by Katie the Wellness Mama
With summer here, protecting our skin (and our children's' skin) from burning is an important priority. Many people just slather on the SPF without a second thought, and I used to, too.
Unfortunately, almost all commercial sunscreens contain harmful ingredients including a synthetic form of Vitamin A that has been linked to increased cancer risk. Sunscreen not only blocks the skin from burning, but it blocks the body's ability to make Vitamin D. While burning is definitely harmful, completely blocking sun exposure has its share of risks, too.
Even low SPF sunscreens almost completely block the body's ability to manufacture vitamin D, and low vitamin D levels have been linked to various diseases including some of the more deadly forms of cancer. Skin cancer is not typically a deadly form of cancer, so avoiding sun exposure to reduce skin cancer risk has the inadvertent affect of lowering Vitamin D levels which ups the risk of other cancers. On top of that, skin cancer rates have been steadily rising (especially melanoma) despite increased use of sunscreens and the majority of all melanoma cases occur in areas that don't often get sun exposure.
In fact, though there is evidence that sunscreen prevents burning, there is no solid evidence that it actually prevents skin cancer.
As with anything, it is important to consider the cause (of skin cancer and burning) rather than just treating the external symptom (how easily one burns). Sunburn, as with other kinds of burns, are a type of inflammation. Everyone will burn at a certain point, but this point can be extended by minimizing the factors that contribute to inflammation. My background is in nutrition, so when I first started investigating this relationship between inflammation in the body and sunburn, I looked at the role of diet.
What Causes Sunburn?
Well, the sun, obviously, but I noticed that some people (even those with semi-light skin tone naturally) had a higher sun tolerance while others were quick to burn. I'd also noticed that my family and clients I'd worked with had a noticeable increase in sun tolerance after adopting certain dietary principles which were geared toward reducing inflammation in the body.
I've always had naturally fair skin and burned really easily. Even after a summer of careful moderate sun exposure, I would only be able to stay out in the sun for 30 minutes or so without protection or I would burn ... until I switched to a real food diet. Suddenly, I was able to garden for several hours in the heat of the day without burning, and I noticed I was actually tanning and my skin tone seemed darker.
After further research I realized that this change was due to several dietary factors including:
- Increase in consumption of antioxidants in the form of wild caught fish, leafy vegetables, grass-fed meat and herbs/spices
- Increase in consumption of healthy saturated fats in the form of grass-fed meat, coconut oil and products, and grass-fed butter
- Improving the body's Omega-3 ratios by eating wild caught fish and taking Fermented Cod Liver Oil/Butter Blend which is high in Omega-3s and Vitamins A, D, and K (which have a protective role in the body)
- Avoiding foods that cause inflammation in the body, including grains, sugars and vegetable oils
How I Avoid Sunburn
My family and I very rarely use sunscreen, and when we do, it's homemade sunscreen or sunscreen bars, which are both made from natural ingredients and don't have the chemical ingredients in many store-bought sunscreens. More often, I just make sure to extend sun tolerance slowly and to cover up with hats or clothing if I am in the sun for longer than that.
There are also some specific supplements that I've found to be helpful in reducing inflammation and preventing sunburn:
About this time of year, I also start taking a specific regimen of supplements that help reduce inflammation and improve sun tolerance. The supplements I take are:
- Vitamin D3(I take about 5,000 IU/day)- Emerging evidence shows that optimizing blood levels of Vitamin D can have a protective effect against sunburn and skin cancer
- Vitamin C
- A few tablespoons of coconut oil melted in a cup of herbal tea per day- the Medium Chain Fatty Acids and saturated fat are easily utilized by the body for new skin formation and are protective against burning
- Fermented Cod Liver Oil/High Vitamin Butter Oil Blend (also great for remineralizing teeth
- Astaxanthin- A highly potent antioxidant
If there are times you will be in the sun for longer than your skin can handle, a recipe that has been very popular with my readers is homemade sunscreen bars. They are really easy to make using natural ingredients and the SPF can be varied according to your needs. They are like a bar of soap, but can be applied to dry skin, leaving a thin layer of protection. The coconut oil is moisturizing and has a natural SPF of about 4. The shea butter, cocoa butter and mango butter and highly moisturizing and also have a small SPF. The zinc oxide is the most protectant and will bring the SPF up to about 20 with the amount used.
Sunscreen Bar Ingredients:
- 1/2 cup coconut oil (I get mine here)
- 1/2 cup shea butter, cocoa butter or mango butter (or a mix of all three equal to 1 cup)
- 1/2 cup beeswax + 1 tablespoon (I get mine here)
- 2 tablespoons (or more for higher SPF) of Zinc Oxide (available online or in many stores in the diaper aisle -- just make sure it is pure zinc oxide-- for those concerned about contaminants or nano-particles, this version has larger particles)
How to Make:
Melt all ingredients (except zinc oxide and essential oils if using) in a double boiler, or a glass bowl over a smaller saucepan with 1 inch of boiling water in it.
When all ingredients are melted, remove from the heat and stir in the zinc oxide and essential oils. Whisk quickly or use an immersion blender to make sure well mixed.
Pour the mix into whatever molds or shape you want them to take when hard. I used silicon baking cups, but even an old (small) box lined with wax paper or a glass baking dish will work. This recipe fills about 6 muffins tins or the bottom of a glass loaf pan.
Let the bars cool completely before removing them. You can speed this process up by placing them in the fridge. Remove from molds and store in plastic bags. If you used a baking dish or box, cut the hardened bars into smaller shapes for easy use.
Sunscreen bars last several months at room temperature or warmer, but last indefinitely in the fridge or freezer.
Protect Your Skin from the Inside Out
We can all agree that burning is harmful to the skin and should be avoided, but perhaps it's time for a new approach to natural sun protection. Giving the body the nutrients it needs can help reduce inflammation and reduce the risk of burning. Along with natural means like homemade sunscreen and protective clothing, we can get healthy sun exposure each day, optimize our Vitamin D levels, and avoid burning without the chemicals.
Perhaps the best sun protection comes from the inside out, not the other way around!
Katie, the "Wellness Mama" is a mom of four with a background in Nutrition. Katie is a real food crusader, lover of books, kettlebell junkie, scuba diver, and coffee addict who can finally do a pull up. She blogs at WellnessMama.com about health, fitness, natural living, healthy recipes, and motherhood. You can find her on facebook, twitter, Pinterest and Google+.