I grew up hearing and reading that it’s not wise to spend time under the sun between 11am and 3pm, and to use sunscreen all the time, year round. My mother lathered my brothers and I in sunblock whenever we spent time at the beach as kids, reapplying it every time we came out of the ocean. Even in my carefree teenage years, this was so ingrained in my mind that I obediently waited till later in the afternoon to catch the last rays of sunshine once they had lost most of their dangerous potency.
But my view about the sun changed somewhat when I took a class with a Chinese medicine doctor in Peru who recommended going out in the sun without sunblock and with large portions of skin exposed right at the time when the sun is the strongest (around noon). He recommended we did this for 20 minutes each day to meet our vitamin D needs. He also talked about all the chemicals we absorb through the skin each time we apply sun screen, and mentioned the fact that even though the sunscreen industry has boomed in the past couple decades, skin cancer hasn’t gone down, but up instead. Becoming aware of this changed my relationship with the sun and with sunscreens.
Even though it’s called a vitamin, vitamin D is really a hormone produced by our body. This hormone is essential for proper immune function and strong bones, and we create it when our skin comes into contact with the sun. I remember my aforementioned teacher arguing that people in hospitals would recover much quicker and many of those who die wouldn’t if they spent time out in the sun instead of being trapped in those gloomy hospital rooms. He also pointed out that part of the reason why so many people acquire life threatening diseases these days has to do with their compromised immunity due to a vitamin D deficiency…caused by too little sun!
So first of all, to protect your overall health, I would recommend spending some limited time—not all afternoon—out in the sun without sunscreen whenever possible. Whether you do it for five or 20 minutes (and this may depend on your skin tone—the darker your skin, the longer it takes to absorb the necessary UVB rays which are then transformed into D in your body), and whether you do it at noon, early in the morning, or late in the afternoon, will depend on who you believe, as there are many different theories out there about what’s optimal. Some medical professionals recommend taking oral tablets of Vitamin D rather than sunbathing to absorb the necessary hormone.
If you should decide to spend some time in the sun—whether you do it every now and then or on a regular basis—your skin will be better off protected by a good, non-toxic sunscreen.
So what should you look for when picking a sun lotion?
- Look for mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which offer good protection against both UVA and UVB rays, and are not harmful.
- Avoid sprays as they pose an inhalation risk and don’t provide an even coating of the skin.
- Avoid products that contain retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A that damages the skin and may actually speed the development of skin cancer), and oxybenzone (a UV filter that is also a hormone disruptor and allergen).
Two good mineral-based sunscreen I recommend are Live Live and Organic’s sunscreen, and Raw Elements. For a longer list of good sunscreens, which you can filter by categories (for sports, for children, etc.) check out the Environmental Working Group’s guide to sunscreens.