Are you suffering from sun-safety whiplash? It looks like this: You’re super woke about skin cancer (and accelerated skin aging) thanks to pretty much everyone ever telling you about the dangers of sun exposure. And they aren’t wrong. Studies suggest that most melanoma cases are caused, at least in part, by overexposure to sunlight. But lately you’ve heard rumors about the dangers of conventional sunscreens—that they are hard on the environment, that they mess with your endocrine system, that they might not protect against skin cancer as effectively as they should… and that, at the same time, they may have carcinogenic properties of their own. Oh, yeah, and some of the ingredients in conventional sunscreens may be neurotoxins. Then there’s the debate about sunscreen and low-levels of vitamin D. Some experts have suggested that the “always use sunscreen!” advice is preventing us from converting sunlight into vitamin D, which we need for optimal hormonal health, and especially for optimal fertility? It’s enough to make you want to hide out in a windowless room until science sorts it all out. But there are ways to have a fun day at the beach, get some vitamin D, and protect yourself against skin damage... without damaging your hormones. Here’s how to keep your skin AND your hormones happy while you navigate the sun safety conundrum.
The Trouble with Conventional Sunscreens
The active ingredients in most sunscreens have been linked to imbalanced hormones, premature birth, increased risk for breast, ovarian and prostate cancer, and disruption of normal endocrine function. One popular active ingredient, oxybenzone, has been shown to harm fish and damage coral reefs—in addition to human health—all while experts have raised serious doubts about the skin cancer-prevention benefits of sunscreen that contains oxybenzone.In high concentrations, ingredients like oxybenzone can have neurotoxic effects. While the concentrations of oxybenzone that have been studied and linked to health dangers are higher than what is normally found in human tissue or the environment, that’s hardly reassuring data. What’s more, the effects of repeated, long-term, and low-dose exposures to the chemicals in sunscreens haven’t been properly studied. We don’t know what using these products everyday, as we’re often instructed to do, will do to our bodies.Meanwhile, concerns have cropped up that sunscreens might not be as effective at protecting against skin cancer as once thought, and studies have shown that most sunscreen users don’t apply enough, reducing the product’s effectiveness to one quarter of what is promised on the bottle. So what’s a person to do? There are safer sunscreens on the market—and there are other ways to be sun safe, while still getting your vitamin D.
Get Your Vitamin D...While Protecting Your Skin
Exposure to sunlight prompts the body to make vitamin D, but sunscreen effectively stops this process. So many experts recommend five to 10 minutes of sunscreen-free sun exposure everyday. This can help you make vitamin D naturally, but I recommend avoiding the brightest hours (from 11:00am-ish to 3:00pm-ish) when you’re skipping sunscreen. And if you’re worried about accelerated skin aging, leave your legs or arms exposed for 10 to 15 minutes instead of your face and neck.
But many of us live in climates where—even if you go outside for a few minutes each day without sunscreen—the sun’s rays aren’t direct enough in winter to trigger vitamin D synthesis. If you live anywhere north of, say, Missouri, the sunlight is too indirect during the winter months for our bodies to make this important vitamin, which acts like a master hormone in the body. From roughly October to April, we’re cut off from our main source of vitamin D. And there’s worse news: Even direct sunshine all year round isn’t a guarantee. Studies suggest that populations who live close to the equator, where the sun is high in the sky 365 days a year, also don’t make enough vitamin D. For complicated and largely unknown reasons, vitamin D deficiency is a global phenomenon.For this reason, I recommend that women take a high-quality vitamin D supplement. Vitamin D is important for hormone balance, fertility, mood, energy, and so much more. If vitamin D is low, as it is for so many of us, it can nearly impossible to move the needle on period and fertility problems and other symptoms.
The Safest Sunscreens
If you want to protect your hormones from the endocrine-disrupting chemicals in certain sunscreens, you have a marvelous ally on your side: the Environmental Working Group (EWG).EWG is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. The group conducts research and disseminates information on an array of commercially available products, from shampoos to lipstick to—yes—sunscreens. (In fact, I recommend that women run ALL their health and beauty products through the EWG’s fantastic Skin Deep database, which catalogues the health and safety of just about every product on the market.)Every year, the EWG publishes a guide to sunscreens. You can check out the 2019 Sunscreen Guide here. The Guide allows you to search sunscreens by brand (so you can check on the safety of products you already own); look up the safest-ranking products; and get information about potentially dangerous ingredients.
Meanwhile, here is some of my top sun safety advice, including a few of my favorite sunscreens:
Consider avoiding sunscreens with oxybenzone. Officially, there is “insufficient data” on the safety of oxybenzone, but concerns have been raised about endocrine disruption and systemic toxicity when it comes to this commonly used compound. (Oxybenzone is found in roughly two-thirds of commercially available sunscreens). I recommend skipping products that include oxybenzone until scientists know more. Why risk it when it comes to hormone health?
Higher SPF doesn’t always mean more sun protection. It’s tempting to grab a sunscreen with the highest SPF you can find, but research suggests that SPFs over 50 confer no more benefit than SPF 50 sunscreens. In fact, its been shown that very high SPF products can be more dangerous than lower SPF products because they confer a false sense of safety. People tend to think Oh, this is SPF 75! I don’t need to reapply all day! Or A little goes a long way!, when really these products function on par with SPF 50 products and have the same re-application instructions.
Remember physical barriers. It’s easy to forget that age-old things like sitting in the shade, wearing a hat and long sleeves, and planning around the sun’s peak hours act as natural—and 100-percent safe!—sun protection. Use these sun-safety strategies FIRST every time you’re headed outdoors.
My favorite sunscreens. There are many clean, mineral sunscreens on the market. Just be sure to read labels closely and opt for mineral sunscreens that use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as active ingredients. Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are “generally recognized as safe and effective.” But before you buy, check a product’s safety on the EWG database.
Coola: This brand is mineral-based and has some excellent and versatile varieties, including beach and sport, baby, and a really silky tinted version for your face.
MyChelle: This brand also make a nice—and very clean—tinted face cream with SPF 50.
Supergoop! Makes a line of clean products for adults and kids.
Badger: These sunscreens can go on a touch thick, but they couldn’t be cleaner.