I’m trying out something new today. Over on my personal Instagram, I’ve posted about my favourite sunscreens before and usually people are quite interested so I thought I would take a deeper dive into the topic and provide some recommendations.
There are usually a few questions that come up when we talk about sun exposure and so let’s look at each question individually:
What’s Wrong with Conventional Sunscreen? The trouble with most conventional sunscreen brands (think Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, Ombrelle etc.) is that they contain a very loooong list of synthetic ingredients. This list usually include parabens, phthalates, oxybenzone and other products generated from the petroleum and plastics industry. I’m not going to dispute the scientific evidence behind the toxicity of these compounds at length here. In brief, there is evidence that these compounds are hormone disrupting and can cause skin irritation. Our skin is our largest organ with an immense capacity to absorb what we put on it. The skin is our first barrier defense against pathogens and threats. Our skin helps us cool down by sweating and is necessary for Vitamin D production. Translate: don’t mess with the skin! Any chemical that is being spread liberally on our largest organ while our pores open up deeper as we bake in the sun just doesn’t sound like a good idea. Furthermore, not only does conventional sunscreen disrupt our own bodies, it also dissolves into the water we are swimming in and alters the environment for marine life.
For these reasons, let’s try to use methods of protecting us from the sun that are more in line with how our ancestors have always done it because ancient wisdom that has spanned generations and stood the test of time is usually better than anything we’ve developed more recently.
For more research on the problems with conventional sunscreen, read this: https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/
How Much Sun is too Much Sun? As I’ve mentioned above, our skin is the site of our body’s synthesis of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that is critical, not only for calcium absorption and bone health, but also our immune system. Unlike other nutrients, like Vitamin C, calcium or protein which can be found abundantly in food, Vitamin D is mostly present in milk (fortified in conventional dairy and naturally in raw milk from grass fed animals), cod liver, egg yolks, lard and butter. Still, it is difficult to provide your body with enough Vitamin D from food alone. Not only that, our body’s synthesis of Vitamin D produces other cofactors that help protect us from damage the sun may cause. That’s why the sun shines so brightly above us and why we benefit from regular sun exposure directly on our skin to help us generate Vitamin D.
Sadly, on an average day, we don’t get enough sun. Most of us work, cook and socialize inside. The kind of sun exposure we do get can be likened to binge drinking. You don’t drink all week long and then on the weekend, you down a ton of alcohol and have the world’s worst hangover. Ton of alcohol=day on the beach; hangover=sunburn. Sunburns and fear of skin cancer have led us to fear the sun and to slather sunscreen on to protect us.
Here’s the thing, it’s not quite that simple. Let’s get a little science-y here for a minute.
The sun emits 2 types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB:
|Penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin||Act on the superficial layers of the skin|
|Mainly responsible for tanning the skin. Do NOT cause sunburn.||Can cause tanning but will also cause a sunburn|
|Penetrate clouds and glass||Cannot penetrate glass. Can penetrate clouds and bounces easily off of bright surfaces (snow, water etc).|
|Sunscreen provides some protection from UVA.||Sunscreen provides excellent protection from UVB|
The effect of UVA and UVB rays on our skin differs based on how much melanin (pigment) our skin contains. The more melanin we have, the more innate protection we have from the effects of the sun because melanin is a powerful antioxidant. This makes sense, because those who grew up in sunny climates needed to develop ways to protect themselves from long hours of sun exposure. If you are able to tan, then the UV rays are helping your skin produce more melanin which is protective. By nature, if we have darker skin, we have a harder time synthesizing Vitamin D and so we need longer sun exposure times. Similarly, we can be in the sun for longer and not get a sunburn, whereas a fair skinned person, will burn quickly because they lack melanin.
Now before you pour that sunscreen all over yourself, remember this: a fair skinned person still needs safe sun exposure to stimulate Vitamin D production.
So how much is too much sun? Getting sunburns over and over again will cause damage to the skin and increase your risk for skin cancer. But isn’t it nice that Mother Nature gives us a warning sign? Sunburn is a warning that you have had too much sun.
So do I even need sunscreen? A very good question indeed. In my opinion, sunscreen is not the panacea it has been touted to be. Sunscreen is one valuable tool to help protect us from getting a sunburn but it does not provide the only form of sun protection we should be using.
Once you are starting to burn, you need to put a physical barrier between your skin and the sun:
clothing, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, shade.
Sunscreen will help you stay out in the sun longer without burning. I understand this is important, because sometimes you need to be outside in full sun for a picnic or a beach day or outdoor work and it’s not always accessible to be in the shade. Just remember, that sunscreen is not protecting you from the oxidative damage of UVA rays. Remember that almost all sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays while they do a great job of blocking out UVB rays. So while you can take away the warning sign of sunburn, you are still subjecting yourself to sun damage. Covering up and placing a physical barrier between you and the sun always has to be in your sun protection arsenal. The ability of sunscreen, conventional or not can never replace that.
I recommend the “pinch test”-pinch yourself often while in the sun to see if your skin whitens and then turns red. In darker skinned individuals, a burn might not be so obvious so I recommend observing for itchy skin or pain/irritation when your skin rubs over your clothes or towel.
SPF stands for “sun protection factor”, and provides an estimate of how much longer it will take for your skin to burn. So a sunscreen with an SPF of 15, means that it will take you 15x as many minutes to burn in the sun than if you didn’t have sunscreen on. I personally, use SPF 15 because I don’t want to mask my burn and stay out in the sun for too long without putting on a physical barrier.
What Ingredients Should I Avoid? So when you are putting sunscreen on, it’s best to avoid some of those more harmful substances I mentioned. Below are some of the names of UVB blockers that I would avoid. For more info, see this: https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/the-trouble-with-sunscreen-chemicals/
A note about aerosol sunscreens, please avoid these all the time. While they may seem convenient, imagine how much crap is getting into your body, now that you’re absorbing the sunscreen chemicals both through your skin and your respiratory system. Not to mention the pollution both by producing aerosol cans and by emitting the sunscreen into the air. And the spraying action of these sunscreens makes it so you’re spraying this into other people’s personal spaces and that makes you a no bueno beach neighbour. Just please, don’t buy this stuff.
What are some Safe Sunscreen Ingredients? Mineral based sunscreens provide very safe methods of sun protection. When these minerals dissolve in the water they are not harmful to our fine marine friends.
- Zinc Oxide: this is the same compound mineral used in baby diaper rash cream. It’s considered safe widely recommended as an effective sunscreen. I love it except that some formulations can be hard to blend in and sit on the skin in a white layer.
- Titanium Dioxide: a mineral that helps disperse the sun’s UV rays. I like sunscreens that use both zinc and titanium because they are often easier to blend in and provide further UVA and UVB protection. Both zinc and titanium dioxide are stable under the heat of the sun.
What are Some Good Alternative Brands to Try? Here are some of my favourite products to add to your sun safety arsenal. Again, I cannot stress enough, get in the sun everyday if you can but please:
- Cover Up: hat, clothing, sunglasses.
- Seek Shade: get under a tree, set up an umbrella or take a break inside often.
- Never let yourself get burned: know your skin type. Stay in the sun and get out before you burn. Don’t use sunscreen to prevent burning and sit there damaging your skin just to get a nice, even tan.
- Use your full sun protection arsenal: use sunscreen if you can’t avoid sun exposure but never rely on it exclusively as your protection from the sun.
Favourite Body Sunscreens:
Caribbean Solutions. I love this sweet smelling sunscreen which contains zinc and titanium dioxide as well a essential oils and cacao butter. This sunscreen is easy to blend in and provides excellent protection at a great cost.
Green Beaver. This sunscreen is only available in SPF 30 or higher. It’s a great Canadian product that also uses zinc and titanium dioxide. It is unscented which helps if you are sensitive to fragrance. It also blends in great.
Favourite Travel Option: Badger Balm Stick. This one is a compact American made sunscreen. I love that it is in a stick form because it is convenient and easy to pack even in small bags. It goes on thicker and can leave a bit of white film but is great for targeting specific areas (i.e. nose, face, tops of feet etc.) I love the Badger brand, but I personally find their body sunscreens to be too hard to spread.
Favourite Face Sunscreen: Consonant Sunscreen. This is an amazing Canadian made product. I blend a bit with my regular moisturizer and it spreads so easily. It provides a matte finish which is also a great base for makeup.
Fun Bonus Recommendation: Living Libations Everybody Loves the Sunshine. This is an essential oil based Canadian made elixir. I use it as aftersun care and I also blend into other sunscreens to help make them more spreadable. It’s very moisturizing and nourishing for the skin.
Hope you found this helpful and please leave any comments or questions below. Happy Sunday (get it?)!