Could your sunscreen be doing you more harm than good?


As a pale kid growing up in Australia my mum must have spent half the summer slathering me up with sunscreen! Every Aussie kid knows the mantra “Slip, Slop, Slap” and would never dare question its merits. The sun in Australia is intense and we have one of the highest skin cancer rates in the world.

sunscreenThe Slip Slop Slap campaign has been around since 1981 yet skin cancer rates have increased. Over the past decades, the incidence of skin cancer has risen in Australia. From 1982 to 2010 melanoma diagnoses increased by around 60%. Between 95 and 99% of skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun ( Source: Cancer Council Australia). Is it possible that sunscreens aren’t doing the job they’re supposed to?

Sunscreen is designed to block out harmful Ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This same UV radiation from the sun is necessary for the production of Vitamin D in the skin and is the best natural source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is known as an essential vitamin in preventing cancer, and has been shown to cut cancer risk by 77% (Source: Natural News). Your sunscreen may be preventing you from getting enough Vitamin D and it may also be flooding your body with many unwanted, toxic chemicals.

Are there alternatives to conventional sunscreen and how do we stop ourselves getting sunburnt? Why do we need sun for Vitamin D? These are just some of the questions I hope to answer today, so read on!

What’s wrong with conventional sunscreens?

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) just 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.

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, and the SPF factor only tells you how effective a sunscreen is against UVB rays which cause sunburn.

The EWG explain that sunscreens are grouped into two active ingredient types: mineral or chemical filters.

Mineral sunscreens form a protection barrier on the top of the skin while chemical filters act to filter the UVA rays before they penetrate the skin. The biggest issue with chemical filters is that they may break down and get into our bloodstream. Remember the discussion in my earlier post?

The 3 most important ingredients to eliminate according to the EWG are:

1. Oxybenzone

This is probably the number one chemical to avoid according to the EWG. Oxybenzone has been found to penetrate the bloodstream and have oestrogen mimicking effects. With this oestrogen mimicking effect, studies have linked the chemical to incidences of endometriosis in older woman and lower birth weight daughters. There is a high risk of allergic reaction.toxic-sunscreen-lotion

2. Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A palmitate)

Vitamin A is commonly found in night creams for its antioxident and therefore, anti-aging properties. However, when exposed to sunlight the EWG reports that it may in fact speed up the production of malignant cells. Pretty crazy when you think this is the exact opposite of what sunscreen is supposed to do!

3. Fragrance

I’ve mentioned the dangers of fragrances before so won’t delve too far into it here. But basically, the biggest issue with fragrance is hormone disruption. Also due to the nature of product labelling and trade secrets, you can never be too sure what “fragrance” actually means. There can be anywhere up to 200 chemicals combined to make “fragrance”. Lucky dips with your health aren’t worth a nice scent.

Sunscreen blocks out Vitamin D

Vitamin D is an essential vitamin we can’t eat or produce ourselves. Just the same as it is for plants, sunlight is essential for human life. Vitamin D is essential for strong bones, muscles and overall health. Studies suggest that between about a third and a half of Australians have at least marginal vitamin D deficiency. Some groups in the community have more serious vitamin D deficiency; people with dark skin, people who are elderly, housebound, bedridden, and women who cover up for religious reasons. Low vitamin D has also been linked to an increased risk of:

  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Diabetes (type1 and type 2)
  • Various types of cancers (particularly colon cancer)
  • Heart disease
  • Mental health conditions (including schizophrenia)
  • Worse outcomes in stroke
  • Altered immunity and other autoimmune diseases.

How do we get Vitamin D?

imagesThere are small amounts of vitamin D in some foods such as fish, eggs and UV-irradiated mushrooms, but it is difficult to obtain enough vitamin D from diet alone. Most people only get five to 10 per cent of their vitamin D from food.

Your body is designed to get the vitamin D it needs by producing it when your bare skin is exposed to sunlight. The part of the sun’s rays that is important is ultraviolet B (UVB). This is the most natural way to get vitamin D.

Large amounts of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) are made in your skin when you expose all of your body to summer sun. This happens very quickly; around half the time it takes for your skin to turn pink and begin to burn. This could be just 15 minutes for a very fair skinned person, yet a couple of hours or more for a dark skinned person.

How does Vitamin D help prevent cancer?

Laboratory studies have shown that vitamin D deficiency can lead to decreased communication between cells and leads them to stop sticking to one another, a condition that could cause cancer cells to spread. Compared with normal cells, cancer cells remain in an immature state, and vitamin D appears to have a role in making cells mature. Vitamin D also appears to play a role in regulating cellular reproduction, which malfunctions (doesn’t work properly) in cancer. Higher levels of vitamin D lead to cellular adherence, maturation, and communication between cells, all of which may lower cancer risk.

Here’s a sampling of studies confirming the results:

  • A study was conducted involving 1, 179 healthy Nebraskan women who were divided into a control group and a placebo group. In the four years the study was conducted, the group who was receiving vitamin D and calcium supplements revealed a 60 percent decrease in cancers as compared to the placebo group. (Source: Natural News)
  • In a study conducted by the French in 2011 on 60,000 post menopausal women, it was discovered that women with increased levels of vitamin D obtained through diet and supplement reduced their risk of breast cancer. These vitamin D levels received a great boost when these women were exposed to actual sunshine. (Source: Natural News)
  • A trial among nearly 1,200 postmenopausal women found significant reductions in overall cancer incidence among those randomized to receive 1,100 IU of vitamin D plus 1400-1500 mg calcium. (Source: Harvard School of Public Health)

I want Vitamin D, but I don’t want to get the negative side effects, i.e. sunburn, premature aging, etc. How do I have safe sun exposure?

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Permission granted to do a little more this! ;-)

You CANNOT make any vitamin D when you’re exposed to sunlight through glass since glass filters out most of the UVB that stimulates vitamin D production. All you’re mostly getting are UVA rays, which penetrate deeply into your skin, causing wrinkling, and increasing your risk of skin damage and skin cancer.

Also beware that UVA radiation is harsher in the morning, and late afternoon. So, contrary to popular advice, which was more tailored to tanning than optimizing your vitamin D stores, you’ll want to avoid early morning and afternoon sun. According to Dr. Holick, one of the leading vitamin D researchers and author of the book, The Vitamin D Solution, you cannot make vitamin D until about 10:00 in the morning until about 3:00 in the afternoon.

For me, living in Queensland I find 15 minutes a day is plenty. I am super fair (think freckles and white skin) and find that with this level of exposure I don’t burn. I’ve tested this 15 minute theory at other times of the day and can now safely say you won’t burn. I always wear sunscreen on my face though and sunglasses – I don’t want wrinkles!

I also supplement with Vitamin D3 as some days I don’t get out of the office so need an extra helping hand.

How much sunshine do you need?

This depends on where you live and how dark your skin naturally is.

A group of experts from a wide range of medical disciplines have come up with some rules of thumb and published them in the latest Medical Journal of Australia. To find out how much sun shone in what parts of Australia, and when, they analysed daily UV radiation levels in major cities across Australia collected by the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) over a year (in 2001).

Because of the variables of geography and seasons, and variations in how an individual reacts to sunlight, it wasn’t possible to come up with hard and fast rules – but they did produce some useful guidelines.

  • In January for example, across Australia, 2 to 14 minutes of sun three to four times per week at midday will give fair-skinned people with 15 per cent of the body exposed the recommended amount of Vitamin D. However, redness can occur in only eight minutes in these conditions.
  • From October to March, around Australia, 10 to 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure of the face, arms and hands before 10am or after 3pm, three to four times a week, will give you enough Vitamin D without skin damage.
  • But this may not be enough in southern states, especially in winter. You’ll need longer periods of exposure or more flesh exposed to the sun.
  • In Melbourne and Hobart from April to September, and Sydney and Adelaide in June and July, you may actually need short periods of exposure in peak UV times ie 10am to 3pm to get enough vitamin D.

Longer for dark skins: Note that the figures only apply to fair skinned people. People with very dark skin need around six times more exposure to UV radiation to produce as much vitamin D as someone with fair skin. These people may need sunlight exposure during peak times – ie the middle of the day – especially in the southern states from April to September, and in the central areas of Australia in June and July.

On the other hand these people are less likely to get skin damage because of greater amounts of pigment in their skin.

Use a natural, zinc-based sunscreen (like this one) if outside for longer period

But remember: If you’re going to be outside for longer than 20 minutes though, COVER UP!!!! Embrace Slip, Slop, Slap. ‘Slip’ on a shirt, ‘slop’ on a zinc-oxide based sunscreen and ‘slap’ on a hat.

I hope I’ve answered most of your questions about sunscreen and Vitamin D. I know this was a very long post but there was also a lot to cover! If you have any more questions or comments, please leave a comment below.


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