The sun is absolutely vital for our health but for years we've been told that the sun is dangerous and we must stay out of it....
By Maeve Smith (c)
A bit of background on the writer.-
I’m a Homeopath and an organic skincare formulator with a passion for nutrition, herbal medicine, alternative technology, organic agriculture...and skincare.
In 2006 my husband and I took our 3 children to Ecuador, South America for 3 months where I spent a month volunteering as a Homeopath for the Rio Muchacho Organic Farm and surrounding community while also studying organic agriculture and alternative technology.
My children were 6, 9 and 11 years old at the time and as I was not prepared to pump them full of drugs and cover them in chemicals I spent 6 months researching safe, natural alternatives. My youngest has very fair skin and my 2 older children have olive skin but all of them have very sensitive allergic skin. Not one of my children suffered from sun burn or an insect born illness in the whole time we were in Ecuador. On my return to the UK I continued my study and research and continued to formulate organic skincare and it’s an honor to be asked to share my knowledge and experience with you. I hope it will be useful.
Has the explosion of skin cancer cases caused the growth of chemical sunscreens or as some studies suggest could the growth and popularity of chemical sunscreens caused the increase in global skin cancer cases?..
There are significant and growing safety concerns with the common use of hormone disrupting chemicals in our food and personal care products with a recent focus on Sunscreens.
A number of studies show that the chemicals common in big brand sunscreens have the ability to accumulate to toxic levels and the evidence shows these chemicals can be found in breast milk. As a result of these findings, increasing numbers of people all over the world are now looking for natural sun care products as an alternative to chemical sunscreens.
30 years ago, advertising campaigns taught us to ‘slip on a long sleeved shirt, slop on 30+ sunblock, slap on a hat, seek shade and slide on some sunglasses’. This we were told would protect us from the danger of skin cancer caused by being out in the sun. In Australia, the results of this doctrine saw a reduction in the two most common forms of skin cancer, basal-cell and squamous cell carcinoma but, scientists were surprised and alarmed to see cases of melanoma, the most lethal form of skin cancer actually increase along with the mysterious return of Rickets, a bone disease caused by Vitamin D deficiency.
These findings led to some Scientists to question whether there could possibly be a link between the popularity of chemical sunscreens with the sharply increasing levels of Vitamin D deficiency diseases and increasing cases of Melanoma type skin cancers...
First- What is Vitamin D?
Vitamin D is an essential vitamin synthesised by specialist cells in our skin and in the presence of UVB sunlight. It is important to know that in the UK UVB sunlight is only available between 10am- 4pm on a clear day from April to September. Scientists at the Norwegian Institute for Air Research have devised a calculator that estimates how many minutes of sun exposure we need each day for our skin to produce the essential 25 mcg (the equivalent of 1,000 International Units) of vitamin D. Using this calculator I learnt that on the 11th June in my garden at midday on a clear cloudless day with my relatively pale caucasian skin, the minimum sun exposure I need in order to generate 1000 iu of Vitamin D is 40 minutes. (http://nadir.nilu.no/~olaeng/fastrt/VitD-ez_quartMED.html)
Scientific studies have shown that certain chemicals found in skincare products including sunscreens, have the ability to undermine the ability of the skin to synthesis Vitamin D. A serious deficiency of Vitamin D during
pregnancy can cause the growing baby to develop rickets and if Vitamin D deficiency is left undiagnosed and untreated it can be a factor in many other serious diseases.
10% of our Vitamin D requirement can come from cholesterol rich foods and we can also get Vitamin D from supplements but the best place to get our Vitamin D whatever our ages is from greater awareness of the importance of safe, sensible exposure to UVB sunlight.
Ultra Violet-A and Ultra Violet-B... what are they?
Ultra Violet (UV) light is an electromagnetic radiation. There are about 10 subtypes of Ultra Violet light but only two types that we really need to care about when it comes to protecting our skin from UV induced skin cancer. UV-A and UV-B.
UV- B is strongest in the UK between April and September, from about 10am till 4pm and at its most powerful from midday to 3pm on a clear day. UV-B is responsible for sunburn and producing vital Vitamin D, essential for strong bones and a healthy immune system including protection from... skin cancers.
The Vitamin D Council (http://www.vitamindcouncil.org ) are a leading education resource focusing on why Vitamin D is vital for our health and how we can safely optimise our Vitamin D levels via safe sun exposure and supplements.
UV-A does not cause burning or produce Vitamin D but it is always present all year round, whatever the weather. UVA generates a lot of free radicals, these are the main cause of premature aging, sun spots and wrinkles. Free radicals are unstable electrons that trigger cell aging and death by oxidation.
The opposite to a free radical is an antioxidant, these repair and protect cells from oxidation. UVA can alter the DNA in melanocytes, these are pigment producing cells on the bottom layer of our skin, they are also found in our eyes, ears, brain, heart and bones which is why melanoma is so dangerous.
How can we best protect our skin?
There are two ways we can protect our skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation.Sun Protection and Topical Sunscreens.
1) Sun Protection-
We can help to protect our skin in a number of ways...
Gentle, gradual exposure of a few extra minutes a day on exposed skin is vital as it builds natural protection within the skin which can not be washed off. Sudden lengthy exposure can cause damage because the skin has not had time to build it’s natural protection. Winter holidays in the sun can therefore cause more damage and so more care needs to be taken to build tolerance. When the skin is exposed to UV gradually for just a few minutes longer each day in the spring, the skin develops a protection factor. This protection doubles and quadruples the time of sun exposure the skin can tolerate without burning. Healthy levels of Vitamin D are also an important part of this natural skin protection as are antioxidants in the diet...
Antioxidants, these can provide us with enhanced natural sun protection and include a long list of foods (a subject for another article) and quite a few natural skincare ingredients. it is important to note that the quality of ingredients can be variable and therefore the antioxidant values. CO2 seed oils and herbal extracts (also a topic for another article) are considered to be superior in quality and potency of antioxidants and vitamins than all other seed and herb extraction methods.
Studies show that the skin benefits more from the topical application of antioxidants and vitamins than via the digestion system alone.
Antioxidants are vital in protecting us from the effect of oxidizing free radicals as the following sample of skincare ingredients and their naturally occurring Sun Protection Factors illustrates.
Red raspberry seed oil – SPF between 30 and 50
Carrot seed oil – SPF between 30 and 40
Avocado Oil – SPF between 4 – 10 (can get as high as 15)
Shea Butter – SPF between 6 –10
Hemp Seed Oil – SPF between of 6 – 8
Coconut Oil – SPF between 2 – 8
Pomegranate seed oil is a chemopreventive oil shown to have the ability prevent and heal UV induced skin cancers.
Vitamin C and it’s derivatives such as sodium ascorbyl phosphate. A powerful antioxidant and free radical scavenger. Shown to protect and heal UV damage.
UV protective clothing such as UV protective swimwear, te-shirts and shorts, hats and sunglasses. These are essential for children as the protection they offer does not vary and continues after washing and while wet. Babies and children are much more vulnerable to UV skin damage.
Shade- getting out of the sun during the hottest part of the day is very important, especially on hot summer days.
Healthy Vitamin D3 levels offers vital protection from skin cancers. If a person is deficient in Vitamin D the risk of all cancers is increased. Scientists now believe that the majority of people living in the UK may be Vitamin D deficient. Fortunately a quick blood spot test can easily measure Vitamin D blood serum levels and pick up deficiencies early.
2) Topical Sunscreens..
Sunscreens are products applied directly to the skin that can provide a physical shield from UVB and UVA radiation if used properly.
A recent study showed that the majority of people do not use sunscreens properly. Used in the wrong way they offer false protection. Personally, I prefer to use them as a last resort when sun protection methods are unlikely to be sufficient.
Sunscreens come in two forms.
Mineral and Chemical and can be found as powders, creams and sprays of which cream is regarded as the safest because of the inhalation risks of the sprays and powders. Both types of sunscreens can undermine the ability of the skin to synthesis Vitamin D.
Mineral Sunscreens come in many variations and combinations but the active ingredients are always Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide.
These two mineral ingredients are available in quite a few different ‘grades’ and are sometimes combined with other synthetic ingredients such as Triethoxycaprylylsilane, Alumina, and Simethicone, these coatings are added to improve the function of the mineral in a formulation and do not add to the effectiveness. I prefer to use uncoated minerals. It’s the grade of minerals used in a formulation that determines the nature and texture of a sunscreen. Some are like a white paste and some sink into the skin without leaving a white residue. Just to be clear the grade does not indicate the quality of the minerals only the size of the particles and therefore the nature of the mineral. The larger the particle the whiter and thicker the texture of the cream will be.
Sunscreens can no longer be described or labeled as “sunblock” because there is no such thing as a sunblock. Sunscreens work by absorbing UV radiation and dissipating it, whereas
sunblock if it existed would reflect it like tin foil would. Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are excellent at scattering and reflecting UV rays. When used properly, these mineral ingredients are the key to safe and effective sun protection when needed.
Micronized and Nano particles in sunscreens have both received a lot of attention the last few years and as a result there has been a lot of misinformation leading to user confusion...
What is a nano?
A nano is simply a unit of measure. 1 nanometer (nm) is 1 billionth of a meter. In the same way that a centimeter (cm) is 1/100 of a meter. Zinc oxide powder is usually 110 nm in diameter, which is very small.
What is Micronized minerals?
Traditionally, Micronization is based on friction, it is the milling or grinding of something to make it smaller. Nowadays, modern technology means that only people like me still use a pestle and mortar and so most grades of micronized minerals especially pharmaceutical grades require average particle diameters on the nanometer scale, so it can be argued that micronized and nano are the same.
Are they dangerous?
If they are inhaled everyday in sufficient quantities yes they may well be dangerous, this is why talc may not be safe to use, because of the dangers associated with inhaling the particles, mineral makeup powders come with similar cautions as does ‘dust’ in general.
There are many high quality studies show that Micronized and Nano minerals used in topical cream sunscreens are not absorbed by the deeper layers of our skin and despite what some reports suggest they are not a toxic threat to our health (unless inhaled). There is limited research showing that there may be concern where these minerals are applied to open wounds but more research is needed.
If you are concerned about Nano or Micronized minerals in your sunscreen you need to check that they are non Nano and Non Micronized but all this means is that the diameter of the Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide particle is larger.
What SPF is needed to be safe in the sun and how much Sunscreen should we use?
There is a great deal of consumer confusion about the ‘SPF’ of ‘sunscreens and it’s important to know that ‘SPF’ which means Sun Protection Factor relates only to protection from UV-B not UV-A. A Sunscreen is a physical shield that gives some degree of protection from both UVA and UVB by scattering, reflecting or absorbing some the the Ultra Violet radiation we’re being exposed to. Sunscreens will never provide total protection and it can be dangerous to put our trust in only using Sunscreens. This is why the addition of other Sun Protection practices such as slowly increasing daily sun exposure, topical and dietary antioxidants, UV protective clothing and shade is so important.
The SPF number on ‘sunscreens’ is also misleading because the number given to the protection factor is not as important as the quality of the product along with other precautions taken such as the number of times a product is applied and the thickness the product is applied. For very fair skin 2 thick layers of a quality mineral sunscreen is needed to give protection and in general, a mineral sunscreen needs to contain between 20-30% Zinc Oxide, Titanium Dioxide or a combination of the two.
A recent study showed that SPF 15 product when used properly, screens about 94% of UVB rays; an SPF 30 product screens 97% of UVB rays; and an SPF 45 product screens about 98% of rays. UVA will still be getting through so SPF numbers don’t mean we’re ‘protected’, although SPF 30 is the rating most sun care professionals agree on is the best one to use. http://www.webmd.com/beauty/sun/high-spf-
The limitations of SPF sunscreens are that they can only ever offer partial protection. They are easily rubbed and washed off so they must be applied thickly and reapplied regularly. We can strengthen our skin’s natural sun protection factor by slowly increasing our sun exposure by a few minutes each day. Topical and dietary antioxidants and essential vitamins also help. Using hats, sunglasses with a UV coating, UV protective clothes and proper shade are all important because there is nothing that can protect our skin 100% from UV exposure other tan going indoors.
I am a huge fan of Skin Deep ( http://www.ewg.org), a cosmetic database that researches the safety of ingredients in over 69’000 products. They measure the safety of ingredients using an easy to understand traffic light system. Green (0-2) is low hazard. Yellow (3-6) is moderate hazard. Red (7-10) is High hazard.
Chemical sun protection products typically contain all or a combination of the following chemical sun filters-
oxybenzone- scores a Red 8 (high hazard). This chemical has been detected in nearly every American; it’s found in mother’s milk; there is1-to-9% skin penetration in lab studies. it acts like estrogen in the body; alters sperm production in animals and it’s associated with endometriosis in women.
Octinoxate- Scores a Yellow 6 (moderate hazard). Also detected in nearly every American; found in mother’s milk. Hormone-like activity; reproductive system, thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies. Relatively high rates of skin allergy.
Octisalate - Scores a Yellow 3 - Found in mothers’ milk; less than 1% skin penetration in human and laboratory studies. Hormone-like activity; reproductive system, thyroid and behavioral alterations in animal studies. Moderate rates of skin allergy.
Octocrylene- Scores a Yellow 3. Found in mothers’ milk; skin penetration in lab studies. Relatively high rates of skin allergy.
Homosalate- Scores a Yellow 4. Disrupts estrogen, androgen and progesterone.
Octinoxate- Scores a Yellow 6- Endocrine disruptor with hormone like activity. Bio-accumilation with cell changes. Found in mothers milk. relatively high rates of allergy and immunotoxicity.
Sun screens are designed to be applied generously and multiple times a day, it is for this reason they need to be safe. All these chemicals were found to be significant hormone disruptors and when combined with preservatives such as parabens and other synthetic ingredients such as artificial fragrances the safety concerns are increased still further.
Zinc Oxide - scores a Green 2 (low hazard). Widespread excellent UVA and UVB protection. Less than 0.01% skin penetration in human volunteers. No evidence of hormone disruption. No skin allergy noted. Inhalation concerns.
Titanium Dioxide - scores a Green 1 (low hazard). Widespread excellent UVA and UVB protection. No evidence of hormone disruption. No finding of skin penetration. No skin allergy noted. Inhalation concerns.
What sun protection methods did I use for my children whilst in Ecuador?
After a lot of frustrating trail and error I was eventually successful in formulating a sunscreen I was happy with. It was a simple Aloe vera gel base cold blended with 10% Zinc Oxide and 10% Titanium Dioxide and organic seed oils of Raspberry and Pomegranate both known for their natural SPF and chemoproventive properties along with herbal extracts of Calendula, Chamomile & Rosemary with Vitamin E and Vitamin C in the form of Sodium Ascorbyl Phosphate, emulsified into a cream using natural lecithin. I fragranced it with the essential oils of Lemon Eucalyptus and Peppermint which also doubled up as an effective insect repellent.
Ecuador is on the Equator so we were careful to expose them slowly to the sun to build up their natural skin protection factor, we also relied on other Sun Protection methods and my home made mineral sunscreen. Just like many children, my kids would make a lot a fuss every time It was time to apply sunscreen so they would wear UV protective clothing with hats and sunglasses when necessary, this was preferable to the reality of applying large quantities of sunscreen to three hot and irritable children multiple times a day. During the hottest part of the day we would always seek shade or go indoors whenever we could.
Our Sun Protection methods, while thoroughly researched were all inspired by natural wisdom and served us very well during our time in Ecuador, this illustrates beautifully that while Science asks important and necessary questions, Nature still has the answers.
Natural and Organic mineral sunscreens with no nasties... (not an exhaustive list)
Badger Healthy Body Care Sunscreens
Green People Sunscreens
Natural WIsdom Antioxidant Sunscreen (launching Spring 2015)
www.organicauthority.com gives a very long list of ‘safe’ mineral sunscreen products
For Additional Sun Protection
www.sun-togs.co.uk offer lots of choice for UV sun protection clothing for children and adults.
For Antioxidant Skincare
(made by me) www.naturalwisdom.co.uk
Antioxidant foods and supplements
www.whfoods.com (worlds healthiest foods)
Environmental Working Group - Special report on Skin Safety
Environmental Working Group - Nanotechnology Summary - special report
Cosmetics Info.org - Info, links, research - titanium dioxide
Cosmetics Info.org - Info, links, research - nanotechnology