Sunscreen season is upon us and if you’re like me, you hate slathering the stuff all over your skin. But nonetheless, if I’m going to be out in the sun for an extended period of time, I put on some sunscreen. There are very real consequences to staying out in the sun unprotected for too long. These consequences are different for for everyone and and depend on skin type, location in the world and time of day.
This being said, some people go overboard with sunscreen. Despite what you’ve heard, getting absolutely no unprotected sun exposure per day is not ideal. Just like all life forms on the surface of this planet, we need to get some sun, plain and simple. If we block all our sun exposure we’re just asking to get sick.
One consequence of our continued sun-dodging, whether purposeful or simply a result of the increasingly indoor existence of the western world, is low vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is created by the body when sunlight reacts with cholesterol in the skin (yep, cholesterol. Not such bad stuff after all). Vitamin D is a hot-bed of scientific research at the moment. It has already been found to be vital for immune system function, maintaining bone density, helping with calcium absorption and maintaining calcium and phosphorous levels in the blood. Add to that the preventative role vitamin D plays in autoimmune disease, hypertension, osteoporosis and cancer and it is clear this is a vitamin you do not want to be without.
Remember, it’s quite difficult to give average figures for how much time people should spend in the sun unprotected, since all of our needs are so different. Better to exercise caution then risk getting burned. Most people need at least 10 minutes of unprotected sun exposure per day, but this obviously will be less if you’re fair-skinned and burn easily and be more if you’re dark skinned and don’t really burn. It’s safest to try working up to 10 minutes, spending a little more time each day and building up a base tan.
But getting back to sunscreen, when are the consequences of sun exposure greater than the consequences of avoiding the sun? The question is made even more complicated when we look at the nature of a lot of these sunscreens we’re using. It seems the worst consequence of using sunscreen may not be simply missing out on vitamin D. Many sunscreen companies use chemical ingredients that are downright harmful when put on the skin. It’s sad but true that most of these companies are more concerned with their bottom line than their customer’s health, so choosing the right sunscreen is vitally important.
And how do we do this? The task of assessing your sunscreen’s safety is mitigated by your ability to collect accurate data on every one of the unpronounceable ingredients on your sunscreen bottle, which is unlikely. And the task is made even more arduous when you consider that not all of the ingredients need to be listed.
Enter the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental advocacy group operating out of Washington. Every year, the EWG put together a study where they evaluate both the safety and effectiveness of 1400 different sunscreens, lip balms and moisturizers. From the EWG site “Your favorite sunscreen may not be all it’s advertised to be. EWG’s research team found that 92 percent of brand name sunscreens either don’t sufficiently protect skin from sun damage or contain hazardous chemicals – or both.”
Find out how your sunscreen ranks, check out some quick tips and look up the best and worst (hall of shame) sun protection products on the market. Also consider donating a few bucks while you’re there. The EWG provides a valuable service and wouldn’t be able to do so without the generosity of the public.
The Healthy Foodie is Doug DiPasquale, Holistic Nutritionist and trained chef, living in Toronto. Doug specializes in private in-home holistic cooking lessons.