Doctors and reputable health organisations, such as the Cancer Institute, have been warning about the dangers of too much sun and recommending the liberal application of sunscreen for years. We all know that prolonged sun exposure can cause skin cancer, which is now the most common cancer in the UK, as well as more ‘innocent’ skin changes, such as wrinkles and loss of elasticity. Unfortunately many sunscreens contain harmful ingredients that may even increase your risk of skin cancer. So what can you do if you want to protect yourself from the sun?
Let’s find out!
Why a certain amount of exposure to sunlight is necessary
Whilst too much sun is harmful, your body requires sunlight in order to manufacture vitamin D. Vitamin D performs several important functions – in fact vitamin D:
- Regulates calcium and phosphate levels, which is important for healthy teeth and bones. Calcitriol (a type of vitamin D) improves the efficiency of the absorption of calcium in the kidney and stimulates the absorption of calcium and phosphate in the intestines, helping to prevent bone loss and bone diseases (Bolland et al, 2014).
- Strengthens the immune system and reduces the risk of viral and bacterial infections (Hewison, 2011)
- Protects against cardiovascular disease (Wang et al, 2008)
- Helps to reduce the risk of around 15 types of cancer, including breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer and lymphoma (Garland et al, 2006)
- Reduces the risk of diabetes (Hypponen et al, 2002; Holick, 2004; Pittas et al, 2012).
- Reduces the risk of asthma (Brehm et al, 2009)
- Reduces the risk of mood swings and depression (Bertone-Johnson, 2009)
- Reduces the risk of pregnancy complications, such as caesarean section and pre-eclampsia (Bodnar et al, 2007), autism (Cannell, 2008) and language disorders in children (Whitehouse et al, 2012)
- Increases overall life expectancy (Bjelakovic et al, 2011; Autier et al, 2007)
Why too much sun is harmful
The problem arises with too much exposure to sunlight – sunlight emits Ultraviolet Radiation (UV), which is divided into three categories: UVA, UVB and UVC radiation. UVC radiation is not considered as harmful as UVA and UVB radiation, because much of it is absorbed by the atmosphere prior to reaching your skin. UVA and UVB rays on the other hand, are able to penetrate deep into your skin where they may damage cells and increase their risk of turning cancerous. So, whilst a nice, evenly tanned skin might look healthy, it has nevertheless involved a certain amount of DNA damage to your skin cells. Although your body will eventually replace dead or damaged skin cells with new ones, in some cases it may not be unable to fully repair the damage and skin tumours, such as basal carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, may result.
Sunburn, which can lead to swelling and blisters, is not only unsightly; it also causes the upper layers of your skin to release chemicals that make your blood vessels swell and leak fluids. Although your skin will ultimately heal, permanent damage may have been done. Indeed, some experts believe that a single episode of blistering sunburn before the age of 20, may double your chance of developing malignant melanoma – the most aggressive form of skin cancer that’s responsible for some 75% of all skin cancer related deaths.
And, in addition to increasing your risk of skin cancer, frequent exposure to the sun is one of the main causes of accelerated skin aging.
Why not all sunscreens are safe
It is widely accepted that the use of sunscreens helps to prevent skin cancer. Numerous scientific studies, however, suggest that this is not always the case. In principle, sunscreens work by preventing UV rays from penetrating and damaging your skin, thus significantly reducing your risk of less malignant skin cancers, such as basal and squamous cell carcinoma. Unfortunately, the majority of sunscreens only protect your skin from UVB radiation rather than UVA radiation – for a long time scientists believed that UVB was responsible for most types of skin damage, yet more recent research now suggests that UVA radiation, which penetrates deeper into your skin, is actually more harmful and actively contributes to the development of skin cancer, as well as unwelcome fine lines and wrinkles.
To make matters worse, the UV-protective substances in the sunscreen are themselves absorbed into your skin, where they may raise the number of free radicals in your body and thus increase your risk of melanoma, which as you’ve just learnt, is the most malignant form of skin cancer.
The active ingredients in sunscreens and protective lip balms that can lead to skin cancer and may cause additional toxic reactions within your body, include:
- Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate) – may disrupt oestrogen balance, and thyroid function. When exposed to sunlight this ingredient triggers a strong increase in free radicals, which in turn increases your risk of cancer (Dodson et al, 2012).
- Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) – causes a sharp increase in free radicals when exposed to sunlight, which causes DNA damage and may lead to cancer. This ingredient can also disturb hormonal balance, which can lead to endometriosis (Cook et al, 2001).
- Octisalate – absorbs UVB and is in itself not harmful, but does enhance the absorption of other ingredients that can lead to skin cancer (Mulliken et al, 2012).
- Avobenzone (Parsol 1789) – absorbs UVA radiation, but is an unstable ingredient that’s readily degraded by sunlight. The chemicals that subsequently arise can be harmful, particularly in combination with Octinoxate (Sayre et al, 2005).
- Octocrylene: produces oxygen radicals upon exposure to UV light, which can lead to DNA damage and cancer (Mulliken et al, 2012).
- Homosalate: forms toxic metabolites, can lightly disrupt hormonal balance and may increase the penetration of certain toxic substances within the body (Burnett et al, 2012).
- Ensulizole (Phenylbenzimidazole sulphonic acid): a UVB protector that produces free radicals upon exposure to sunlight, which can lead to DNA damage and cancer (Loden et al, 2011)
- Padimate O – a derivative of the now banned ingredient known as PABA, which stimulates the release of free radicals, causing DNA damage and thus increasing your risk of cancer. It also disturbs oestrogen balance and may trigger allergic reactions (Knowland et al, 1993).
- Menthyl anthranilate: may produce harmful oxygen radicals upon exposure to sunlight, which can cause DNA damage and cancer (Jansen et al, 2013).
- Sulisobenzone (benzophenone-4): may cause skin and eye irritations. Although it’s not absorbed directly into the skin, it can promote the absorption of other ingredients (Scheuer et al, 2006).
Tips for enjoying the sun safely
As your body requires sunlight on a daily basis in order to manufacture vitamin D, it’s still advisable to sit in the sun for short periods of time. Below are some helpful tips on how to enjoy the sun safely.
1) Choose for a natural, mineral-based sunscreen that’s free from the toxic chemicals listed above.
2) Restrict your unprotected sun exposure to a maximum of twenty minutes, twice daily (depending on your skin type).
3) Avoid the sun between 11.00 am and 3.00 pm when UV rays are at their strongest.
4) Always wear a cap / hat and sunglasses when in direct sunlight.
5) Use a natural after-sun skin care product, such as:
- Organic coconut oil – organic coconut oil has proven extremely useful in the treatment of skin complaints and sunburn. It is kind, gentle and exceptionally moisturising when applied directly to skin, hair and lips and, as it is entirely allergen free, is the perfect after-sun skin care product for those with sensitive skin.
- Aloe Vera – although aloe vera does not directly protect your skin from UV rays, it is extremely nourishing and healing, and thus ideal for use as an effective after-sun treatment. As well as applying directly to skin, try stirring into your favourite juices and smoothies.
Superfoods – sensible sun protection from Mother Nature
If you want to enjoy the sun responsibly this summer, you can help to protect your skin from the inside by enjoying a number of powerful superfoods that offer natural sun protection, including:
- Organic spirulina powder – contains phycocyanin, the water-soluble blue pigment that gives organic spirulina powder its striking blue tint. This potent antioxidant actively protects your skin against UV radiation and helps to keep it looking young.
- Organic cacao products – the polyphenols in organic cacao products, including organic cacao beans, organic cacao nibs and organic cacao powder, provide protection against acute and long-term sun damage. Indeed, a recent study by London scientists found participants who ate 20 grams of cacao for 12 weeks were able to stay in the sun for twice as long as those who didn’t, without getting sunburned.
- Organic matcha green tea powder – also rich in the polyphenols that provide protection from sun damage, and in particular the polyphenol, EGCG, which has been seen to slow or halt the growth of cancer cells.
- Pure krill oil – pure krill oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which according to researchers at Manchester University, may help to protect against sun damage, boost immunity to sunlight and prevent skin cancer.
- Organic coconut oil – organic coconut oil contains vitamin A, an antioxidant that helps to delay skin aging. It also furnishes your body with enough Vitamin E to repair damaged skin (vitamin E plays an important role in photo protection, helping to prevent UV-induced free radical damage to skin, such as fine lines and wrinkles, as well as supporting new skin cell growth and accelerating cell regeneration), supplies the protein that your body needs to internally and externally rejuvenate skin, and encourages the absorption of essential fatty acids, such as omega-3 fatty acids.
- Kale – kale is packed with essential antioxidants that help to combat free radicals, and the cruciferous family of vegetables that it belongs to has been linked to skin cancer prevention.
- MSM (methylsulfonylmethane) – although MSM products, such as MSM Pure Crystal Flakes and MSM Veggie Capsules, do not protect against the effects of sunlight, they are extremely nourishing for skin, hair and nails. They also strengthen your immune system and can help to alleviate the symptoms of allergies.