Sunscreen Safety

By Ashley Barnes

It’s already hot and sunny here in Kentuckiana and my girls have been enjoying the neighbor’s pool for hours on end.  Their pink cheeks and emerging tan lines reminds me that it’s time start buying sunscreen again.   The easiest choice is to hit my local discount store for some SPF 75+ and hit the pool, right?   Well, maybe not.  Not all sunscreens are created equal — or safe.  Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases information about the safety and efficacy of hundreds of sunscreen products.  Here’s some things to keep in mind for 2011.

Not all active ingredients are made equal
Sunscreen has a noble mission, but it’s also made up of active ingredients, not all of which are safe or beneficial.  Oxybenzone, the most common ingredient, is a associated with allergic reactions as well as potential hormone disruption, and experts have called on parents to avoid using it on children.  Women dealing with hormonal imbalances should avoid putting anything on their bodies that could further disrupt their hormones either.  So read the labels.  Chemicals such as Avobenzone, Mexoryl XS, zinc, and titanium have the lowest concern for human exposure and toxicity.  Also, choose a cream or lotion over a spray or powder, to avoid inhaling small particles (particularly zinc and titanium nanoparticles) that that may also be harmful to breathe.  Finally, purchase new sunscreen every year.  The active ingredients become less potent over time and therefore offer less skin protection.

High SPF isn’t necessarily best
Claims of high SPF can be misleading and give a false sense of security.  Most people do not put on enough sunscreen initially or reapply often enough for the higher SPF to make a difference.  Then they stay out longer, thinking they’re protected by the higher SPF, and get as many sunburns as those using a lower SPF sunscreen. Choose a sunscreen with lower SPF (15-50), reapply often, limit your direct sunlight exposure, and use natural shade, light clothing, and/or a hat to better protect your skin.

The problem with Vitamin A 
Vitamin A, an antioxidant, is used in many body lotions and face creams to help slow skin aging.  However, limited FDA studies have shown that vitamin A in the forms retinyl palmitate or retinol has photocarcinogenic properties that may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions.  More testing is needed, but why not be safe in the meantime?  About 30% of sunscreens contain vitamin A, so again, always read the labels and choose a sunscreen without this potentially dangerous ingredient.

Get your Vitamin D
If you’re going to spend more than 20-30 minutes in direct sunlight, it’s definitely important to protect your skin from damage.  However, we need natural sunlight to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D, which helps to keep our bones strong and healthy and supports our immune system.  Unfortunately, many people are low or even deficient in vitamin D due to our largely indoor lives.  So get some direct sunlight exposure every day during the summer months, get your vitamin D levels checked regularly, and ask your health practitioner about supplementing if you’re low.

Prevent Sunburn from the Inside Out
In addition to protecting your skin while you’re in the sun, you can also incorporate foods into your diet that will help boost your body’s internal sunblock.  Foods rich in lycopene and beta-carotene have been shown in studies to have a protective effect for your skin.  Tomatoes and watermelon are standard summer foods that are both rich in lycopene.  Beta-carotene (an antioxidant) is found in colorful fruits and vegetables, as well as leafy green vegetables.  Load up on your favorite red, yellow, orange, and green foods such as carrots, red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, mangoes, apricots, melons, tomatoes, kale, spinach, and broccoli. Combining healthy food choices with safe skin protection is a great start to a fun and healthy summer!

Be sure to check out EWG’s website to read the complete Sunscreen Guide, including the best (and worst) sunscreens, lip balms, moisturizers, and makeups, additional sun safety tips, and even a free iPhone app!

Ashley Barnes is a holistic health coach supporting women facing serious health and life challenges with finding a healthy diet, stress reduction, personal empowerment, and spiritual practice .  She trained with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in NYC and also has an M.S. in Training & Employee Development and a B.S. in Psychology.  To schedule a FREE Discovery Session, contact Ashley at (502) 889-7955 or visit


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