With Spring break around the corner and summer sunshine on the horizon, the subject of safe sun exposure is often discussed and hotly debated in Paleo communities. A Paleo lifestyle encourages enjoying the outdoors along with ample amounts of fresh air and sunshine, no matter the season.
The topic of sun protection, like SO many things, becomes slightly confusing.
“The sun is bad”.
“The sun is good and absolutely necessary to avoiding vitamin D deficiency.”
“Sunscreens are necessary, don’t ever leave the house without sunscreen on.”
“Most sunscreens are loaded with so many toxic chemicals that they may be more harmful to your body than the sun itself.”
The Importance of Sun Exposure
Getting adequate sun exposure is important for many bodily functions and plays a critical role in your health, both in helping you to produce necessary Vitamin D, as well as aiding in regulating your natural circadian rhythm.
One of the primary benefits of sunlight is its ability to stimulate vitamin D production. Vitamin D deficiency is a major predisposing factor in at least 17 varieties of cancer, as well as heart disease, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, birth defects, infectious disease and more.
Vitamin D is less of a vitamin and more of a steroid hormone that controls the expression of over 200 genes and the proteins those genes regulate. It also aids in the absorption of calcium and works synergistically with the other fat-soluble vitamins A, E, and K. Vitamin D is key is boosting immune function and managing/preventing autoimmune diseases, among many other processes.
A connection between sunlight and cardiovascular has been known for decades . People living in areas that receive less sunlight present tend to have higher average blood pressure than those living closer to the equator. UV light has also been shown to reduce blood pressure.
Sunlight stimulates the production of a chemical called nitric oxide in your skin. Nitric oxide helps your blood vessels to relax and expand, which in turn reduces blood pressure.
Exposure to sunlight may improve endocrine function, elevate mood (via its effects on certain brain chemicals like serotonin) and increase DNA repair capacity. Sun exposure has also been associated with reducing inflammation and moderating immune function
The Problem With Sunscreen
Sunburn happens with over exposure to UVB rays and as a result our skin becomes inflamed. It’s a warning sign from the body, that you’ve had too much and it’s time to seek shade or cover up.
There are two ways that a sunscreen protects the skin from sun damage – either with a mineral barrier or a chemical one. Chemical sunscreens contain compounds, which create a reaction and transform UV rays into heat, which is subsequently released from the skin. They are often referred to as chemical or organic absorbers and are technically sun filters. Mineral sunscreens include ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which create a physical barrier to protect the skin from the sun. They sit on the surface of the skin and reflect the sun’s rays away from the skin.
Most commercial sunscreens have a slew of chemical ingredients such as fragrances, parabens, alcohols, chemical solvents and petroleum oils that break down when exposed to sunlight. Chemical sunscreens often contain chemicals including oxybenzone, octinoxate, and methylisothiazolinone, which are absorbed by the skin and are allergens and health hazards as well as environmental toxins. Additionally, many sunscreens also contain avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and homosalate. Studies indicate that some chemical UV filters may mimic hormones, and physicians report sunscreen-related skin allergies, which raises important questions about unintended human health consequences from frequent sunscreen application. They may also not prevent melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
These ingredients are best avoided.
Mineral sunscreens offer a safer option. Similar to your food choices, it is imperative to read ingredient lists and labels. Some sunscreens that contain minerals and are labelled “mineral-based sunscreen” still also contain some of the chemical ingredients above and carry the same risks.
Furthermore, if nano particles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide are used, they can enter the body and can pose risks of their own. Since these offer physical barriers, it can be difficult to accurately pinpoint the SPF of some mineral sunscreens.
Effective sunscreen can be made without oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Companies like Beautycounter have been doing it for years. Alternate ingredients such as non-nano zinc oxide are as effective as oxybenzone, and have significantly fewer negative impacts on humans and the environment.
The Role Of Food
Food can play an important role in sun protection and skin health. Following a Paleo diet which removes inflammatory foods, including processed vegetable oils, grains and sugars can support your body’s ability to naturally protect itself from the sun and support Vitamin D Metabolism.
A Paleo lifestyle also encourages the consumption of naturally occurring healthy fats like omega-3’s found in fish and fish oils, quality mono-unsaturated rich fats like avocado and avocado oil, olive oil and saturated fats from well raised animals, tallow, lard, duck fat and bacon along with coconut oil. The body thrives on and needs healthy fats in order to regenerate skin tissue.
Eating lots of leafy greens, berries and other colorful vegetables, along with other antioxidant rich foods like a little dark chocolate or organic red wine also form part of a Paleo diet. Antioxidants work to reduce inflammation and free radicals, and can aid in cellular and skin damage that results from over-exposure the sun.
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Supplementing with well-formulated Vitamin D3 and astaxanthin have both been shown to have a protective effect against sunburn and skin cancer. Astaxanthin is not appropriate for children and always check with your health care provider before taking supplementation.
Tips For Safe Sun Exposure
Although safe sun exposure should always be a consideration, a spring or winter vacation may pose extra risks as you may have not been exposed to the sun’s rays for an extended period of time.
Follow these guidelines for you and your family members:
- If you have fair skin, aim for spending about half the amount of time in the sun that it takes for your skin to turn pink (without sunscreen). This could be as little as 10 minutes or more if your skin is darker and thus requires longer to generate the same amount of vitamin D.
- Avoid burning yourself in the sun. Cover yourself and your children with light clothing, wear a hat, shade yourself with an umbrella, tree or canopy, wear sunglasses.
- Use a safe sunscreen to prevent sunburn if you are going to be exposed to sunlight for a prolonged period.
- Pay attention to the time of day, latitude and season. This probably goes without saying, but you need less sun exposure at mid-day during the summer on the D than in the late afternoon during the winter in a colder climate. Vary your exposure accordingly.
- Infants under 6 months old have little protective pigment (melanin) in their skin. It is best to avoid direct sun exposure at mid-day for infants as they have little protective pigment (melanin) in their skin. Use protective clothing and a hat, and limit exposure to the morning or late afternoon hours. Infants may be particularly susceptible to the toxic effects of some sunscreen ingredients, so use clothing or shade when possible.
Sun protection is important if you plan to be out in the sun for a long enough time to get burned
Countersun sunscreen uses non-nano zinc oxide which are larger particles and have a lower risk of being inhaled and absorbed into the skin. They also feature sustainably sourced antioxidant-rich California Poppy. This physical formulation provides an effective shield from the sun’s harmful rays. Beautycounter Countersun sunscreens are safe for the entire family.
NOTE: It is recommended to reapply 1oz amount at least every two hours, after 40 minutes of swimming or sweating and immediately after towel-drying.
It is important to be responsible with sun exposure, but many sunscreens offer a false security of sun protection and may do more harm than good. Your safest options are covering up and supporting skin health internally and externally. Mineral sunscreens (without nano particles or sunscreen chemicals) are also a good option, but for the most part, spray and chemical sunscreens should be avoided.
With the widespread availability of safer, better formulated sun protection you are able to source safer sunscreens for your family.