It’s the ultimate summer paradox. You wait eight or nine months to finally enjoy the great outdoors. Then, you’re forced to choose: you can expose yourself to too much sun and a risk of skin cancer, or to the toxic chemicals in sunscreen.
If that’s not enough, you also have to find the right balance between getting enough vitamin D and protecting your skin.
The good news is that there are a number of ways to stay safe while you have fun in the sun, including consuming some foods and supplements that help protect your skin from sun damage.
Don’t get sunburned
Sunburn hurts like crazy. And who wants to look like a lobster?
Besides, many scientists report that consistent overexposure to the sun’s UV rays triggers melanoma, the most serious and dangerous form of skin cancer. Left unchecked, melanoma can spread to your organs and bones and turn deadly.
To the best of my knowledge, it hasn’t been proved that sun exposure and melanoma are linked, but I’m convinced sun damage does lead to a less serious form of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, and you don’t want that, either.
In either case, the cancer doesn’t appear until many years after the sunburn.
So, it would seem that the best solution is to lather on the sunscreen, but once again the research lets us down and doesn’t provide much proof that it helps – and does provide some evidence that sunscreens can be dangerous.
Only one prospective study actually supports the idea that sunscreen use prevents melanoma.
Contradictory research on melanoma
An Australian study reported positive results from daily use of SPF 15, when combined with other sun protection strategies. During the study, the number of new melanoma cases was cut in half and invasive melanoma cases decreased by 74 percent.1
However, despite the huge increase in sunscreen use over the last 50 years, the rate of melanoma cases has tripled.
According to the National Cancer Institute, melanoma cases rose from 7.9 per 100,000 people in 1975 to 22.6 per 100,000 in 2017 (NCI 2020).
I’m not sold on the idea that this indicates a failure on the part of sunscreens. I think it’s likely that the popularity of sunbathing and use of tanning parlors has soared in the last 50 years and the use of sunscreen simply hasn’t kept up.
Of course, sunscreen – assuming that it prevents cancer at all — also has to be applied carefully, and then applied again and again as it wears off or washes off in the ocean or pool.
And then there’s this: Some studies show that regular sun exposure actually means lower melanoma risk.2 Outdoor workers and those living in the American Sunbelt actually have a lower melanoma incidence when compared with those living in cooler, northern climates with far less sun exposure.3
I’ve also heard anecdotally that melanomas are common on parts of the body never exposed to the sun. That pokes another hole in the theory of the sun’s link to melanoma. But don’t forget, there’s a stronger link between sun exposure and other, less deadly types of skin cancer. And cancer aside, excessive sun exposure ages your skin – and much like cancer, the ugly effect doesn’t show up until many years later.
So, what’s a person to do? The most obvious solution is to limit how much time your skin is exposed to the sun. Cover up, or stay in the shade. More on that in a moment.
Meanwhile, don’t rely on sunscreen alone. Here’s why.
When sunscreen is dangerous
Everyone “knows” you should wear sunscreen before going outdoors. What most people don’t know is that when they put on sunscreen they’re likely rubbing a toxic brew of chemicals onto their skin.
You see, sunscreens use either mineral or chemical UV filters to keep harmful rays from the skin. Most sunscreens use chemical filters such as oxybenzone.
Studies show this chemical is an endocrine disrupter, messing up hormone signals, reducing testosterone, and triggering skin allergies on top of everything else. Researchers have found this chemical in the blood of 96 percent of Americans, and also in women’s breastmilk.4
Other sunscreen chemicals such as octinoxate and homosalate also disrupt human hormones.
Not to beat around the bush: I don’t use sunscreens and I’m appalled at the idea of rubbing these chemicals all over myself, not to mention coating babies and small children with the stuff.
Toxic chemicals found in the bloodstream
The FDA claims these ingredients have “limited or no data characterizing (the effects of) their absorption.”5 In a study published in May, FDA scientists found that oxybenzone was one of four active chemical ingredients found in sunscreens, the others being avobenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule, that were “systemically absorbed” into users’ skin.6
Yet another FDA study found shocking levels of oxybenzone in the blood – a whopping 438 times higher than the cutoff for “safe” exposure.7 The high absorption rate of these ingredients means we need more study of their potential toxicity, the researchers wrote.
Experts also warn against spray sunscreen. The chemicals in these are modified into tiny “nano” particles and can be unsafe to breathe.
But even if you choose to avoid wearing chemical sunscreens, you’re still likely to come into contact with sunscreen chemicals.
Studies show these chemicals are now detectable in most water sources worldwide. And they’re hard to remove via wastewater treatments. In the oceans, they’re also harming sea life such as coral reefs. This is why Hawaii recently passed the first-ever ban on the use of sunscreens containing chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, and Florida is trying to follow suit.
A safer sunscreen choice
Sunscreen ingredients that offer the best and safest UV protection act as a physical, not chemical, barrier. They are mineral-based and rely largely on zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
The FDA noted that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the only two of 16 active ingredients commonly used in commercial sunscreens that are “generally recognized as safe and effective.” That’s a designation the FDA gives a substance when their experts consider it generally safe when used as intended.8
But it’s important to note that in their annual testing of sunscreens, Consumer Reports states that mineral-only products do not perform as well as those that contain chemical active ingredients.9
If you want to try a good mineral-based sunscreen, look for brands of children’s sunscreen. These are often entirely mineral-based since children are more sensitive to the chemicals in sunscreen.
Clothes that prevent sunburn
Like sunscreen, protective clothing provides a barrier between you and the sun. SPF-rated clothing is woven using tight stitches, making it harder for the sun to penetrate.
But there are caveats. Some companies treat the fabric with chemicals, meaning your skin is in contact with these chemicals. SPF clothing can also lose some of its effectiveness each time it’s stretched or washed.
Whether you choose SPF clothing or just regular cotton long sleeve shirts or pants, dermatologists advise spending most of your time outside early or late in the day if you’re trying to avoid excessive sun exposure. Cover up between the hours of 10am to 2pm when the sun’s rays are strongest.
In addition to long sleeves, it’s also a good idea to wear sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to block sun from around your eyes, head and neck. Those areas are far more sensitive to the sun’s aging effects.
Covering up your face is especially important for women and men who use anti-aging creams. These often contain vitamin A, or vitamin A products such as retinylpalmitate or retinol, which make the skin more susceptible to UV damage. Studies show that creams with vitamin A can increase your risk of cancerous skin tumors and lesions.
Foods and supplements that prevent sunburn
Recent research suggests that certain foods and supplements may be effective at preventing or delaying sunburn.
It makes sense, considering that the right nutrients help your organs function properly, and your skin is your largest organ. The biggest benefits appear to happen when you consume them daily for at least ten weeks, so make these nutrients the cornerstone of your daily healthy lifestyle.
- Foods high in beta-carotene. Leafy greens (kale and spinach), carrots, red peppers, and yellow fruits such as mangoes, melons, and apricots help reduce sunburn risk.10
- Cooked tomatoes or fresh watermelon. Cooked tomatoes are famous for their lycopene content, but watermelon contains even more lycopene. Lycopene absorbs both UVA and UVB radiation.11Both watermelon and tomatoes are at their peak during this sunny time of the year. Coincidence?
- Green tea.Contains antioxidant polyphenols that can protect against UV rays. Many studies have proven its efficacy. Consume it as a drink, or apply it to your skin.12
- Salmon and other foods high in omega-3s. These foods have photoprotective properties.13
- Astaxanthin supplements. This red nutrient found in shellfish appears to protect the epidermis from sunburn.14In a double-blind placebo-controlled study, researchers gave 23 healthy people either four mg of astaxanthan or a placebo before shining UV light on their skin. Researchers found the astaxanthin group experienced less UV-induced skin deterioration and their skin retained more moisture than the placebo group.15
- Chocolate. In research, those who ate dark chocolate didn’t sunburn, and had smoother and moister skin.16 Eat 0.8 ounces per day of darkchocolate to duplicate this effect. We don’t expect to hear many complaints about this one.
Enjoy these real foods regularly, but don’t assume you’re safe from burn because, oh, you just had a piece of watermelon or chocolate, or a cup of green tea. I would proceed carefully.
What about vitamin D?
So how do you balance vitamin D’s anti-cancer benefits with the idea that it’s possible to have too much of a good thing?
Get in the sun for 15 to 20 minutes with no sunscreen if you’re out during the peak of the day, from 10 am to 2 pm. Even an SPF of 8 blocks vitamin D production. So does clothing. You need direct skin exposure to get your D. You can stay out longer during nonpeak hours, but it all depends on your skin type.
The rule of thumb is: If your skin changes color, you were out too long. I’ll qualify that a bit by saying that if you’re out every day, you’re still likely to see some color as days and weeks go by. According to some “experts” any change of color equals damage, so keep that in mind.
If you live in an area of high sun intensity, start with a shorter amount of time. The closer you are to the equator, the more intense the sun. Whatever you do, don’t burn. Members of ethnic groups with darker skin pigments will need more time for vitamin D production. And at the same time, they can tolerate more exposure without damage than a light-skinned person can.
If you’re like most people, even with healthy daily sun exposure, you’ll still need a D supplement. It’s also a good idea to get your vitamin D3 levels tested every six months to ensure they’re high enough to protect you from cancer.
- C. Green et al., Reduced Melanoma After Regular Sunscreen Use: Randomized Trial Follow-up. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 2011, 29(3), 257–263.
- Johan Moan et al., The Relationship Between UV Exposure and Incidence of Skin Cancer. Photodermatology, Photoimmunology&Photomedicine, 2015, 31(1), 26–35.
- National Cancer Institute, SEER Stat Fact Sheets: Melanoma of the Skin. Available at seer.cancer.gov/statfacts/html/melan.html