Sunscreen is important for protecting your skin from the sun, but it shouldn't be the only thing you use.
It’s that glorious time of year when the sun is hot, the days are long, and the outdoors beckons. From balcony to backyard to beach, many of us are happy to soak up the delicious rays that have felt so long in coming. The sunlight may feel wonderful, but it’s not entirely harmless. Too much time in the sun can result in bad sunburns, which are linked to skin cancers – mostly carcinomas, but also much deadlier melanomas. While sunscreens can help reduce the risk of skin cancer, they are not a perfect solution:
“Every major public health authority – the FDA, the National Cancer Institute and the International Agency for Research on Cancer – has concluded that the available data do not support the assertion that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of skin cancer.”
To be most effective, sunscreens should be paired with other sun-savvy measures. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) urges people to understand how sunscreen works (read: why some brands are much better than others) and to think of it as “just one tool in your arsenal.”
1. Plan your time in the sun wisely.
Too many people use sunscreen as an excuse to stay in full sunlight many hours a day. Sunscreen (and high SPF ratings) can lull people into a false sense of security, which in turn leads to a greater number of burns.
“Stanford University dermatologists who reviewed CDC national survey data concluded that people who relied solely on sunscreens for sun protection had more sunburns than people who reported infrequent sunscreen use but wore hats and clothing to shield themselves from the sun.” (via EWG)
The best approach is to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., or at least using a combination of sunscreen, clothing, and shade to prevent burns during those hours.
2. Cover up with clothing for chemical-free protection.
Pants, shorts, shirts, and hats protect your skin without “covering your skin with goop,” as the EWG describes it. Fabric provides a natural sunblock, and darker colors are most effective (although they will be warmest). It blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and does not have to be constantly reapplied. Sunglasses protect from UV radiation that can eventually cause cataracts.
As the “goop” comment above alludes to, many sunscreens on the market contain questionable ingredients, including some that are “xenoestrogenic,” meaning they interfere with natural hormone function. Beauty Truth writes, “Xenoestrogens are implicated in everything from low sperm count, infertility and breast development in males to infertility, weight gain, reproductive diseases and breast cancer in females.”
Clothing is a good way to avoid, or at least minimize, these potential complications. You can also download the EWG's 2017 guide to safe sunscreens, in order to know which are the best on the market.
3. Embrace ‘edible’ sunscreens.
Though not a replacement for other forms of sun protection, certain foods are effective at building sun resistance into your skin. These include dark leafy greens, which contain an antioxidant called lutein that’s been found to protect skin from sun damage. The polyphenols in green tea are good at reducing aging effects and skin cancers, both melanomas and non-melanomas. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce skin inflammation, and selenium is also known for its protective qualities.
Beta-carotene, present in carrots, mangoes, and red peppers, has been used to treat damaged skin for years, and are worth adding to a sun-protection diet. From Beauty Truth:
“Beta carotene converts in your body to Vitamin A, which is also essential for protecting skin from damaging sun rays. Excellent food sources of vitamin A include fish oils, animal livers and herbs including paprika and alfalfa.”
Note: While vitamin A is good for sun protection when eaten, do not apply it directly to your skin. EWG writes: “Government data show that tumors and lesions develop sooner on skin coated with creams laced with vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate or retinol. It’s in 14 percent of all sunscreens we reviewed in 2017. Avoid any skin or lip product whose label includes retinyl palmitate, retinol or vitamin A.”
4. Some vitamin D is good for you.
If you slather up with sunscreen all the time, you’ll never get the exposure that your body actually needs. Says EWG:
“Vitamin D, technically a hormone, strengthens bones and the immune system and reduces risks of breast, colon, kidney and ovarian cancers, and perhaps other disorders. About 25 percent of Americans have borderline low levels of vitamin D, and 8 percent have a serious deficiency. Breast-fed infants, people with darker skin and people who have limited sun exposure are at greatest risk of vitamin D deficiency.”
While you should not rely on the sun exclusively for vitamin D, nor stop using sunscreen entirely for this reason, it does not hurt to allow yourself occasional free access to sunlight before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. Rose-Marie Swift, founder of renowned natural cosmetics company RMS Beauty, suggests getting 20 minutes of sunlight per day on your skin.