Do Sunscreens Do More Harm Than Good?  Cause Cancer?  Make You Gain Weight?

sunscreen dangersA look at some of the harmful chemicals that absorb through your skin from sunscreens... and healthier alternatives

by Catherine Ebeling - RN, BSN
co-author:  The Fat Burning Kitchen & 
The Top 101 Foods that FIGHT Aging


So we've been told over and over again that we should slather on the sunscreen when you go out in the sun to prevent skin cancer, right? Well, guess what? Think again! Many of the common chemicals in most commercial sunscreen lotions actually can CONTRIBUTE to cancer, stubborn abdominal fat (due to the xenoestrogens in sunscreen chemicals), and many other health problems.

Some of that sunscreen may be as damaging or more dangerous to your health than going without any sunscreen at all!

While there is still some risk in spending time in the summer sun without sunscreen, your sunscreen itself can possibly pose a bigger health risk. The chemicals in sunscreen are very harsh and are rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. 

First of all, if you haven't read Mike Geary's article about the benefits of small doses of daily sunshine, click here.  It's important to understand why small amounts of daily sunshine (WITHOUT burning) is important to your health, vitamin D production, hormone balance, and skin cancer prevention.

Now back to harsh chemical sunscreens... What kinds of chemical concoctions are you putting on your skin that are absorbing into your bloodstream? Numerous studies have raised serious concerns about these chemicals' safety:

  • Oxybenzone -- One of the main ingredients in many sunscreens. Oxybenzone is also a penetration enhancer--a chemical that helps other chemicals penetrate the skin — this means that any chemical on the skin will be quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. This common sunscreen ingredient is an endocrine disrupting chemical that damages cells and is potentially dangerous for pregnant women especially. Oxybenzone has been found to decrease sperm count and lengthen the estrous cycle in mice; and it is potentially carcinogenic in humans.
  • Retinyl palmitate -- Retinyls are vitamin A derivatives that are often used in lotions and sunscreens. They are associated with the accelerated growth of skin lesions and tumors when combined with sun exposure. These retinyls are often used to reduce the look of wrinkles, but FDA data suggests that retinyls have photo-carcinogenic properties, which means that when it is applied to the skin and exposed to the sun, it may speed up cancer formation!  This ingredient is in about half the sunscreens sold commercially.
  • Octyl-methacinnamate has been shown to actually damage skin cells, and many people are highly sensitive or allergic to this ingredient. It can cause a serious rash, redness and irritation to sensitive individuals. 
  • Bensopenone-3 (BP3), homosalate (HMS), 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor (4-MBC), octyl-methoxycinnamate (OMC), and octyl-dimethyl-PABA (OD-PABA) were all found to have estrogenic effects (these are xenoestrogens) in the body, which can lead to weight gain (xenoestrogens can cause "stubborn belly fat") and several types of cancer, including breast cancer — even in men.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a new study showing that nearly all Americans are contaminated with oxybenzone, a widely-used sunscreen ingredient. This chemical so far has shown potential links to allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage, as well as low birth weight in babies whose mothers are exposed during pregnancy.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also has a guide that helps you to determine how chemical-laden your current sunscreen is.

Although sunscreens are meant for external use only, the popular ‘spray on’ sunscreens end up being inhaled as well, and are particularly dangerous. While inhaled particles of any size can pose a health risk, tiny nanoparticles -- ultra-tiny particles used in many of these formulations -- can more easily penetrate linings and tissues in your body and cause inflammation and increase risk of cancer or other respiratory issues.

Ok, so what to do to help prevent sunburn and photo aging from the sun?

Remember from Mike's article near the top of this page, that small daily doses of sunshine (10-30 minutes daily over most of body) can help to increase your Vitamin D levels in your body and actually PROTECT you and reduce your risk of skin cancer... The important key phrase there is "small daily dose" without burning.

If you are going to get more sun than that... The best and most natural sunscreen you can get if you are going to be spending more than a half hour out in the hot summer sun are the sunblocks (mineral based) that contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as their active ingredients. These ingredients are safe, natural ingredients that physically block UVA and UVB rays by sitting on top of the skin instead of absorbing into the skin, and there are no health concerns about using these natural sunblocks on your skin.

The downside of these types of natural physical sunblocks is that they tend to leave a white coating on your skin so they don't look as appealing as the chemical sunscreens which are invisible since they absorb into your skin.  So the other option is simply to make sure to cover up with clothing if you don't want to use a mineral-based sunblock that makes the skin look white. 

There may be some zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide based sunscreens available that do a better job of not leaving such a white layer on the skin, but you might have to experiment with different brands to find one.  Also some new brands add a brownish color to the lotion so that it doesn't leave such a pasty white appearance and rubs on more bronze instead.

And most important, to protect your skin and minimize the damage the sun can do to your skin...

EAT your sunscreen to best protect your skin against sun damage and cancer

Ok, I’m not talking about squeezing that stuff out of the bottle and actually eating it!

I am talking about protecting your skin from the inside out with nutrition! One of the best ways to prevent sun damage, and protect your skin, is with your diet. Yes, you can actually eat your own healthy version of natural sunscreen by following these recommendations:

First, be sure to eat plenty of omega-3 rich foods in your daily diet. Research studies show that eicosapentaenoic acid (also called EPA) in omega 3 fats helps prolong the time that it takes skin to get burned during sun exposure, and reduces your chances of skin cancer. Omega-3 fatty acids best sources come from grass-fed beef, free range whole eggs, and cold-water wild caught fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel.

But keep this in mind: An optimal balance of omega-3's to omega-6's (1:1 to 2:1) is critical for many, many health factors, including skin health. If you are eating much more omega 6 fatty acids in comparison to omega 3’s, you actually increase your chances of skin cancer from the sun.

It is a well-known fact that people who regularly eat a diet higher in saturated fats and omega-3 fats tend to have much smoother, softer skin. In contrast, a diet high in trans fats and excessively high omega-6 fats ages skin and when people consume that type of diet they tend to have older-looking skin and wrinkles.

So, here's how to eat the healthiest kind of sunscreen that is best for your body and your skin:

  • Eliminate processed vegetable oils and instead eat grass fed butter, extra virgin olive oil and virgin coconut oil. Some of the oils highest in omega 6’s are soybean, sunflower, cottonseed, peanut, and corn oil, so avoid these (this also means avoiding anything deep fried!). Eliminate packaged processed junk food, fast food, and prepare fresh, whole food from scratch.
  • Eat Carotenoids. Carotenoids are colorful molecules that reflect UV rays. Each of the pigments functions as Mother Nature’s sunblock. When humans ingest carotenoids, they are actually deposited into the skin to prevent sunburn and oxidative stress.

    The best sources of carotenoids are pasture-raised whole eggs, spirulina, dark-green leafy vegetables (kale, collards, spinach, etc), and brightly colored yellow-orange fruits and vegetables (apricots, cantaloupe, sweet red peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, yams, and squash).

    The most potent carotenoid is a red pigment found in algae, salmon, trout, shrimp, lobsters, and other shellfish. It is known as astaxanthin. Astaxanthin is 1,000 times more effective at protecting skin from UV damage than other carotenoids.  One way that you can provide a double whammy of skin protection is to take a daily Krill Oil supplement, as krill oil is the best natural source of astaxanthan as well as potent omega-3's in a form most usable by your body. 

    If you want to read more about this, this article shows how powerful astaxanthin is at protecting your skin.
     
  • Lycopene is found in red fruits such as tomatoes, red bell pepper and watermelon. Unlike many other fruits and vegetables, cooking actually increases this nutrient. Tomato paste actually has much more lycopene than fresh tomatoes. In one study, people who consumed tomato paste had 33% more protection against sunburn compared to a control group after 12 weeks.
  • Drink plenty of green tea a day for internal sun protection. Green tea is known to contain a category of antioxidants called polyphenols that boost the ability of skin to protect itself from the sun. If the idea of drinking warm green tea on a hot day is unappetizing, go for cool glass of iced green tea.

    Also keep in mind that ALL teas are rich sources of various skin-protecting antioxidants, so consider expanding beyond just green teas and try yerba mate, rooibos, tulsi tea, mint, chamomile, and other teas... the more variety you use, the more diversity of antioxidants you obtain.
  • Snack on vitamin and flavanol-rich fruit like berries and other fruit such as mangoes, kiwis, peaches, cherries, and plums that are naturally sweet and juicy. Most fruits are rich in vitamin C, which is also a great vitamin for skin health. Known for its role in building collagen, vitamin C prevents wrinkles and photo damage through its anti-inflammatory action. Toss some berries into a bowl for breakfast, make a berry smoothie, or have berries for a healthy dessert.
     

To sum up:

1. Avoid the dangerous chemicals in regular chemical sunscreens. These contain potentially carcinogenic compounds as well as chemicals that are xenoestrogens, which are known to contribute to "stubborn belly fat".

2. Don't forget the skin protection and vitamin D benefits of getting small doses (10-30 minutes daily) of daily mid-day sun over a good portion of your body (without burning) before slathering on the sunblock or covering up with more clothing.

3. If you must spend a long amount of time out in the summer sun, eat a skin-healthy diet with lots of antioxidants such as various teas, berries, carotenoids, etc.  It's a good idea to take a daily Krill Oil supplement in the summer to protect your skin due to the natural form of astaxanthin which has been proven to be one of the most powerful compounds to protect your skin internally.

Also, protect your skin from excess sun and burning by either covering up with clothing or with a safe and natural zinc oxide or titanium oxide based sunscreen too... but ONLY after you've received your small dose (10-30 minutes) of full sun over large portions of your body to increase your vitamin D levels which protect your skin from cancer.

And enjoy the summer sun and fun!

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