exposure, apply sunscreen or cover up to reduce skin damage and prevent burning.

What is sunscreen exactly?

SPF stands for sun protection factor, but the measure only applies to their ability to shield against UVB rays, not UVA. Experts recommend at least a SPF 15, which blocks about 93-94% of UVB. An SPF of 30 offers about 97% protection.

Ultraviolet light comes in two forms, UVA and UVB.  UVA rays are high and constant throughout the day while UVB are generally just high during midday.  UVB rays are responsible for sunburns, however, they also help your skin synthesize vitamin D. UVA, on the other hand, penetrates your skin more deeply and can speed up the formation of skin cancers as well as skin aging. Although UVA is more detrimental to your health, there are relatively few brands of sunscreen that protect against these more damaging UVA rays. Most sunscreens on the market are designed to solely protect against UVB radiation and burning.

Some sunscreens contain risky chemical ingredients that can cause more harm than good.  Clearly, you want to avoid products that only screen out UVB rays. Other ingredients you may want to avoid are oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. Oxybenzone, a surprisingly common ingredient in conventional sunscreens, can trigger allergic reactions and especially shouldn’t be used on young children. Although research is inconclusive as yet, the ingredient been linked to hormone disruption and to cell damage. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A found in many sunscreen products, has also been questioned because of a link to increased skin cancer risk in some studies.

Better alternatives to traditional sunscreens:

 Your best bet is to choose a mineral (as opposed to chemical-) based sunscreen, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Mineral based sunscreens naturally offer broad spectrum protection and block harmful UVA radiation. These minerals are stable in sunlight unlike chemical sunscreen ingredients, as opposed to other formulas that need to be reapplied more often and can disrupt the body’s hormones.

A basic, mineral-based lotion is recommended as compared to a spray.  Sprays are more likely to contain nanoparticles that can penetrate skin or worse be inhaled, causing unknown health consequences. Look for good options at natural health sections of grocery stores or pharmacies. Take the time to read the ingredients. If you’re interested in making your own, look for recipes that combine a stable oil like coconut oil with zinc oxide powder. Beeswax can thicken the consistency, making it easier to apply.

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