The following is a guest post by Katie Kimball of KitchenStewardship. Thanks, Katie!
I was totally not prepared for the last holiday weekend.
We traveled to a lake in mid-Michigan to visit family, and I was expecting cold weather. I checked to make sure everyone had sweatshirts and considered bringing a knit cap for the baby in case we took a long walk.
It had been in the 30s in our area overnight at the end of the week and it’s always colder three hours north, plus it’s almost always cruddy weather on Memorial Day weekend up there.
And then it was gorgeous.
And everyone wanted to swim.
I was dumbstruck, realizing I hadn’t even thought to pack sunscreen!
Luckily on that front, I have tubes in the diaper bag, snack bag and van glove box all the time, so no lobster skin for the fair-skinned, pasty white Kimball kids. When you’ve tried over sixty different brands of natural sunscreen, they’re everywhere.
The actual logistics of swimming were another story – we had my ten-year-old in the lake in shorts and no swim shirt (unheard of usually), my daughter swimming in her pajamas, and the 3-year-old rockin’ it in nothing but underwear, his thunder belly hanging over the waistband like a little Buddha.
As much as I embrace my kids showing a little skin and soaking up the Vitamin D, that much direct sunlight, midday, early in the season does make me nervous.
Our family doesn’t exactly “just turn pink” like Kristen’s does, (or if we do, it’s too pink for my comfort).
I feel that we eat a pretty good diet full of healthy fats, but it doesn’t seem to provide quite the protective factor that many in the comments of her Should You Use Sunscreen? post echo.
But it’s not like I think that real food has failed me, or that we’re just not trying hard enough. If “food as sunscreen” doesn’t quite work for you either, I hope you aren’t discouraged – there is another safe option!
There’s nothing wrong with sunscreen to protect from a sunburn – but I won’t grab just any old tube.
How Sunscreen Might Cause Cancer
I did an awesome interview recently with a Stanford-trained biochemist (who happens to have very light skin) and learned about the risks of petrochemical sunscreens, and here are just a few of the extreme hazards of putting conventional sunscreen on your skin:
- The chemical active ingredients are very unstable – they can break down once in your skin and create free radicals. Yep, those things that cause cancer. Ironically, UV rays cause the breakdown. That’s the sun. (So it’s safer to wear sunscreen indoors than out – but only slightly. Keep reading.)
- They bioaccumulate – meaning that they stay in your body for a long time. A 2003-04 report based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showed that oxybenzone, one of the most toxic of sunscreen ingredients, persisted in human urine in 96.8% of the 2,517 samples. Even if you only wear sunscreen in the summer, it stays with you like white on rice all year long.
- It may increase asthma and allergies (source).
- One recommended application of petrochemical sunscreens on a whole body is equal to daily hormonal therapy for menopause – whether you’re a man, woman or child. Scary.
- Sunscreen active ingredients are one of the highest exposures we have to estrogenic chemicals – and they’re environmentally persistent, so what washes off one body while swimming ends up in their neighbor’s tea somewhere downstream.
- They cause coral reefs to die, fish to become hermaphroditic, and interfere with reproductive cycles of aquatic life (and as endocrine disruptors, most likely human life as well).
The sunscreens themselves may initiate more cancer-causing scenarios than they prevent, plus a host of other risks.
For the love of all that is growing, healthy and fertile – please, do NOT put this stuff on your skin!
Your skin is a vehicle to the rest of your body that allows 60-80% of what goes on it a free pass inside. But it’s also the part that can burn and blister in the sun if your skin tone goes beyond “just pink” or you’re in an all-day intense sunny situation. There’s got to be something we can wear if eating right isn’t cutting it, right?
Even though science doesn’t support the common perception that sunscreen decreases your risk of skin cancer, it’s very possible that has everything to do with the kind of sunscreen being worn.
Look for one with “zinc oxide” as the only active ingredient, supported by other wholesome players, and your skin will thank you.
What can Zinc Oxide do for You?
No one is doing research on specifically mineral-based sunscreens, which is really too bad, because it’s likely that they’d find the opposite correlation with cancer and sunscreen use. (Petrochemical sunscreen is an 8-billion dollar industry…so you can bet they have some say in the research that gets funded and which studies get big press, unfortunately!)
Zinc oxide, a naturally occurring mineral, absorbs both UVA (aging, cancer-causing) and UVB (burning) rays.
If zinc oxide is coating your skin via a mineral sunscreen, both kinds of harmful rays are kept from affecting your skin (mostly, nothing is 100% protection except staying out of the sun).
Titanium dioxide is the other mineral sunscreen active ingredient, but it is less effective for two reasons:
- It doesn’t block the UVA rays like zinc does.
- It is a less stable molecule, so when it absorbs the sunlight, it’s more likely to release energy in the form of excited electrons – causing oxidative damage and a potential cancer genesis.
Zinc oxide is incredibly stable, so it can hang onto that UV energy it absorbs and simply release it as heat, perfectly safe.
Zinc oxide is also the only option rated safe for babies (it’s the main ingredient in diaper creams).
It’s the clear choice, again and again.
But Zinc Oxide is NOT Clear
Zinc oxide is a white mineral – so white, in fact, that it’s often used as a pigment in paint.
You don’t want to look like Casper the Friendly Ghost just to go for a swim.
To combat this, brands that are otherwise good choices have turned to using nanoparticles of zinc oxide in recent years.
Nanoparticles are defined as under 100 nanometers. It takes some serious crushing to get zinc oxide, a very hard ceramic material, that small.
The potential risk is that at that size, the particles may go through the skin and enter the bloodstream.
Some are saying that the risk is negligible, but because it’s rather untested in the long term, I would rather play it safe.
Many companies are claiming they use “no nano particles!” but opt for “micronized” zinc oxide instead. However, when micronized particles are created, it’s a certainty that nano particles also occur. Safer to skip micronized as well.
Our light-skinned kids look a little pasty at the pool, but no one is running for beauty queen around here. We’re used to going against the flow of culture – we embrace butter and eschew grains!
But just like we don’t eat butter off a spoon (although my daughter totally would), you also need a delivery system for the zinc oxide. As a powder, you can’t just rub it on your skin and be done. What’s a good carrier?
You can spread it on your body with oils you could eat and that should be about it. The ingredients list on a good bottle of sunscreen shouldn’t be all that long – coconut oil, olive oil, and beeswax (for sticks especially) are common carriers.
If you’re stranded on a dessert island, you should be able to eat your sunscreen, not use it as a fire starter.
One More Ingredient you Need
Beyond these ingredients you recognize from your kitchen plus zinc oxide – non-nano, not micronized, uncoated – you want to look for one more category of ingredients: antioxidants.
No sunscreen can completely block the rays of the sun, so you’re always going to get some oxidative damage and free radicals bouncing around your body if you spend time outside (or inside, even through glass windows). The good news is that you also will get Vitamin D even through sunscreen, if you’re outside long enough.
The other good news?
Here’s where diet and food can help, once again.
Any time our body needs to fight free radicals and oxidation (every second of every day), antioxidants are our first line of defense.
You can eat blueberries. Drink green tea.
You can also smash blueberries on your skin after being in the sun…or just look for sunscreens that include antioxidants like green tea extract, Vitamin E, cranberry or carrot seed oils, or even the carrier oils, like coconut, olive, or sunflower.
Putting antioxidants directly on your skin helps to reduce the sun damage immediately, and having them in your sunscreen acts as a natural preservative to help prevent the oils from going rancid. (Cool fact: zinc oxide will never degrade or expire. The only reason your tube of natural mineral sunscreen has an expiration date is either to conform to FDA regulations written for petrochemical sunscreens, which do degrade, or because the oils could go rancid over time. Just smell it – you’ll know if it’s ok or not.)
If you do get pink – or more than pink – applying antioxidants on the skin can also help mitigate the damage from the sunburn.
How to Remember All This?
I don’t know about you, but with four kids, trying to find the best price, and making sure I don’t buy any unsavory ingredients in my food, I have enough on my mind when I’m trying to shop. I’ve done a lot of research on sunscreen over the last six years (it’s all here for your reading pleasure), but even I can’t always remember what to look for.
I’ll make it easy on you – just remember 3 things:
- zinc oxide only as the “active ingredient”
- carriers you recognize as foods
- an antioxidant or two
Want it even easier?
How about a one-page printable with the breakdown of ingredients you want to see and what to avoid?
Or you could just head over to see my top brand recommendations out of sixty natural sunscreens, updated every summer – there aren’t very many that manage to stay in the top echelon.
What do you and your family do to keep your skin safe and still spend time outside?
Katie Kimball is on a mission to make real food and natural living possible for everyone. With simple “baby step” style Monday Missions, she challenges her audience at Kitchen Stewardship to make weekly improvements in their stewardship of their family’s health. As a former teacher, her methods are thorough but easy to understand, and her four kids think it’s totally normal to wear two sunscreens half-and-half every time they go outside.
The food philosophy is one of traditional real food – plants and animals that God created, not products of plants where food scientists work. And while Kitchen Stewards cook real food, they also balance stewardship of the environment, their budget and their limited time – all while staying sane and giving one another a little grace on the learning curve.
Katie has published eight eBooks to date covering the spectrum of real food from lunch to dinner, snacks, and even camping. The books have amassed over 50,000 interested readers in PDF and Kindle form.
Thanks for reading!