Sunshine, Sunscreen, and Skin Health: What You Need to Know

Written by

Deborah Freudenmann BHSc

There is nothing quite like the feeling of the warm sun on your skin as you take a stroll outside. No matter the season, most people look forward to sunny days and find any excuse they can to spend some time in the great outdoors.

While I love the feeling of the sun’s rays on my skin, as a health practitioner, I cannot help but remind myself that prolonged and excessive sunshine exposure can be also damaging.  

Thank goodness for sunscreen. The ideal solution for prolonged sun exposure. 

Sadly, not all sunscreen can provide you with a healthy non-toxic solution. While they can protect you from overexposure to damaging rays, many sunscreen brands contain toxins that pose plenty of other health risks, often outweighing the benefits.

In this article, we’ll review the basics of skin health and sunshine to expose some of the unhealthy toxins that you might find in your sunscreen  Then, we’ll learn about some healthy alternatives so you can enjoy your extended time in the sun while keeping your skin safe!

Skin Health: Essential Basics

The skin is the body’s biggest organ, and it is also the body’s first defence system against external invaders.

The primary role of the skin is protection. It protects the body from the outside world, helps us adjust to changes in temperature by opening and closing its pores, and creates a barrier between our internal organs and the external environment. Your skin keeps micro-organisms, radiation, and chemicals on the outside.

Research shows that the skin is also a biological “factory” for a number of proteins, lipids, and signalling molecules that make it essential for the immune, nervous, and endocrine systems.

Last but not least, the skin protects our internal organs from UV rays of the sun, while taking advantage of this exposure to produce essential vitamin D. It does this thanks to melanin – a natural, body own sunscreen that helps to protect our skin from UV radiation. In general, people with darker skin have more melanin, and people with lighter skin have less melanin. Thus, people with lighter skin are generally more vulnerable to the negative effects of UV rays.

The Benefits of Sunshine

Feeling the warmth, vibrancy, and glow of the sun is one of humankind’s most treasured experiences. Throughout time, we have learned to rely on the sun and have even worshipped it. The sun can lift our spirits and motivate us.

Scientifically speaking, exposure to sunshine has many well-researched benefits to our health. Most health benefits are linked to the production of vitamin D in the skin as a result of its exposure to ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays from the sun. Having enough vitamin D in the body since very early in life is linked to:

Understanding the Skin Cancer Risk

While we do need exposure to the sun for vitamin D production and general health, too much of a good thing can cause problems.

Over the last twenty years, the rate of ozone depletion has accelerated significantly. Since the ozone helps to filter the sun’s damaging rays, ozone depletion means that more damaging radiation reaches the skin. The sun is said to “cause” cancer because it forms free radicals in the skin. Now theoretically, sunscreen helps to protect your skin from the radiation, however avoidance of free radicals completely is not possible. This is why most sunscreens contain natural antioxidants such as Vitamin E to combat the formation of free radicals. 

Without a doubt, excessive and prolonged sun exposure as well as frequent sunburns does result in an increased risk of skin cancer. 

However, it is only “a cause” and not “the cause”. 

Chemically-based sunscreens don’t just sit on your skin but are absorbed into your system. 

Some of the potential risks of chemical sunscreens include: 

  • Hormone disruption – mimicking hormones such as oestrogen which increases risk of hormonal cancers 
  • Allergic reactions (which impacts the immune system) 
  • Petrochemicals cause general systemic inflammation by clogging up ion-channels in cell membranes
  • Bioaccumulation of petrochemicals in tissues and organs cause mutations
  • Chemicals found in breastmilk, thus indicating the risk of increased toxic exposure to a baby during pregnancy or throughout breastfeeding years 
  • Oxybenzone has been found to lower thyroid hormones (disrupting endocrine function) 
 

Other factors to cause skin cancer include: weakened immune system, chronic and systemic inflammation (gut function, microbiome), chemical and toxin exposure, liver detoxification issues, history of radiation exposure, mitochondrial dysfunction… cancer is a complex and multifaceted condition with numerous causes. 

Basal cell carcinoma

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is the most common skin cancer, making up about 80% of cases. This type tends to grow slowly and is usually reversible. BCC affects the basal cells, cells that help the skin regenerate after old cells have died. This type of cancer usually affects the head and neck, as they typically get the most sun exposure.

BCC is noticeable on the skin and looks like a sore. These lesions tend to be pearly-white coloured, pink, or translucent bumps. They can also rupture, bleed, and form scabs. In some cases, the lesion will appear brown, black, or bluish, or form reddish patches.

Squamous cell carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinoma, or SCC, is the second most common type of skin cancer and develops in the squamous cells. These cells are found in the middle layers of the skin and SCC can develop anywhere in the body. SCC is a relatively aggressive skin cancer as these cells grow quickly. Most SCCs are reversible when they are caught early but can be serious if left unaddressed.

Like basal cell carcinoma, SCC is also mostly found near sun-exposed areas but tends to target the scalp, hands, ears, and lips. But it can develop anywhere. In some cases, SCC is found in areas that do not see the sun, such as the inside of the mouth or around the genitals.

SCC usually looks like scaly red patches, sores, or wart-like growths or nodules. These lesions may itch or bleed.

Melanoma

Melanoma is the least most common type of skin cancer. It occurs in melanocytes, the cells that give skin their pigment. Melanoma is caused by the overexposure to UV radiations that damages the melanocytes and causes them to grow out of control. Melanoma can develop in skin anywhere on the body, whether there has been sun exposure or not.

The reason melanoma is so dangerous is not because of the melanoma itself, but the fact that this type of skin cancer easily spreads to other organs and causes cancer elsewhere in the body.

Melanoma comes in many forms and may develop in pre-existing moles. However, it is important to note that unlike BCC or SCC, up to 80% of melanoma arises in normal-looking skin, not moles or lesions. To identify a potential melanoma, consider the “ABCDE rule”:

  • A – Asymmetrical (the mole does not look the same on both sides)
  • B – Border (there is an uneven border around the lesion)
  • C – Color (there may be several different shades of brown, tan, or black, or changes in color)
  • D – Diameter/dark (a mole that is larger than ¼ inch in diameter)
  • E – Evolving (the mole changes, looks different from other moles, or develops a new symptom)

The Toxic Trouble with Sunscreen

You can prevent sunburns with sunscreen when you use them properly, but as I've mentioned above many conventional sunscreens have toxic ingredients that are bad for the environment and your health and can cause skin cancer.

Some of the active ingredients in sunscreens include the following:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate
  • Zinc Oxide
  • Titanium Oxide
  • Chemical filters

After the US Food and Drug Administration reviewed many of the common active ingredients in sunscreen, they realized that there was limited or no information around their absorption into the skin. They then published studies in 2019 and 2020 that revealed that ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and avobenzone are absorbed into the body after one use. These chemicals then stay in the skin and circulate in the body weeks after use.

Even though there are data gaps around all of the effects of sunscreen ingredients, EWG summarized some of the research on the most common sunscreen ingredients. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals that are absorbed pose health risks including skin cancer.

Oxybenzone

This is commonly found in both sunscreens and makeup products. Its toxicity increases with exposure to UV rays. It is quickly found in blood levels after application, and can also be found in mother’s milk, placental tissues, and semen. This is associated with altered birth weight and hormone disruption, and relatively high rates of skin allergy.

Octinoxate

This ingredient is known to cause dermatitis (skin irritation) and allergic reactions when exposed to light. It is fat-soluble, which means that it can be absorbed by the body and stored in fat tissues (like the placenta). This can also react with avobenzone (also commonly used) to reduce the effectiveness of the sunscreen.

Avobenzone

Can have hormone-like activity, found in breast milk, and moderate rates of skin allergy. Avobenzone is also known to break down when exposed to the sun, releasing harmful free radicals. Free radicals contribute to faster aging and illness progression. Because it breaks down, other harmful chemicals are paired with avobenzone in sunscreens:

Homosalate

Homosalate is an estrogen, androgen, and progesterone disruptor, has toxic breakdown products.

Octisalate

Deeply penetrates the sin and in some cases may cause skin allergies.

Octocrylene

This causes a relatively high rate of skin allergies and may damage the cardiovascular system.

A 2016 study led by researchers at UC Berkeley and Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas demonstrate how a short break from certain conventional beauty products (makeup, shampoos and lotions) can result in a significant drop in levels of hormone-disrupting chemicals.

“Chemical presence decreased by as much as 45 percent

Analysis of urine samples before and after a three-day trial in which the participants used the lower- chemical products found significant drops in levels of these chemicals in the body. Metabolites of diethyl phthalate, commonly used in fragrances, decreased 27 percent by the end of the trial period. Methyl and propyl parabens, used as preservatives in cosmetics, dropped 44 and 45 percent respectively. Both triclosan, found in antibacterial soaps and some brands of toothpaste, and benzophenone-3 (BP-3), found in some sunscreens under the name oxybenzone, fell 36 percent.”

If you are currently using a toxic sunscreen, don't fret as you can make some small changes. The above study has shown that swapping to a healthy non-toxic solution can already make a difference in your overall toxic exposure. This is the first step and a very important one. 

Sunscreen and the Environment

The chemicals present in your sunscreen do not just affect you and your body – they also seep into the earth and waters that you spend time in.

Our oceans are most notably affected, as we so often lather up with sunscreen, then jump into the ocean for a swim. When we do so, those same chemicals that leech into our skin also seep into the water. Aerosol sprays leave many chemicals to land in the air or sand, where they, too, end up contaminating the ocean.

Over time, our use of sunscreens has led to a build-up of toxic chemicals in our oceans. These substances have had devastating effects on our coral reef and their ability to regenerate, reproduce, and thrive. The result has been the tragic bleaching of our world’s great reefs. In Hawaii the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate, have already been restricted due to their harmful effect on the coral reefs.

Our oceans are only getting worse. To help reverse the damage these toxic chemicals, microplastics, and other pollutants have done to the oceans, we need to take a step in the right direction with safer, non-toxic sunscreens.

How to Tell if You Are Using Toxic Sunscreen

The best way to determine if you are using sunscreen with toxic ingredients is by checking the label for active ingredients. If it contains the potentially unsafe active ingredients I mentioned above, you should look for alternatives.

Learn more about which ingredients to avoid here

https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/

Healthy Sunscreen Solutions

While most conventional sunscreens have a toxic disadvantage, there are healthy alternatives available. To stay safe and still enjoy your extended time in the sun, try these alternatives:

  • Sunscreens with physical filters, rather than chemical filters. The active ingredients may be titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, avenobenzone, and Mexoryl SX.
  • Wearing hats and clothing that covers your skin.
  • Organic mineral-based sunscreens like People4Ocean.

People4Ocean: Safe Sunscreen for People and the Planet

We love to recommend People4Ocean, a safe and effective sunscreen that protects our skin and the reefs. The chemicals in sunscreen are not just harmful to our skin, they are damaging our precious coral reefs. By eliminating toxic ingredients and creating an effective botanical sunscreen, People4Ocean allows us to stay safe and protect the oceans, too. 

Unlike conventional sunscreens, their products are 100% natural and biodegradable. The sunscreen is zinc oxide-based and contains a variety of natural oils that not only feel amazing on the skin, but they also help the skin look and stay amazingly healthy for years to come.

Not to mention your order directly contributes a percentage of your purchase to the P4O Restoration Fund, dedicated to saving coral reefs worldwide. 

10% OFF available at website. 

 

A golden, creamy and deeply nourishing SPF30 sunscreen, with a semi-matte mineral finish. Apply everyday to prepare and protect your skin against dry climates, pollution and UVA/UVB damage. Infused with carrot pigments and essential oils, this nutrient-rich formula provides high sun protection while promoting a healthy glow and enhancing the skin's natural defence against sun stress.

 

CLICK HERE 

 

Wax from the Candelilla plant replaces beeswax in this clean and vegan SPF50+ mineral sunscreen. The lightweight, gentle cream provides high UVA/UVB protection to the most fragile skin, including children (3 months and over) and adults with sensitive skin types. Infused with essential oils and organic coconut oil to deeply moisture and enhance natural glow.

CLICK HERE

 

With a moisture-locking base of Organic Aloe Vera and pure Sodium Hyaluronate, this revitalising gel is the answer to skin in distress. Perfect soothing gel to reduce skin inflammation caused by excess sun exposure or calm skin after shaving or waxing. Extremely versatile and non-oily, it is the ideal face & body moisturiser for tropical climates and summer heat. Safe for sensitive-skin and kids (6 months and over).

CLICK HERE 

Finding Answers to Our Sunny Dilemma

Humans face a dilemma when it comes to sun exposure. Exposure to the sun helps our skin produce essential vitamin D, which is linked to several health benefits. However, the risk of sun extended exposure – and our traditional ways of preventing it through toxic sunscreens – is quickly outweighing the benefits.

While most standard sunscreen formulas have been found to contain several toxic ingredients that are absorbed into the skin and contribute to the development of skin cancer, there are other options. We can continue to enjoy  a whole day out in the sun by covering up with light layers. We can choose nontoxic sunscreen alternatives that offer protection and peace of mind when spending hours outside under the beautiful sun.

 

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