Eat your Sunscreen!
by Nicole Carnese
Hey there Be Better! I'm Nicole Carnese, an organic, natural living, health nut, that is just trying to be better, like all of you. That's me in the blue tank top. I am excited to join the Be Better Movement, and I love that I can turn self-improvement into globaI-improvement!
I was so happy to learn that this week’s challenge was to get your vitamin D; I was even more thrilled when Aly Simons asked me to be a guest blogger in taking this challenge “an extra step” for those of you that are interested in learning more!
I have been from one extreme to the next with sun exposure. I went through a "tanorexic" phase my junior and senior year of high school, all the way to the opposite spectrum of avoid the sun like the plague when I was 26 for a year and a half after watching Downton Abbey and deciding I wanted to have beautiful pale porcelain skin! I'm naturally very pale (I'm half Italian, but my mom is ALL white heritage... And I unfortunately got my mom’s skin rather than my dads olive complexion) so I've always had to slather on lots of sunscreen, and despite my best efforts, have still had my fair share of blistered sunburns...ouch! However the last four years of my life I've been on a journey to healthier living through an organic, mostly raw, and very mindful diet about where my food comes from and whether or not it was humanely raised. It was during this process, and already a year and half into my Downton Abbey pale skin phase, that my mom pointed out that it was important to get lots of vitamin D in my quest to be my healthiest self, and the best way to do so is through sun exposure—and I am all about my vitamins! She reminded me about the importance of balance with sun exposure, and that it probably was not good to completely avoid it, just as it had not been healthy to use the tanning bed every day.
I was living in sunny Huntington Beach, California at the time, and was fortunate enough to live a few blocks from the beach, so I immediately stripped off my full length sleeves and jeans and went to the beach sans sun screen for 30 minutes to soak up my vitamin D (I think I mostly reflected the sun the first few days I went out, I was that pale!) I instantly felt boosted and happier, and couldn’t believe I had gone so long hiding from the wonderful sun. (I'm still convinced my mom just wanted me to get a tan because she thought I was too pale, but hey, her tactic worked, and it turns out that she was also right). Over the next few days and weeks I began researching sun exposure and vitamin D. I had already been using natural organic sunscreens for a couple years, but I wanted to know more about how to get vitamin D from the sun, and if even my natural sunscreen prevented my body from creating vitamin D.
And that leads to me an important part in taking this weeks challenge a step further...making sure you're not blocking all the UVB rays that are essential to you're body being able to create vitamin D. According to vitamin D researcher Michael Holick: “ … a sunscreen with a sun protection of 15 absorbs 99% of the incident UVB radiation, and, thus, when topically applied properly will decrease the synthesis of vitamin D3 in the skin by 99%.”
Vitamin D plays an important role in preventing many diseases and health ailments. Vitamin D is even being studied in its role in prevention and treatment of cancer and vitamin D deficiency has even been linked to depression. Here are a few of the benefits:
Support your cardiovascular health
Support healthy kidney function
Enhance your muscle strength
Promote healthy teeth
Help produce optimal blood pressure levels
Help keep your bones strong and healthy
Help maintain a healthy immune system
A study in Medical Hypotheses even suggested that indoor workers may have increased rates of melanoma because they're exposed to sunlight through windows, and only UVA light, unlike UVB, can pass through window glass. At the same time, these indoor workers are missing out on exposure to the beneficial UVB rays, and have lower levels of vitamin D
This major study suggests the mortality rate is higher for people who stay out of the sun than those who don’t. The study was conducted by researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, and followed nearly 30,000 women over 20 years. The study showed:
- Mortality was about double in women who avoided sun exposure compared to the highest exposure group.
- Wearing sunscreen and staying out of the sun could lead to a deficiency in vitamin D, which has been linked to more aggressive forms of skin cancer.
- Vitamin D is created by exposure to the sun, and protects the body against diabetes, tuberculosis, multiple sclerosis, and rickets.
So if vitamin D is so crucial to our health, and if the sun is the best, and one of the only sources, other than supplementation with vitamin D3, why are sunscreen campaigns so rampant the minute the sun comes out in the summer?
In fact, it is estimated that most Americans are vitamin D deficient, and did you know that more than 2 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer every year. And even though more and more people are using sunscreen each year, the incidence of skin cancer continues to climb worldwide. Despite the push for more awareness about sun exposure, and the advice to use sunscreen whenever we go outside, incidence of skin cancer, especially melanoma, is rising dramatically. In fact, skin cancer rates are rising by 4.2% annually, despite the fact that we spend less time outdoors and wear more sunscreen. In fact, all our sunscreen use could be hurting us more than it is helping, due to the fact that most sunscreens contain chemicals that possibly carcinogenic and endocrine disrupting. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published their 2014 guide to safe sunscreens. They reviewed over 2000 sunscreens and over 257 brands. They found more than 75% of the sunscreens contained toxic chemicals that can increase your risk of cancer and other health issues.
The Dangers of Conventional Sunscreens
According to research from the EWG: Our review…shows that some sunscreen ingredients absorb into the blood, and some have toxic effects. Some release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, some act like estrogen and disrupt hormones, and several can cause allergic reactions and skin irritation. The FDA has not established rigorous safety standards for sunscreen ingredients. Sunscreens haven’t been regulated since 1978 in the USA.
So in review, some ingredients may
- Absorb into the blood
- Release free radicals in sunlight
- Act like estrogen
- Disrupt hormones
- Cause allergic reactions
- Cause skin irritation
- Have no rigorous safety standards
A recent study published in Environmental Science Technology has also shown the common sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone, methoxycinnamate, and PABA are estrogenic chemicals linked to cancer.
List of Unsafe, Toxic Chemicals in Sunscreen
- Para amino benzoic acid
- Octyl salicyclate
- Menthyl anthranilate
There are over 1800 products on the market to choose from, making it incredibly confusing and difficult to pick the best and safest brand. Here’s what you need to watch out for:
- Oxybenzone – this is a hormone disrupting chemical which penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream. It is the most popular ingredient in chemical based sunscreens and only blocks UVB ray (sun’s good rays that provide vitamin D production), not UVA which are the most free radical damaging rays. Avoid any sunscreen that has this chemical at all costs, especially for children.
- Vitamin A (Retinyl Palmitate) – A 2009 study by U.S. government scientists released by the National Toxicology Program found when this is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, it may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.
- Fragrance – Sure it may make the product smell nice, but this is a petroleum based product that is linked to organ toxicity and allergies.
- High SPF – The FDA does not regulate SPF higher than 50 and there’s no scientific proof they work better than lower SPF. Many of the higher SPFs do not provide any additional protection and studies have suggested that users are exposed to as many or more ultraviolet rays as those who use lower-SPF products.
- Sprays or Powders – Generally speaking, sprays and powders have additional chemicals added to them for performance purposes. These additional chemicals are usually not something you want to be spraying on your body and can be toxic to the lungs. Besides, remember sunscreen is formulated for your skin, not your lungs. Many of the side effects of sprays and powders on the lungs are not tested before being approved.
- Popular Conventional Brands – Aveeno, Banana Boat, Coppertone Sport, Coppertone Water Babies, Bull Frog, Neutragena, Storebrands (CVS, Rite Aid, Walgreens), Hawaiian Tropic and many other popular brands are rated the worst in terms of safety in the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide. You can use this guide to find out how good or bad the brand you have or want to buy is rated.
So how can we enjoy safe sun exposure and soak up the vitamin D, while preventing burns and skin damage, and not exposing yourself to unsafe chemicals linked to cancer? The answer is to get moderate direct sun exposure every day with no sunscreen and no sunglasses. (Your body can actually absorb D through your eyes. Occasional sunlight exposure to your face and hands is not sufficient vitamin D nutrition for most people. To optimize your vitamin D levels, and contrary to poplar belief, the best time to be in the sun for vitamin D production is actually as near to solar noon as possible. This is because UVA rays are quite constant during ALL hours of the daylight, but UVB are low in the morning and evening and high at mid-day. Remember, it is UVB, not UVA, that produces vitamin D in your body. So to use the sun to maximize your vitamin D production and minimize skin damage, the middle of the day (10:00 am to 2:00 pm) is the best and safest time. During this UVB intense time, you will likely also need the shortest sun exposure to produce the most vitamin D. A good guideline to know the optimal length of exposure is to watch your skin, you only need enough to have your skin turn the slightest shade of pink, and this may only be a few minutes for those with very pale skin. Most people with fair skin max out within 10-20 minutes. The darker your skin, the longer exposure you will need to optimize your vitamin D production. Once your skin starts turning pink, your body will no longer create vitamin D from the UVB rays, so it does you no good to stay out longer, and this is when you put your skin at risk to damage and burns.
The Sun is your best source of Vitamin D3.
When you get approximately 20 minutes of direct sunlight, your body naturally generates enough Vitamin D3 (Calciferol), and you body also knows the right amount to generate without getting too much.
Vitamin D3 has been one of the most researched nutrients over the past 5 years and it has been shown to naturally help boost the immune system, help fight cancer and improve mood.
Let’s be realistic though, there are days when we cannot control our sun exposure, especially during the summer, when we are spending time at the beach, the pool, enjoying the outdoors, or days when you’re outside working for long periods of time. So how can we still soak up our vitamin D without getting sunburned?
I personally like to stay out in the sun for as long as possible before I see myself turning pink, this time varies depending on how much of a tan I have built up. At that point I either cover up with a hat and more clothes, or use a safe, organic, mineral based sunscreen. Don’t forget to put it on your eye lids and lips too, trust me, I’ve learned my lesson the hard way, and waking up with swollen eyes and lips is no fun!
*During the times of the year when UVB rays are not present where you live you essentially have two options: You can use a safe tanning bed or you can swallow oral vitamin D3.
There are two types of sunscreens: non-mineral and mineral. And some that combine both.
Non-mineral sunscreens penetrate the skin, are potentially disruptive to hormones, are allergenic, and like I mentioned earlier, can release free radicals when they break down. Oxybenzone is the most common ingredient found in sunscreens. Scientists recommend not using sunscreens containing oxybenzone on children because of this hormone disruption.
Mineral sunscreens are ones containing zinc, or titanium. These do not breakdown in sunlight, are not usually absorbed (so do not disrupt the body’s hormones), are not allergenic and are more effective at blocking UVA rays than non-minerals. These sunscreens are a good choice for children and according to EWG have the best safety profiles of the choices in the United States.
Until very recently all sunscreens did NOT filter out the UVA radiation. They filtered out UVB, ensuring that your body could not make any vitamin D, while letting the UVA through. So there was a strong recommendation from the medical community to use sunscreen, but this advice was actually increasing your risk of cancer while eliminating your body's ability to manufacture vitamin D!
Below are some safe, organic, mineral based sunscreen brands that are rated between 0-2 for their entire line of sun care products and are the safest available. I’ve included the links on where to find these brands online if you can’t find them in stores near you – but most natural food stores and vitamin shops will have one of these options available. *Remember, unless you are going to have prolonged sun exposure, its best to not use sunscreen on a day to day basis, because sunscreens block UVB which is what is responsible for vitamin D production in our bodies. At least spend 10-30 minutes with no sunscreen if sun exposure cannot be limited.
- Badger – Certified organic, several different SPFs and option for kids, babies and active people, unscented and sticks available
- John Masters Organics – SPF 30, only one option available (most expensive)
- Aubrey Organics – SPF 26-45 available, unscented available
- Raw Elements – The first organic, non-GMO certified sunscreen. (Try the tinted stick for your face – it’s awesome!)
Here are some other mineral based sunscreens with better ingredients than most commercial, chemical based sunscreens, BUT they are not organic:
- Seventh Generation – SPF 30, only one option available
- Thinkbaby/Thinksport – Great for athletes, kids and adults for prolonged exposure in sun.
Below are some natural oils you can rub on for some light sun protection as well, or you could even mix them together in a spray bottle for a sun protecting spray. A mixture of these oils is also a great after sun lotion. They will hydrate sun exposed skin and provide antioxidants to help your skin heal and repair after sun exposure. Lavender oil is also very calming and healing to the skin after sun exposure.
Coconut Oil (SPF 4-6)
Jojoba Oil (SPF 4)
Wheatgerm Oil (SPF 20)
Shea Butter (SPF 4-6)
Vitamins D & E
Carrot Seed Oil (SPF 35-40)
Olive Oil (SPF 8)
Raspberry Seed Oil (SPF 25-35)
Avocado Oil (SPF 15)
Almond Oil (SPF around 5)
Zinc Oxide (SPF 2-20 depending on how much used)
Eating your Sunscreen
Now that we’ve covered some extra steps you can take to increase your UVB exposure so that you can create vitamin D in your body, and covered safer mineral based sunscreens that you can use to replace chemically based sunscreens, there is one last step you can take to protect yourself from burning in the sun while soaking up your vitamin D, and that is eating your sunscreen.
No I’m not talking about these:
I’m talking about these:
Foods that are rich in omegas and antioxidants help protect your skin from the sun and free radical damage. This does not serve as a replacement for applying sunscreen in prolonged exposure, but it can increase the amount of time you can spend in the sun without burning. Vitamin C is another great supplement to protect your skin from sun exposure. On days when I am out in the sun longer than I planned and I’ve forgotten my sunscreen, I supplement with 5,000-15,000mg of vitamin C. I’ve even been in this situation in Palm Desert, and with limiting my sun exposure and covering up when I notice I’m getting pink, as well as supplementing with vitamin C, I’ve managed to spend almost a whole day in the sun and pool without burning. There was a time during my Downton Abbey pale skin days that I was in St. George Utah during a sunny day, and I had forgotten a cover up and sun screen, and did not want to use my friends chemical based sunscreen, and decided I would just face the consequences of a burn. I was especially worried because I had not been in the sun for several months at this point, and was very pale compared to my friends who were slathering the sunscreen on. However, by the end of the day, my skin had only a slight tan to it, while my friends who had religiously applied their sunscreen to their already bronzed skin, were fried on their faces and arms. At the time I had not yet learned about “eating your sunscreen” but I had been juicing 8-12 ounces of vegetable and fruit juices a day, and supplementing with vitamins and vitamin C. I can only attribute my lack of sun damage and burning that day to my diet.
So to recap taking this weeks vitamin D challenge a step further:
- Soak up your vitamin D without sunscreen for 10-30 minutes, or until your skin begins to look a slight pink.
- When you’re going to have long days in the sun (and who doesn’t want to take advantage of long summer days and playing in the sun) opt for an organic, non-GMO, mineral based sunscreen AFTER you’ve spent 10-30 minutes in the sun without sunscreen. **Watch your skin to see when it’s time to apply, you do not want to burn!
- Supplement with vitamin D3 on the days you cannot get your sun exposure, or during long winter months of no sun (I live in Oregon, so supplementing during the winter is a must!) Or use a safe tanning bed with UVB rays for a few minutes to produce vitamin D in your body.
- Eat your sunscreen! Eat leafy greens, fruits, fish, raw cacao, and other anti-oxidant and omega rich foods. Also, avoid processed foods and sugars, as these can increase your susceptibility to burning.