sunscreen on shoulder

There is nothing like carelessly frolicking in the sun during the summer. As summer progresses, however, avoiding sunburns and sun damage becomes increasingly important. Many people like to avoid repeatedly applying thick layers of sunscreen to much of our bodies multiple times throughout the day. It can be hard to know which sunscreen is safest, with countless products available on the market today. Although concern about skin cancer and damage has grown in recent decades, vitamin D deficiency is also an important health issue. Lack of sun exposure can cause vitamin D deficiency, with numerous associated health risks.

Sunscreen Saves the Day

woman laying on beach with sunscreen and beach hat
Selecting the right sunscreen is just one of the many ways to prevent sunburn. Photo: S_Photo

There are no simple answers to the complex topic of preventing sun damage, enjoying the sun and how it all relates to overall well-being. A balance of spending some time in the sun to enjoy the great outdoors and absorbing some vitamin D is important, while also avoiding excessive sun exposure and damage.

Here are some tips and helpful hints in finding the right balance between carefree fun and healthy living.

Avoid Sunscreen with Chemical UV Filters

What is not to love about sunscreen? Unfortunately, most products contain chemicals that act as “penetration enhancers” to help the product stay on your skin, and chemical UV filters to prevent sun damage. However, some of the chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed through the skin by the body and are present in blood, urine and breast milk samples. This is especially true when large amounts of sunscreen are applied numerous times throughout the day on much of the body. One of the most concerning chemical filters is oxybenzone, which is found in a majority of non-mineral sunscreens and many cosmetics. It can cause allergic reactions, cell damage and may disrupt hormone levels within the body. Oxybenzone acts like estrogen in the body and has alters sperm production in animals.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention detected oxybenzone in 97 percent of the American population, and people using sunscreen have higher exposure. The Environmental Working Group recommends people avoid using sunscreen with oxybenzone, but other chemical filters may also have similar concerning health effects. Octinoxate, for example, is also commonly used in sunscreen, is known to disrupt hormones in the body, and causes thyroid and behavior changes in animal testing.

Use Sunscreen with Mineral Filters

girl on the beach wearing sunscreen
Beware that some sunscreens that contain zinc oxide may also contain chemical filters, so it is important to carefully select the safest sunscreen products. Photo: Happy monkey / Shutterstock

One easy way to avoid chemical UV filters is to use mineral sunscreen. Titanium dioxide (TiO2) and zinc oxide (ZnO) are mineral UV filters that physically block or deflect the UV rays from the skin. Although these minerals are generally found to be safe, they can leave a thin, chalky film on the skin that may be unappealing to some people. Beware that some sunscreens that contain zinc oxide may also contain chemical filters, so it is important to carefully select the safest sunscreen products.

Tips for finding a good mineral sunscreen:

Ensure Healthy Levels of Vitamin D

Ironically, humans get vitamin D largely from sun exposure, but it also helps naturally prevent sun damage, protect muscle and bone health, and prevent some forms of cancer. It is even linked to preventing multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and rheumatoid arthritis.

A 2012 study from Australia, titled “Vitamin D and Death by Sunshine,” had some promising results concerning skin cancer.

“Our findings indicate that vitamin D compounds inhibit the DNA damage that leads to both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers,” said Katie M. Dixon, lead author of the study and professor of physiology at the University of Sydney.

To absorb the most vitamin D from the sun, as much skin as possible must be uncovered and exposed to the sun. If you are trying to naturally increase your vitamin D levels with the sun, short periods of sun exposure are ideal. Keep in mind that your skin has a limit. Overexposure to the sun doesn’t increase your vitamin D production and can result in sun damage.

An Exercise in Eating

Another strategy for boosting vitamin D levels in the body is to eat foods that are naturally rich in it. Fatty fish, like tuna, mackerel and salmon; egg yolks; beef liver; and cheese are good options. Cod liver oil can be taken as a supplement and naturally contains very large amounts of vitamin D. Other foods are commonly supplemented with vitamin D, including orange juice, dairy products and soy milk.

Some people also choose to supplement with vitamin D to ensure adequate levels. This can be a good strategy, especially in the spring, when many people are depleted after months with little sun exposure. Studies widely show that vitamin D3 is superior to vitamin D2, so read the label and select a vitamin D3 supplement.

Block the Sun

  • Wearing a wide-brimmed sunhat and sunglasses is a great way to avoid sun damage on the face.
  • If you are concerned about overexposure, wearing long sleeves is also a great option.
  • Darker, woven fabrics are more effective in keeping the rays off, but may also be uncomfortably warm during the hot summer months.
  • Spending time in the shade is also a good option.
  • Put up a shade canopy if your yard is super sunny for the short-term and plant fast-growing shade trees for the long-term.
  • A patio umbrella is a great option for shaded outdoor seating.
  • If possible, locate seating and play areas in the shade, especially if they are frequently used during the midday hours.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Researchers at the University of Manchester in England have found that regular doses of omega-3 can help prevent skin damage, and long-term use may even decrease skin cancer risk. “This study adds to the evidence that omega-3 is a potential nutrient to protect against skin cancer,” says Professor Lesley Rhodes, professor of experimental dermatology from the Photobiology Unit Dermatology Centre at the university. “Although the changes we found when someone took the oil were small, they suggest that a continuous low level of chemoprevention from taking omega-3 could reduce the risk of skin cancer over an individual’s lifetime.”

Pin for later:
Avoid sunburns this summer using natural, ecofriendly methods. This guide will help you pick out the best eco-friendly sunscreen for your summer.

Feature image credit: lavizzara / Shutterstock 

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.