We've talked about the importance of supplementation and daily sunlight exposure to increase and maintain healthy vitamin D levels. Some have wondered "How do we get more sun exposure to increase our vitamin D and protect ourselves from skin cancer and sun damage to our skin?" First, we are told that sun exposure is an important way to get vitamin D and that we should spend more time outdoors. Then we’re told that skin cancer is on the rise and results from too much sun, so we need to cover up. Which of these statements are true?
Both of them. We need sun exposure to keep our vitamin D at healthy levels. And we need to protect ourselves from too much sun, one of the factors in certain kinds of skin cancer. But here's the tricky part.
One of the major ways we’ve been taught to protect ourselves from the sun is to use sunscreen. Is this a healthy way to protect ourselves? And what about the toxins and chemicals found in them. We want to bring clarity to these issues and share with you tips for spending time in the sun safely while increasing your vitamin D levels. We’ll also share with our three favorite natural sunscreens.
Skin Cancer is Increasing
Skin cancer rates are steadily increasing each year. The National Cancer institute has reported that the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has tripled since the 1970’s.¹ The reasons for this increase are unclear but researchers have identified a range of factors that are important including family history, skin type, indoor tanning exposure, and severe sunburns.
Additionally at a recent functional medicine conference, my team learned that pre-cancerous growths on skin may be a result of vitamin insufficiencies, toxicity issues, and dysfunctional methylation.² While the causes of skin cancer are many, we do have control over some of the main factors, specifically UV light exposure, sunscreen toxicity, and vitamin insufficiencies.
Let’s start with the main way we are taught to protect ourselves from the sun, sunscreen.
To Use or Not to Use Sunscreen
We need to start from this basic idea: most of the common sunscreens we find are loaded with toxic ingredients.
The recent Environmental Working Group's 2014 Sunscreen Report found that more than 40% of beach and sport sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a well-known synthetic estrogen that has been linked to cell damage, allergic skin reactions, and hormone disruption.³
Another 20% contained retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, that when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.⁴
Yes, you read that right. A common ingredient in sunscreens when used in the presence of sunlight may increase your risk of skin problems. And this is just two of the numerous chemicals found in sunscreen.
One of the major selling points of sunscreen companies is how well they prevent burns. To do this, sunscreens focus on UVB blocking ingredients, the rays that cause burning, and anti-inflammatory items that prevent the skin from looking burned.
The problem with this emphasis on UVB and anti-inflammatory ingredients, is that as the EWG says, “In the absence of a painful sunburn, sunscreen users can falsely assume they were fully shielded from the harmful effects of UVB rays, when in fact they essentially were duped by a chemical trick.”⁵
With the focus on UVB ray protection, sunscreens can also lack protection from UVA rays. These rays do more subtle damage and are responsible for creating the most free radical damage to the skin in addition to promoting skin aging and cancer.
The lack of UVA protection and the false sense of security created by skin anti-inflammatories becomes a problem when we use sunscreen as a way to prolong our time in the sun.
Here we are doing double damage by first baking toxic creams into our skin and then relying on these creams to keep our skin protected.
And high SPF ratings are not the answer. Any rating above 50 is merely clever marketing.
The SPF rating does not measure the sunscreen’s total effectiveness but rather its ability to deflect skin burning rays, primarily UVB. The 50+ reading is not better than a 30 or 15 especially if the bigger number encourages you to use less of it and apply it less often.
In fact, Stanford University dermatologists who reviewed CDC national survey data found that those who relied solely on sunscreens had more sunburns than people “who reported infrequent sunscreen use but wore hats and clothing to shield themselves from the sun”.⁶
This doesn’t mean we need to stop wearing sunscreen.
For many people, natural sunscreens are a great addition to hats and clothing, especially when swimming.
Fortunately, more and more chemical-free sunscreens are becoming widely available.
Ill share with you how to use natural sunscreens as part of your sun protection strategy and my favorite ones below.
Sunscreen and Vitamin D
Now that we know to avoid regular sunscreen and look for natural varieties, it still begs the questions about vitamin D. Does sunscreen reduce our absorption and production of vitamin D? Yes.
While it is true that sunscreen used in conjunction with clothing helps reduce sunburn, skin damage, and skin cancer, it also blocks 97 percent of your body’s vitamin D production.
This is why supplementation of vitamin D is a good adjunct strategy to sun exposure. Supplementing will assure you that you are getting the vitamin D you need regardless of your time spent in the sun.
Another strategy that may work for some people is spending 20-30 minutes in the sun before 10am and after 4pm without sunscreen. This is the time when the UV rays are less. Twenty-thirty minutes of exposure to your full body can produce as much as 10,000 IU of vitamin D daily.
What’s Your Skin Type
How you protect your skin this summer also depends on the kind of skin you have.
Each of us has a slightly different skin tone and pigmentation. This means that our unique skin types will respond to the sun differently.
The Fitzpatrick Skin Typing Scale(9) is a way to classify the reaction of different skin types to UV light. It’s broken down into 7 types from Pale White skin that always burns (Type I) to deeply pigmented dark brown that never burns (Type 7).
Where you fall on this scale will determine which sun protection method will work best for you.
If someone is a Type I (Pale), you may need to always wear sunscreen when out in the sun. But someone who is a Type 4-7 may not need much sunscreen and can make do with just some clothing.
As a general rule, darker skin tones require more time in the sun to generate vitamin D3 than lighter tones. Make sure to balance this extended time in the sun with appropriate sun protection and supplementation.
Five Sun Safety Tips
1. Cover up. This is the best method of sun protection. A hat and shirt can protect you from the strongest sun rays. You can also remove them quickly and get direct sun exposure without sunscreen. Here you get sun protection and vitamin D absorption. For those with fair skin, use a hat and shirt in addition to sunscreen and supplement accordingly.
2. Stay in the Shade. You won’t find most animals laying on the beach baking in the middle of the day. You’ll find them relaxing in the shade. UV rays are greatest when the sun is the highest in the sky between 10am and 4pm. If you can, try getting direct sun exposure in the morning and evening and relaxing in the shade when the UV is highest.
3. Use Natural Sunscreen. This is a must. Look for chemical-free varieties, high in UVB and UVA protection, that have a rating of 1 on the EWG Sunscreen Guide. Avoid oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate.
4. Do the Cleanse and eat clean. Skin issues, including skin cancer, are not solely a result of sun exposure. Cancer is almost always a result of factors which may include family history, sun exposure, ozone depletion, vitamin deficiencies, and toxicity. The last two we can correct by doing the Cleanse, supplementing, and eating a clean diet. As with most chronic condition, cleansing and clean eating are the foundation of prevention.
5. Examine your skin. Check your skin regularly for new moles and contact your doctor if they are growing or tender.
6. Supplement Vitamin D. The balance between getting enough vitamin D and protecting ourselves from the sun is not always obvious. Supplementing this crucial vitamin is the easiest way to make sure you are getting what you need.
2. Methylation is a complex process that includes the repair of DNA, the support of detoxification systems, the maintenance of mood, and the balancing of inflammation. B vitamins are essential to keep the methylation process functioning properly.
4. Published on the website of the National Toxicology Program, the inter-agency federal research group that has tested retinyl palmitate, in concert with the federal Food and Drug Administration’s National Center for Toxicological Research. http://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/lt_rpts/tr568_508.pdf
6. Linos E, Keiser E, Fu T, Colditz G, Chen S, Tang JY. 2011. Hat, shade, long sleeves, or sunscreen? Rethinking US sun protection messages based on their relative effectiveness. Cancer Causes Control 22: 1067–1071.