The Sunscreen Debate

Yes, so what did I say in my first article? Go out in the sun. But what does that mean?

I was asked to write a little about whether there are healthy kinds of sunscreen. So I obligingly sat down to compose something that laid out the situation, and then realized that I really had no idea what to say, though I had a vague, peripheral sensation that there was a controversy about this. Having since done some research, I now have a very solid view of what I think is going on, and of what I recommend.

Most people in this country use sunscreen. I grew up having it applied to me whether I liked or not, and never really thought about it until college, when I was taking trips to the beach and was just too lazy to apply any. Sometimes I got a little burned, but largely I did not. I would wear a shirt when I felt the sun was getting too strong, but of course I didn’t wear one while swimming. My experience led me to wonder why it was necessary at all. What did people do before it first became widely promoted in the fifties?

Sunscreen contains synthetic chemicals that are capable of absorbing one frequency of the ultraviolet light emitted by the sun (UVB rays), thus blocking them from damaging your skin. Sunscreen makers claim that this radiation is responsible for the skin cancer epidemic that we suffer from in America; that is, that people who do not use sunscreen are not only in danger of getting a burn, but, well, dying. However, it is possible, and has been asserted, that the synthetic chemical compounds in sunscreen are absorbed by your skin and generate copious amounts of free radicals, thus doing more to cause cancer than the sun itself. Is this true? To my knowledge, no scientific study has been carried out to determine the harmful effect of sunscreen on humans, though some have been done on animals. However, I don’t like to resort to scientific studies to make a point, since every article you read has an arsenal of them and it often amounts to simply an argument from authority. Instead, I’d like to call attention to a few things that should be pretty obvious to us all.

The skin is both an organ of elimination and absorption. This is why many medicines and herbs (such as Arnica) can be applied both orally and on the surface of the skin. You are, in a sense, eating a little of anything that you apply to your skin – usually about thirty-five percent. This includes sunscreen. The synthetic chemicals in sunscreen are toxic to the body – not only can they generate free radicals on exposure to the sun, but they are very hard for the body to eliminate, and may get stored away in places that will eventually become tumors. By eventually I mean if you’re slathering it on a lot, every day – I don’t mean to be as alarmist about sunscreen like sunscreen makers are alarmist about the sun. But some people do overdo it, and that could be part of the reason why even though everyone uses sunscreen, skin cancer rates have dropped…not at all.

Another point is that while getting sun is very important for your health, getting sunburned a lot will damage your skin and eventually cause photoaging (that wrinkled, leathery look). Gradually building up to a protective tan (please, not at a tanning salon!) while wearing clothing most of the time is a better idea. Using an organic sunscreen without any reactive chemicals, or coating your skin with olive oil or coconut oil before going to the beach also seems to me like a safer alternative (though it’s true that these substances are not as strong). The process should be even more gradual if you are fair-skinned and have the genetically low melanin levels of a Scandinavian. But all this is aside to the real point: why do most people get so sunburned all the time? You may already know the answer. It is poor nutrition. Yes, your diet!

For most of human history, we were out in the sun a lot, so our bodies adjusted and evolved, and adapted to this circumstance on many different levels. But we also weren’t eating trans fats and refined, processed foods. While it’s true that the sun does do some damage to the skin after lengthy exposure, people who have large numbers of antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids in their diet will have not only beautiful skin but a system equipped to repair the sun’s damage quickly and efficiently. Some sources of the fatty acids: fish and fish oil, cod liver oil, flax seed oil, soybeans, dark green leafy vegetables like kale, collards, chard, and parsley, any animal product from an animal that has been grass-fed (such as cow’s milk from grass-fed cows and beef from grass-fed beef), pumpkin seeds, and walnuts. Antioxidant foods (the ones that stop free radicals) include dark green leafy vegetables (again), sprouts, berries, sea vegetables, and really any food that contains high levels of vitamins E, A, C, and B.

In a nutshell, then, my advice is: don’t get burned; don’t use commercial sunscreen; but eat well, gradually work up to a tan, apply an organic oil or sun block to your body, and not only will you be healthy, but all that sun will ratchet up your serotonin levels and you might find yourself quite a bit happier, too!