Monday, June 25, 2012

Daily Herb-o-Scope - The Sunscreen Scene: how to prevent sunburn

Well summer is officially here, even though the temperatures in Colorado have screamed summer for several weeks now. With skin cancer the most common form of cancer in the United States (5 times more prevalent than breast and prostate cancers), it's important to know how to protect yourself from the burning sun.

There has been very mixed results from studies on the effectiveness of sunscreen in cancer prevention. There are so many factors that contribute to skin cancer that its hard to determine if sunscreen helps or hinders. One problem with most sunscreen is that they focus on preventing UVB rays from penetrating the skin. This form of radiation has a shorter wavelength and only consists of about 3-5% of the ultraviolet radiation we are exposed to. It may be only a small percent of UV radiation but it is responsible for sunburns. UVA radiation has a longer wave-length and accounts of approximately 95-97% of UV radiation. Although you can not see the effects of UVA radiation right away, that doesn't mean that it isn't destructive. This type of radiation penetrates deeper into the skin causing DNA damage. Because of sunscreens lack of providing UVA protection is one reason most are so ineffective.

There are several other reasons that most sunscreens are ineffective and also dangerous. Most sunscreens contain nasty chemicals that are readily absorbed through the skin. Oxybenzone is a synthetic estrogen that, when absorbed into the blood stream, can cause lots of problems for the endocrine system and the entire body. Sunscreens with added bug repellent are even worse. We must remember that anything we put on our skin is absorbed into the blood stream! Sunscreens also block our body's ability to make Vitamin D, which is synthesized in the skin when we are in the sun and then absorbed into the blood stream. Vitamin D, in the past few years, has been shown to be a powerful anti-cancer agent and essential to our health and vitality. Powdered and spray sunscreens may be even more dangerous because they fill the air with hazardous chemicals that we then could breath in and absorb through the lungs.

So what can we do this summer to keep our skin safe? When sunbathing, be sure to do it only in the early morning or late afternoon. Juliette de Bairacli Levy suggests using raw coconut oil thinned with cucumber juice to use on the skin during "tanning times" (early morning or late afternoon). Sun exposure during these times is important and necessary for adequate Vitamin D production. It is also important to find a secluded place to sun the secluded parts of the body. Many believe that a lack of sun exposure to the private parts of our body contribute to cancer of these areas. If you are in the sun during "burning times" (mid afternoon) it is important to stay covered. Wear a hat and sunglasses to protect your face and tightly woven but loosely fitted light colored clothing. If you look at people from some of the hottest deserts in the world they are always wearing long sleeved shirts and long pants helping to protect the body from the sun. Aloe gel can be used for sunburn prevention as well as sunburn care. It contains aloin, a natural sun screen blocking up to 30% of UV rays. Juliette also suggests an elder blossom spray to help cool the air. I find a peppermint hydrosol to be very cooling during the summer.

A diet high in antioxidants, fruits and veggies and superfoods is your best defence against the sun. Broccoli is one food that has been shown to protect the skin from sunburn and long term sun damage. Lycopene, a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes, has also been found to be helpful in protecting the skin from the sun. Many studies have shown that lycopene, being fat soluble, is a very effective antioxidant in areas that are high in fats and lipids, including the skin. It is further suggested that it can help to reduce inflammation, maintain normal cell growth and possibly prevent DNA damage. The best way to get adequate amounts of lycopene is to eat cooked tomatoes. In raw tomatoes the lycopene is bound in indigestible fiber making it very difficult to get a sufficient amount. Lycopene extracts may also be applied to the skin externally to help block the UV rays. 

No matter what you decide to do in regards to sunscreen this summer, I would suggest checking out EWG's Skin Deep: Sunscreen 2012 On this website they talk access hundreds of different brands of sunscreen, listing the potentially hazardous chemicals and giving  each a safety rating based on the ingredients and amount of research done on these chemicals. They provide information on safe and effective sunscreens.

Overall, the studies on sunscreens are unclear and can not conclusively show that the use of sunscreen prevents the incidents of skin cancer. In some studies it shows sunscreens to actually be more harmful than helpful. Although there are some herbal remedies to help prevent sunburn and sun related skin damage, I feel that the most effective way to ensure safe skin during a brutally hot summer is to cover up during prime "burning times" during the day and eat a diet high in antioxidants, including fresh fruits and veggies and plenty of whole foods.


Duke, J. A. (2000). The green pharmacy herbal handbook: your comprehensive reference to the best herbs for healing. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Reach.

Gladstar, R. (2001). Rosemary Gladstar's family herbal: a guide to living life with energy, health and vitality. North Adams, MA: Storey  Books.

Levy, J. d. (1994). Traveler's Joy. New Canaan, CT: Keats Publishing, Inc.

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