Sunscreen: Good or Bad?
There is now so much persuasive and concrete data on this subject that it can safely be said that if you are not regularly getting a short (5-30 minutes depending on your skin fairness), nonburning dose of beneficial mid-day sun on most of your body (like when you are wearing a tank top and shorts) with NO sunscreen, you are not even close to achieving your optimal health.
In fact, without regular sun exposure, your health is declining and you may not even know it.
The reason is that vitamin D is produced in the oils of your skin when you get sun exposure with no sunscreen. Sun exposure is the best way to get the vitamin D you need for optimal health, and the alarming truth is that most people are severely deficient in this nutrient. Research has recently indicated that vitamin D is actually not even a vitamin, but a natural steroid hormone which acts to dramatically reduce inflammation anywhere it may occur in the body. Wouldn’t you love to get all the benefits of pharmaceutical steroids, with none of the downside risks? If so, you must optimize your vitamin D blood levels. Since all modern diseases are linked in one way or another to inflammation, optimizing your vitamin D levels goes a very long way to correcting chronic conditions which plague so many people today.
It is the UVB rays of the sun which produce vitamin D on your skin, and these rays are plentiful only during the middle of the day for most latitudes. Ironically, this is exactly the time of day most dermatologists say to avoid the sun, or if you are out in the sun, make sure you use lots of sunscreen! Unfortunately, you pay with your health when you heed the advice of these doctors who are clearly so busy seeing patients, they aren’t keeping up with the latest research! Find another doctor if yours still believes that sensible sun exposure is bad for your health!
When you use sunscreen, the UVB rays are very effectively screened out. Since the UVB rays are the ones that cause burning if you get too much, people think that if they don’t get burned, they haven’t damaged their skin. Wrong! The fact is that sunlight is composed of UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are NOT screened out very well by sunscreen, even if the product says “broad spectrum protection”. UVA rays by themselves still cause lots of damage to the skin even if no burning occurs.
Photo aging (brown spots) is the result of UVA overexposure as these rays penetrate deeply into the skin. Recent research even indicates that UVA exposure sans UVB exposure can actually decrease your vitamin D levels! The downside of UVA exposure alone is minimized when UVA exposure is combined with UVB exposure, like what happens when you sun with no sunscreen. The two types of rays seem to mitigate the damaging effects of each other. Hence, when you are in the sun, it is best to go without sunscreen, and when you reach the nonburning time limit for your skin, put on a shirt and a wide brimmed hat .. or better yet, get out of the sun like folks did years ago before sunscreen products flooded the market in the 1970s (1).
Healthy Approach to Sun Exposure?
So what would be the best approach to sun exposure? Let me share my own approach to sun exposure since I live in Central FL, where the rays of the sun are extremely powerful for a good part of the year. Despite my location, I still get by with little to no use of sunscreen during the year. My three children rarely use it as well even though they regularly participate in outdoor activities when the midday sun is strongest.
The key is to know how much sun you can tolerate without burning. In the spring, it may only be 3-5 minutes. Gradually, your skin will be able to tolerate longer periods. When you have reached the maximum time you know you can handle, make sure you get out of the sun, or if you need to continue your exposure, briefly get out of the sun for 15 minutes or so and put on a non toxic sunscreen to get you through the rest of your time outside. It takes a few minutes for the sunscreen to work which is why a brief hiatus out of the sun is necessary. A better approach would be a hat and a long sleeved shirt, but I realize this is not always practical. The goal is to never burn and never use sunscreen. This is the perfect combination, but this is not possible in every situation.
Is Sunscreen Ever Beneficial?
So, if you find yourself in a situation where you must use sunscreen, be wary of the sunscreens on the market, as most are full of toxins. Remember that whatever you put on your skin gets into your blood, so choose wisely and know how to read labels. The two brands I use are “AquaSport” all terrain performance sunscreen with no paba or parabens. This sunscreen is used when we are going to sweat heavily or be in the water. Aubrey Organics’ “Natural Sun” line of sunscreens is wonderful if you don’t require water resistance. I’m sure there are others on the market that are good choices also, these are just the two I have used recently.
Now that you are educated about the benefits of sensible sun exposure (use a dab of Witch Hazel on mild sunburn if it occurs), consider these parting thoughts about the sunshine vitamin. If you are sunning specifically to increase your vitamin D levels, make sure you don’t use soap on these exposed areas for a day or so.
This is because it takes a number of hours for the vitamin D on your skin to be absorbed into the blood. You can certainly shower as water does not wash off the oils of your skin where the vitamin D has formed. Reserve the soap for those areas that did not get any sun exposure. Fortunately, the areas that need washing with soap and water are generally also the areas that get no sun exposure.
How do you know if your vitamin D levels are optimal? It used to be that you needed a blood test to find out. Now, Zrt Labs offers a pin prick test to test vitamin D levels. You can order this test on your own without a doctor’s authorization. Please check out the following link to order your at home vitamin D testing kit:
50-65 is the ideal range for your vitamin D blood level. Many doctors still think 30-35 is fine too, but this is proving to be a level of deficiency. You will need to get regular sun exposure for a number of weeks to get your levels this high. You may even need a vitamin D supplement that is whole foods based like cod liver oil.
One final suggestion is to take off your sunglasses for a few minutes each time you are outside in the sun. Sunshine which penetrates the eye without the filtering of sunglasses is beneficial to health also and has been linked to strengthening of the adrenal glands. Since adrenal fatigue is something that most people suffer from these days (note our caffeine and sugar addicted society), anything that improves the functioning of the adrenal glands corresponds to an improvement in overall health.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. She serves on the Board of Directors for the Weston A. Price Foundation.
Sarah was awarded Activist of the Year at the International Wise Traditions Conference in 2010.
Sarah earned a Bachelor of Arts (summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa) in Economics from Furman University and a Master’s degree in Government (Financial Management) from the University of Pennsylvania.
Mother to three healthy children, blogger, and best-selling author, she writes about the practical application of Traditional Diet and evidence-based wellness within the modern household. Her work has been featured by USA Today, The New York Times, National Review, ABC, NBC, and many others.