Eating through your skin: Sunscreen Safety
By Dr Mahalia Freed, ND
Our skin is porous. We get this, intuitively, when we observe moisturizer being sucked up by our thirsty winter skin. The implication? Anything you put on your skin you are effectively “eating”,but without the benefit of the digestive tract’s extensive immune system and processing. Absorption through the skin is well-established scientific fact. Unfortunately, only 11% of the 10 500 ingredients in personal care products are tested for safety even by the industry’s own internal review panel. There are still known hormone disruptors and carcinogens even in “natural” personal care products. And sunscreen is no exception. Indeed, because of the lack of regulation, many sunscreens on the market not only contain toxic ingredients, but may not even protect us from ultraviolet radiation. The US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) has analyzed sunscreens annually since 2007. Their 2014 Sunscreen Report can be found here.
The good news? There are more nanoparticle mineral sunscreen options available now, without harmful, hormone-disrupting chemicals, thanks to consumer pressure and groups like EWG. For an excellent, searchable list of what is both effective and safe, go to EWG’s Skin Deep 2014 site.
The bad news? Well, as the EWG outlines, “there is no consensus that sunscreen prevents skin cancer”, and indeed, there is evidence that sunscreen might INCREASE the risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. This is due to several factors: 1) sunscreen in North America protects against UVA, which causes burns, but not always UVB, which can cause cellular/DNA damage; 2) people using sunscreen feel protected and thus may spend MORE time in the sun; 3) Vitamin D production in our skin is blocked by sunscreen, and low vitamin D levels have been associated with various cancers as well as depressed mood.
The prescription: Know your skin tone and decide accordingly how much sun exposure is healthy for you. Be strategic about the time of day you are outside, if scheduling permits. Find shade, or make shade. Wear sunglasses.
The best sunscreen according to the EWG? A shirt and a hat.
Okay, so what do we need to know to protect ourselves from skin damage and prevent skin cancer?
- Use EWG’s sunscreen report – www.ewg.org – for a comprehensive guide to which products are both effective and safe, and what to look for.
- Read labels carefully for ingredients, but note that there is as of yet no regulation of label claims.
- Use your own judgement. If you or your children burn easily, limit exposure by wearing sun-protective clothing, avoiding midday sun, and looking for shade. Use sunscreen only when necessary, and choose carefully. If you have darker skin, build up a tan gradually and you may not need sunscreen as often, if at all.
- Weigh the risks and the benefits. Note that the relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer is not as linear as we are led to believe. Risk factors for skin cancer include fair skin, frequent sunburns, moles, and family history of skin cancer. While it is true that more sun exposure may be associated with more sunburns for fair skinned individuals, this is not true of everyone. Furthermore, vitamin D, which is produced in our skin with unprotected sun exposure, is known to be antiproliferative, as in protective against cancers. And indeed, there is abundant research linking higher vitamin D status to lower rates of cancers including lung, breast, colon, and prostate cancers.
- If you are fair skinned, or don’t spend much time in the sun, talk to your doctor(s) about supplementing with vitamin D.
- Consider increasing antioxidants in your diet to protect your skin. Seasonal berries are a great way to do this. Green tea can be another good source of skin-protecting nutrients (catechins in this case).
- Good fat also offers your skin protection. Ensure that you eat good fats like olive oil, avocado, coconut, and clean animal fat, and moisturize before and after sun exposure.
- Finally, certain herbs have promise both topically and orally as skin protection. Milk thistle seed extract, green tea, and St John’s Wort oil are two herbs that are easy to find and have proven effectiveness. I recommend creating a moisturizer with milk thistle infused in st john’s wort oil, and using that as your basic sunscreen. And, why not sip on iced green tea while you enjoy the summer’s ease?