Controversial opinion: like the no sugar campaign, and the no fat campaign, I believe we’ve taken sun protection too far. In recent years, Vitamin D deficiencies have soared. It is estimated that up to 23% of Australians are vitamin D deficient. Interestingly, despite increased sun safety awareness, the rate of skin cancer is also increasing.
It is it really necessary to wear sunscreen every day?
No, I don’t believe it is. In fact, there are disadvantages to wearing sunscreen all the time and incredible benefits to safe, short periods of sun exposure. A proper dose of sunlight can lead to better sleep patterns, stronger bones, improved mood, and a boosted immune system.
Many people miss out on sunlight’s health benefits, most critically vitamin D synthesis. This is due to being continuously shielded by sunscreen, hats, and clothing, year round. Does this mean that we should dance naked in the summer sun all day? Of course not! The key is balance.
Fortunately, there is a way we can learn how to enjoy the sun’s benefits without damage.
What are the benefits of vitamin D?
Whilst we can get some vitamin D from food, vitamin D synthesis happens in response to exposure to sunlight’s UV rays. Vitamin D is critical to our physical and emotional health.
Healthy levels of vitamin D:
Are necessary for proper hormone function
Are critical for proper calcium absorption
May lower blood pressure, which protects against heart attack and stroke
Help to keep appetite under control
Reduce the risk of autoimmune disease
May decrease the risk of cancer
May increase fertility and pregnancy rates
May cut the rate of breast cancer in half
May improve muscle strength
What are the side effects of low vitamin D?
Increased susceptibility to viruses and bacterial infection
Increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease
Worsened asthma symptoms
Impaired cognitive function in the elderly
Tiredness and fatigue
Chronic lower back pain
Depression and anxiety
Impaired wound healing
Low bone mineral density
Further, studies have linked low vitamin D levels with
I love the ad by the Queensland Government featuring Sun Mum – a middle aged man dressed up as a Mrs Brown style mum who nagged her kids about sun protection. For months I took great delight in shouting at people without hats “COREY! WHERE’S YOUR HAT?! GO GET IT!” (Obviously, I only did this to people who knew me.)
We are well aware that the sunlight’s UV radiation is a carcinogen. Sun literally burns the skin, damaging it and in extreme cases, causing skin cell death. This sun damage will quickly lead to accelerated aging. Sun damage to the skin can eventually lead to the development of fatal skin cancers, like melanoma, through oxidative DNA damage and nucleotide damage. Depending on the UV index in a particular location, sun damage can occur in a matter of minutes.
Growing up in Australia, where the hole in the ozone hovers, it was drummed into us to “slip, slop, slap, and wrap” before we even thought about going out in the hot sun – slip on long sleeves, slop on sunscreen, slap on a hat and wrap our eyes with sunglasses.
However, that blanket statement advice is somewhat misleading. Like every living thing, human beings need sunlight to survive. Natural sunlight synthesizes vitamin D, regulates hormone production, and syncs our body clocks. To completely block out the very thing that gives us life can actually shorten our lifespan, rather than increase it.
How much sunlight do you need?
Even the Cancer Council Australia recognizes that moderate, non-burning sun exposure without protection is important for our health. The key is to use good judgement. Short stints of solar exposure to a small area of skin provides all the sunlight you need without burning or damage.
The exact duration of sun exposure varies dramatically between individual skin type, location, season, and time of day. For example, someone with very pale skin may only handle a minute or two of sun exposure, whereas someone with more olive skin may need a little more.
The safest way to evaluate the amount sun exposure you need is to look up your local UV index. The UV index is an international standard which measures solar UV intensity and risk. In Australia, the Cancer Council has produced their own app which measures this for you. Alternatively, you can research it at the Bureau of Meterology. In the USA, the EPA has a widget you can use.
Once you know the UV index number for your location, divide 60 by that amount. This will give you the SED, or standard erythemal dose, before you burn. For example, here in southeast Queensland we are experiencing extremely hot and sunny temperatures. Today in my local area the UV index at midday was 12 (extreme). When I divide 60 by 12, I reach a figure of 5. This means that 5 minutes equals 1 SED.
For very fair, pale skin types, this means that they would develop sun damage and sunburn within a mere five minutes of sun exposure. Yeowch! With my olive skin, I would have started burning in 15 minutes. That’s less time than it takes for me to tend my garden and feed my guinea pig.
For the full chart, visit Consumer Reports, who provide a table indicating skin types and SEDs. This information is critical to evaluating how much safe sun exposure you can enjoy before covering up.
Here, it’s important to err on the side of caution. It is not safe to get sunburnt. This must be avoided. Pink skin is already sun damaged.
Without researching UV SEDs, a good rule of thumb as provided by the cancer wiki is as follows:
In late autumn and winter in most climates, when the UV index is below 3, sun protection is not recommended at all. Instead, go outside in the middle of the day to maximise and support healthy vitamin D production. You could switch up your daily run from early morning to midday at lunch time, or do your gardening in the middle of the day.
Throughout the year, in the late afternoon (4 pm onwards) and early morning (up until 7 am), sun protection is not recommended, unless you will be outside for long periods of time.
During summer, when the UV index is 3 or above, wear long sleeves, a hat, and sunscreen and seek shade if you are going to be outdoors for more than a few minutes. When the UV index is anywhere above 3, you will get adequate sunlight incidentally through your everyday activities like walking to your office from your car, or nipping across the road to grab coffee, et cetera.
If you are an outdoor worker, such as a gardener or traffic control officer, you should use sun protection year round whenever you are outdoors.
The Truth About Sunscreen
I don’t advocate slathering sunscreen on your face and body daily. Here’s why:
HARMFUL CHEMICALS | Many commercial sunscreens contain harmful chemicals like oxybenzone (a hormone disruptor which penetrates the skin and alters DNA). It also has high allergy rates. The EWG has flagged several suspected dangers with the chemical, which has been shown to cause photosensitivity and alter DNA. Though opinion on this is mixed, and there’s no concrete evidence – yet – to link it with the proportionate increase in melanoma among sunscreen users, I choose to stay away and opt for different methods of sun protection.
IT INHIBITS VITAMIN D ABSORPTION | A study in the Journal of the American Osteopath Association has found that sunscreen with levels higher than SPF 15+ can inhibit the body’s vitamin D production by as much as 99% if it is used regularly. Further, a study by Hoel et al in the Dermato Endocrinology Journal found:
“Sunscreens do, however, reduce acclimatization to UVR and vitamin D production in the skin”
“the labeling of sunscreens should contain a statement about the possibility of vitamin D deficiency that may result from excessive use of sunscreens.”
IT MAY NOT ACTUALLY PREVENT SKIN CANCER, ANYWAY | At least, not as effectively as sensibly covering up and seeking shade. When I was researching this article, I was horrified to read that sunscreen may not be effective in reducing cancer risk.
The abovementioned study in the Dermato Endocrinology Journal by Hoel et al found:
“We can find no consistent evidence that the use of chemical sunscreens reduces the risk of melanoma”.
It further made the recommendation that:
“Labelling should also state that sunscreens have not been shown to be effective in reducing the risk of melanoma”.
Another study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics found that:
“Sunscreens protect against sunburn but there is no evidence that they protect against basal cell carcinoma or melanoma”.
Even a document from the FDA confirmed:
“The FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer”.
To the contrary, rates of melanoma among regular sunscreen users have been increasing in recent years.
This may be due to sunscreen use fostering complacency. We treat sunscreen like a shield against the sun, rather than covering up with clothing, avoiding the midday sun, and seeking shade in the first instance. We assume protection because we put on sunscreen this morning. Sunscreen often does not fully protect against UV rays and needs reapplication for continued protection, so sun damage, and therefore melanoma, may still occur.
IT’S AN ECO TOXIN | Most commercial sunscreens are an environmental hazard when they enter natural water sources. Oxybenzone (the hormone disrupting chemical mentioned earlier) is destroying our ocean’s coral. It causes deformities in the coral’s soft tissue, and mutates their larvae, bleaching the coral and killing it. It’s estimated that a massive 5000 to 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen wash off swimmers into the oceans each year. However, popular tourist destinations like Hawaii and the Caribbean have levels over 12 times the average.
The marine damage doesn’t stop at coral. Because of its hormone disruptive properties, oxybenzone also triggers gender shifts in fish, leading to a decline in egg production and fish populations. It’s also toxic to fish, algae, and mammals.
How to Get Safe Sun
KEEP YOUR FACE AND EARS PROTECTED | If you’re in the sun for any length of time, wear a broad-brimmed hat which covers your face, ears, decolletage and ideally even your shoulders and upper back. These areas are some of the most prone to sun damage and accelerated aging. I also wear non-toxic BB cream and mineral foundation with sun protection, or tinted sunscreen if I don’t want to wear makeup.
EAT A NUTRIENT RICH DIET | Whilst this definitely won’t make you bullet proof, and should not be used as an alternative to active sun protection, there is evidence that a nutrient rich diet may help to protect against sun damage and possibly even contribute to the prevention of cancer. A diet rich in lycopenes, beta carotene, polyphenols and omega 3s can help to prevent skin damage from the sun and protect your body from within.
USE COCONUT OIL AS A BODY LOTION | This has a low SPF of about 5. It is not sufficient to use as sunscreen on its own, nor do I recommend that you make your own sunscreen with it. I do prefer it, though, as a non-toxic, natural alternative to SPF body lotions.
AVOID THE SUN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY | When the UV index is above 3, keep out of the sun as much as possible. Do daily outdoor activities like gardening or exercise early in the morning or in the late afternoon/evening. By then, the UV will likely have dropped to a safer level and you will still enjoy the benefits of sunlight. (It is still advisable to double check the UV index on particularly hot days, even in the late afternoon.)
GET SMALL AMOUNTS OF SUN EXPOSURE MOST DAYS OF THE WEEK | You can overexercise, you can eat too many avocados, and you can even drink too much water. Sunbaking is not safe. Small, regular amounts of sun exposure throughout the week is the secret. You need only expose a small area, like your arms, decolletage or feet for a couple of minutes to reap the benefits of sunlight.
DON’T RELY ON SUNSCREEN | It is not safe to just slather on sunscreen and hang out exposed in the sun all day. Instead, treat sunscreen as it was intended: to “fill in the gaps” for shorter periods of time where other methods of sun protection cannot be used.
GET OUT OF THE SUN BEFORE YOU BURN | Retreat into the shade or indoors after a few minutes of exposure to avoid skin damage, particularly when UV levels are moderate to high.
COVER UP WITH CLOTHING | Aside from seeking shade, this is the safest and most effective way to protect against sun damage. Wear sunglasses, put on a wide brimmed hat, and wear loose, long sleeves. When swimming, throw on a rashie suit to cover up your arms and/or legs You could also use a parasol or umbrella.
NATURAL SUNSCREENS | Sunscreen is still recommended to “cover up the gaps” missed by the other sun protection methods. Choose natural alternatives with high water resistance and reef friendly ingredients if you’re going to be near water and you must reapply every two hours, or every hour if you’re in the water.
Some of my favourites are:
It’s All Good UV Natural Sunscreen (two hours water resistant), SPF 30+. A baby formulation is also available. It’s great to use on the body but may be heavy for the face.
Natural Instinct Tinted Face Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+. Great for no makeup days. I don’t recommend wearing it in the ocean.
Raw Elements Face and Body Certified Natural Sunscreen. I absolutely love this sunscreen. It’s reef safe, SPF 30+, non-nano, organic, broad spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB), water resistant for up to 80 minutes and the tin is fully recyclable. It’s a tick in every box.
FAKE IT, DON’T BAKE IT | I love a healthy sunkissed glow. However, I don’t love sunburn, or panicking about a mole changing colour. As I get further into my 30s, I’m valuing plump, hydrated, youthful skin. Plus, any accidental sun-induced tans I do get seem to make my skin look like leather. I’m not great at DIY spray tans and I don’t have time to go to a salon every 10 days, but I do love to fake a sun bronzed glow with gradual tanner.
Unfortunately, many tanning lotions contain harmful ingredients which can irritate the skin or disrupt hormones. However, there are a lot of natural options that do as good a job, if not better. My all time favourite tanning products are Eco Tan Winter Skin and for the face, Eco Tan Face Water. The colour is glorious, it doesn’t stink like regular tanner, it hydrates the skin and it’s always smooth and never blotchy.
GET CHECKED | Keep an eye on spots or moles on your skin. Notice any changes in colour, shape, or size. Ask your partner or a friend to check them regularly too, at least once every three months. (Sometimes, it can be difficult to notice a change in something you see every day.) If there are any changes, see your doctor immediately. Err on the side of caution and have any concerning new spots checked out right away. If you are at risk or are watching any moles or spots, you should visit your doctor for a comprehensive skin check at least once a year.