Its that time of year again that we are seeing some wonderful long, sunny days and with it comes all the adverts for staying safe in the sun and plastering on suncream.
The dangers of overexposure to the sun are well documented, including sun burn, premature skin ageing and potentially skin cancer. No wonder people have become fanatical about using suncream, especially for their children!
But despite the last 30+ years of people using high factor sun creams and covering up, skin cancer rates have risen by 119% in the UK since the 1990s, and are set to continue increasing. (1)
It may be that sun creams themselves have something to do with this rise in skin cancer, many of them containing carcinogenic compounds. Did you know for instance that Vitamin A (Retinyl Palmintate) is often added to both sun creams and facial moisturisers for its antioxidant properties which slow the process of skin ageing? According to the Environmental Working Group and a study conducted by the FDA, they found that skin tumours and legions developed 21% faster in lab animals coated in Vitamin A containing creams, than those that did not contain Vitamin A. (2)
Many sun creams also contain a host of other chemical nasties such as Oxybenzone (3) that can disrupt hormones, cause allergic reactions and add to the overall toxic burden on the body. You can check out the chemicals in your brand of sun cream or moisturiser here to find out how it rates overall for toxicity levels, (1 being the lowest, 10 being highest levels of toxicity).
Which sun cream is best?
I have made my own sun creams over the years using non-nano zinc oxide for sun protection. The various recipes I have tried have worked well but I found that the oil based ones made my skin really dry. I have added emulsifiers so that I could then mix in water and aloe vera, but these were really tricky to work with, needing exact temperatures to melt emulsifying wax and overall they were not simple at all. I am also slightly loathed to recommend a DIY sun cream when I cannot say for sure what the SPF would be.
I have trawled ingredient lists looking for the best sun creams and my favourite brand is Badger which has one of the best ratings I can find in terms of very low toxicity. You can buy it here.
If this is slightly too pricey for you, then I also really like Green People whose sun creams are slightly more kind on the purse! You can buy it here.
However, covering ourselves in sun cream all the time, even if its a ‘clean’ sun cream is still not a good idea. Sun creams stop UVB rays penetrating the skin and these are the rays that the body needs to make Vitamin D.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone, not a vitamin, and it is well documented that the best source of vitamin D comes from the body converting it from exposure to the sun, and not from supplements. (4)
Vitamin D is essential to the body – it strengthens the immune system, bones and teeth (because it helps the body use calcium). It is needed for muscle function, optimal blood pressure and cardiovascular health AND it is thought to help PREVENT many forms of cancer! A study from the European Journal of Cancer found that those who had exposure to the sun prior to being diagnosed with melanoma had higher survival rates than those who had no sun exposure. (5)
Interestingly rates of skin cancer are higher in indoor workers than those who work outside! A study in Medical Hypotheses concluded that this is partly because people inside are still exposed to UVA rays which penetrate glass, but are not exposed to the UVB rays which are needed to make vitamin D. (6)
Anecdotally, a GP friend told me that she has seen increased rates of Rickets in children which she believes is due to vitamin D deficiency, which may partly be due to children not being exposed to the sun.
A good balanced diet, high in raw vegetables and healthy fats, and low in processed foods will help to ensure that the body has a good balance between Omega-6 and Omega-3 oils, which will help the skin’s natural defences against burning.
In addition, the antioxidants in raw vegetables will help to eliminate the free radicals caused by sun damage in the body. (7)
My conclusion and recommendation
It is a careful balancing act! We all need to be exposed to sunlight to get enough vitamin D to maintain a strong and healthy immune system and to help prevent disease. But we do not want to overexpose ourselves to the sun and damage our skin.
We should try to get outside every day to expose our skin to the sun (without sun cream). 10 minutes in full sunshine may be enough for someone with very fair skin, others will need longer and of course more time would be needed on cloudy days. Use your common sense about what is right for you.
If you are going to be outside on very hot sunny days for long periods of time then wear a hat and cover up with suitable clothing. As a last resort use sun cream, but always buy the ‘cleanest’ you can afford to avoid nasties that can be damaging to the body.