Safe sunscreen and sun exposure? Is it possible?
When I was born the nurse told my parents that I was the whitest baby in the nursery. It was not a joke, of all of the babies at Tacoma General Hospital born that March I was definitely the palest. I was at an unfair disadvantage even before my skin had been exposed to sunlight. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest it was fairly easy to avoid the sun. On average it is cloudy 226 days a year…. plus the 81 days that it is “partly cloudy.” My sun exposure was usually limited and included lots of SPF 50 sunscreen. While my childhood was spent without a lot of sun exposure, I suffered from sunburns on the odd, sunny day (in spite of lots of sunscreen) and in the summertime my nose and cheeks were covered with a generous smattering of freckles. When I moved to sunny, southern Spain, later tropical Brazil and finally BCS Mexico, which is pretty much a combo of sandy beaches and desert, I initially maintained my total avoidance of the sun by using lots of sunscreen and not going outside very often. In spite of my careful protection, most of my long beach days were followed by painful sunburns. My rarely exposed skin was unprepared for the bright sun of my tropical homes.
As I have learned more about the connection between vitamin D deficiency and autoimmune disease as well as the many benefits we gain from a little bit of sunscreen free exposure, in addition to the dangers (and just plain questionable effectiveness) of sunscreen, I have been forced to modify my attitude towards the sun from “out to get me and cause me pain,” to “a slightly dangerous ally in my journey to better health.” My research on sunscreen revealed that even natural sunscreens may not be protecting us as much as we imagine… and that the only really effective ones are physical sunblocks, which mean they usually go on white and stay white. I am a little too fashion conscious to walk around with a white nose and cheeks, but too pale to just skip protection… so what could I do?
The tricks that I share below are what helped me go from being the whitest baby in the hospital to being able to spend my days outdoors with an “almost” tan (OK maybe not a tan but at least no one is concerned that I might be a vampire). Best of all… those days of painful sunburns because my husband missed a spot on my back are long gone.
1) Build up slowly
When I first got to Mexico, 20 minutes in the sun was enough to burn my pale skin lobster-red. So I started by only staying in the sun for 15 minutes before covering up (see number 3). Now, after slowly adding a couple minutes a day, I can stay in the sun for an hour without getting burned. I haven’t tried to go longer than that because I believe that the sun, while beneficial in small doses, is to be respected. Too much sun is damaging to anyone’s skin and especially those of us who are naturally pale. Start with just a few minutes of sun on your arms and legs before covering up and slowly build up as your skin permits. The sun is strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM so starting out by exposing yourself early in the morning or late in the afternoon might also be helpful.
2) Stop before you go too far
If you feel itchy or burny or are covered with too many freckles (memories of my nose as a child) you are probably spending too much time in the sun. One thing I have noticed while living in Mexico is that even though many Mexicans have naturally tan skin, this doesn’t mean that they are running around without protection from the sun all day. Even on the hottest summer day, the people who work outdoors can be spotted wearing sombreros, long sleeves and jeans. Too much sun exposure can lead to burns, leathery skin, and premature aging (not to mention skin cancer). Some studies have shown that people of Northern European descent… polite way of saying “pale people like me,” are more efficient at making vitamin D from the sunlight. This means that to reap the optimal health benefits of sun exposure, many of us don’t have to expose ourselves to the sun’s rays for very long.
2) Cover up when you reach your limit
Just because you have reached your max sun time for the day (be that 12 minutes or 60) doesn’t mean you have to go inside. I often go for long walks on the beach that take me beyond my own “limits” and then work in the yard. How do I avoid overexposure? Covering up, literally! I put on a long sleeve shirt (like this one) or a cotton button down that is both cute, lightweight and protects me from the sun without seeping toxins into my skin (like the one I am wearing below). I find that my legs don’t need as much protection (maybe my body shades them), but when I have an extra long day in the sun I use lightweight leggings or pants for extra protection. Here I am in my sun protection attire.
3) Buy yourself an awesome hat (or five)
I am not going to lie, as beneficial as sun exposure may be, I refuse to risk getting too much sun on my face. You will almost never find me outdoors in the sun without a hat on. I am also a little bit of a fashionista and don’t like to give up my style whenever possible. After shopping around I settled on a couple of hats that I can wear ALL THE TIME and work well with my clothes. This Stetson Cowboy Hat goes equally well with a sundress or jean shorts and a light cotton button down and works well for both walking on the beach or shopping in town. My other “go-to” hat is a Hurley Trucker Hat that I can wear with all of my athletic clothes. It doesn’t shade my face as well as the cowboy hat so I sometimes have to use a physical sunblock on my chin/lower cheeks if I am going to be working outside a lot. Whatever your personal style is, I am sure that you can find a hat that will suit you and keep you safe from the sun at the same time.
4) Use SAFE sunscreen
OK, so if I haven’t convinced you that a Stetson is better than sunscreen, what are some good options for safe sun protection that you can put on like a traditional cream? The products below are the best options that I have been able to find. I am not affiliated with any of these companies. I have chosen them simply because I think that their ingredients are safe (and ethical to boot). I would love to hear your favorite sunscreen options in the comments!
Uses non-nano zinc oxide to protect skin without dangerous chemicals! When you are looking at natural sunscreen options, remember that just because a product uses organic ingredients, doesn’t mean that it is good for you. The active ingredient of a sunscreen should be: zinc oxide. Look for a sunscreen that doesn’t use “nano-particles.” Nano-particles are small enough to enter through your epidermis and into your bloodstream. This is my personal favorite!
Is a physical sunscreen that uses zinc oxide. It leaves a white sheen on your skin, but is much better than the alternative: lots of chemicals going right into your biggest organ (the skin). When you are looking at natural sunscreen options, remember that just because a product uses organic ingredients, doesn’t mean that it is good for you. The active ingredient of a sunscreen should be: zinc oxide. Look for a sunscreen that doesn’t use “nano-particles.” Nano-particles are small enough to enter through your epidermis and into your bloodstream. They are also what makes most sunscreen sheer enough that you don’t notice it.
Uses natural oils to protect your skin from the elements including raspberry and carrot seed oil. Raspberry and carrot seed oil both have a higher SPF (between 28-50) and are sheer, unlike physical sunblocks. This sun protector is not marketed as a “sun-screen” because it hasn’t been tested as such, but the enthusiastic reviews seem to indicate that it works well! (read more about it here)
Uses both non-nano zinc oxide and natural oils to protect and nourish your skin while outdoors. Similar to the Primal Life Organics Sun Protector this outdoor cream is not advertised as a “sun-screen” but has fabulous reviews that highlight it’s long lasting effective protection. (read more about it here)
-Natural oils / DIY sunscreen
Coconut, olive and avocado oils all have an SPF of between 2-8. These numbers vary a lot and are hard to test because the quality of the oil influences its effectiveness so much. I wouldn’t recommend using oil as sunscreen on its own after you have already reached your sun limit for the day, but rather as something to use during the time you know you can tolerate being outside. You can do your own experiment and see if it extends your sun tolerance or not. There are also a few recipes for DIY sunscreen that use both natural oils and zinc oxide. They might be a cost effective alternative to the natural protectors that I mentioned above.
I hope that these ideas help you navigate the sunny weather and take advantages of the benefits of our sneaky ally the sun, without getting red and uncomfortable!
OBS: I want to be very clear that I am not advocating ditching your sunscreen and spending all day in the sun naked by any means. The sun (in large doses) can be detrimental to our health in many ways and it is important to protect your skin by using either sunscreen, clothes or shade. Getting a sunburn is not healthy. What I do suggest however is that we look at different ways to protect our skin, beyond traditional sunscreen and find the best way to enjoy the sun without damaging our skin or our health!