To Sunscreen or Not to Sunscreen?

Why wear sunscreen?

Put simply, to keep our skin from burning: Sunburns are linked to cancer. It is not known if sunscreen use prevents skin cancers like melanoma and basal cell carcinoma, but it does lower your risk. Keep in mind that sunburn is different than sun exposure. Regular sun exposure can means higher vitamin D production which means greater support for the immune system, stronger bones and other health benefits including possible reduced risk of melanoma (please see your naturopathic doctor or PCP to have your vitamin D tested, click here to read about why that’s important!) Please note that skin cancer is a risk for people with dark skin as well. I have a friend whose sister died of melanoma who runs a foundation called the Brown Skin Too Foundation. If you have dark skin I would highly recommend you look at their resources and information.

And although obviously health is the most important part of this, don’t forget that sun ages your skin more quickly. I do wish I didn’t care about wrinkles but I do…and although they’re obviously inevitable, I’m all good with postponing them if that’s an option.

Some days I wonder if I would have done anything differently had I known the risks of sun exposure (and tanning beds) when I was a teenager. I mean…I tend to tan pretty easily but a simple tan wasn’t enough for me. We had a flat tar roof outside of my bedroom that I could access by popping out my window. I would (not kidding) lay out 8 square feet of tin foil, plop down on it, slather myself silly with Coppertone oil and bake myself for hours every day in the summer while my parents were at work. (OK, true confessions here I also had in tow wine coolers and Marlboro lights…please don’t tell my 12-year-old.)

Now we know better, but still…so many of us don’t attend to our skin health the way we should. The truth is that as with most things in life, moderation is key so although you for SURE want to avoid sunburn you shouldn’t avoid all sun exposure.

How to get some sun but not too much

It’s good, as I said, to spend some time in the sun. How much will depend on where you live, how strong the sun is, and how dark your skin is. As with most of the things I write about, each person’s needs are unique. But no matter where you sit on the spectrum there are some simple ways to protect yourself from the sun including:

  1. Sun hats! My dear friend Satya Twena makes stylish, packable, SPF sun hats that I’m completely enamored with. I wear them all summer long.
  2. SPF clothing. You can now find clothing with built in SPF. TBH I have no idea how that works but it’s a great option, especially if you don’t want to keep reapplying sunscreen all day! They even have clothing you can wear in the water…full suits or tops (‘rashies’) that you may be familiar with from seeing surfers…they’ve been using them fo’ evah.
  3. Parasols. I know this is a bit 1890s but I for one think we should bring them back into style. Who’s with me?!
  4. Covers for your outdoor space or build some kind of cover over your patio (if you have one!) We built a pergola in our yard a few years back and we love it!

All of that said…sunscreen is important!

What kind of sunscreen to use

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an organization dedicated to providing information on the safety of all sorts of skincare including sunscreens. They currently have a summer guide to sunscreens which is chock full of information about which kinds you may choose to use, as well as links to research backing up their recommendations. I’ve noted a few key points below and encourage readers to use EWG as a guide for all skincare products.

Ingredients to avoid:

Spray sunscreens: These are quite popular for use on kids who are pretty much moving targets when it comes to applying sunscreen. Resist the urge. The aerosolized delivery may pose serious inhalation risks and it’s too easy to under apply or miss a patch which then leads to almost guaranteed sunburn. Ditto on powders.

Super high SPFs: SPF stands for “sun protection factor” and only measures protection against UVB rays.  It’s the UVB rays that burn the skin, but the UVA rays that penetrate deep into the skin which can negatively effect the immune system, speed up the skin aging process and may cause skin cancer. The skin may not get burned by extended sun exposure when a high SPF is used, but the risk of other types of skin damage are increased. Use no higher than a SPF 50 and reapply often regardless of the number.

Oxybenzone: Most chemical sunscreens in the U.S. contain this chemical which penetrates the skin, enters the bloodstream and acts like an estrogen in the body. Basically it messes with your hormones. It also has been found to commonly cause allergic skin reactions.

Retinyl Palmitate: This form of vitamin A may have anti-aging effects on skin when used at night, but when used on sun-exposed skin it may speed development of skin tumors and lesions. Quite a few sunscreens and SPF moisturizers contain retinyl palmitate – check your labels!

Sunscreen/bug repellant combos: F or one, bugs are not usually out during peak UV hours. Also, we typically need to apply sunscreen more frequently than a repellant or vice versa depending on time of day and location. We want to avoid repellant on the face, but definitely want sunscreen on it.

Tanning oils: These rarely even contain SPF. You are basically oiling yourself up to fry and fry you likely will. Not a good idea.

The active ingredients in sunscreens are chemical filters and mineral filters. There may be concerns with both although some have higher concerns than others. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are in the higher toxicity range; homosalate, octisalate and octocrylene in the moderate range; and titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avobenzone and mexoryl SX in the lower toxicity range. Almost every chemical sunscreen in the U.S. contains oxybenzone which, as already stated, should be avoided.

Ingredients to look for: 

Mineral sunscreens are generally rated better for safety by the EWG. Zinc oxide provides excellent UVA protection so be sure the mineral sunscreen you choose contains it.

If you are hesitant to use a mineral sunscreen because of the classic lifeguard white-nose look that you don’t want for your entire body, rest assured that there are quite a few out there that go on smoothly and leave minimal or no white. You often have to just try them out to see which one works for you as far as consistency, scent and color. You will find a broader choice of good quality, mineral sunscreens at stores that focus on natural and organic products.

I personally use a cream with SPF 30 and then if I’m going somewhere that I care, I follow this with a mineral sunscreen powder that keeps my face from from getting too shiny with the sun and sweat.

Again, check out EWG, there are specific brands that they recommend. It is an invaluable resource!

What about kids?

It goes without saying that it is extremely important to protect kids from sunburn. A few blistering sunburns in childhood can double the lifetime chance of developing serious forms of skin cancer. The best protection is sunscreen and then a hat and shirt. For infants under 6 months, it is absolutely necessary to keep them out of the direct sun because their skin is not yet protected by melanin. Most sunscreens advise against using for babies under 6 months so consult your doctor if you feel you need to use it. It is best to keep babies in tightly woven, but loose fitting clothing and a sun hat. Make shade using the stroller canopy or an umbrella and take walks in the early morning or late afternoon.

Best practices

Be sure to cover all of the areas of skin you may have exposed. And REAPPLY as directed on the bottle. Almost always that will mean every 90 minutes or so. It also means waiting to go swimming until the sunscreen is set, even for water resistant versions. So be sure to apply before you leave the house if you want to go right in the water.

For toddlers and children, test sunscreen on the inside of the wrist on the day before using to see if there is any skin reaction. Young kids’ skin is particularly sensitive to chemical allergens as well as UV rays. When you find one that works for you, slop it on and reapply often especially if they are sweating or playing in the water

Monitor moles, watch for very dark spots or changes in your skin, and get checked periodically by your doctor for any changes.

Have fun in the sun, and do what you can to keep your skin healthy and happy!

Yours in Health,





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