If skin health is important to you, you’ve probably got a care routine that varies by the season. Winter is all about moisturizing, protecting the fragile skin barrier from the dry winter air with as much hydration as possible. In the summer, protection from the suns ray's is paramount. Odds are, you rely on a big slather of sunscreen as the foundation—and probably even the entirety—of that defense. But should you?
Sunscreen comes with caveats that are dangerous to ignore. When incorrectly or infrequently applied, its protection transforms into a false sense of security. Which is to say nothing of its recurring expense, the fact that you can run out of it, and periodic recalls of sunscreen found to be containing cancer-causing chemicals like benzene.
If skipping sunscreen entirely may feel like it flies in the face of the all conventional wisdom, that's because it does. Most dermatologists agree on the basics: sunscreen helps prevent sunburns, wrinkles and skin cancer when you apply 20 minutes before exposure, and reapply as the day goes on for continuous protection.
Reliance on sunscreen as a first and last defense, however, can leave you undefended while thinking you're immune. That's why its essential to put a few other weapons in your arsenal.
Not all sunscreen is the same.
Before we go any further, it's crucial to note: there are two different types of sunscreen, chemical, and mineral. Mineral sunscreens, often referred to as “physical,” protect you by sitting on top of the skin, rather than absorbing into it. Picture the classic white goop slathered onto the nose of a lifeguard or small child playing on the beach. Mineral sunscreens rely on two main ingredients for their sun-protecting powers: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both are naturally occurring minerals that are considered safe for sun protection.
Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are a different story — and are the kind that have been subject to recalls in the last two years. Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin and absorb UVB rays, convert them into heat and release them from the body. The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens (avobenzone, octinoxate and oxybenzone) are up for much debate regarding their efficacy and safety. For example, pregnant women are cautioned not to use chemical sunscreens during pregnancy.
According to Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research in Dermatology and an Associate Professor of Dermatology at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City, applying sunscreen is just one method among several actions you should take to stay safe from the sun. "Besides applying sunscreen, it is important to wear sun protective clothing, hats, and glasses. You should also avoid the sun during peak hours of 10:00 am and 2:00 pm and sit in the shade when possible."
When it comes to recent recalls of sunscreen for containing the carcinogen benzene, both this year and last, Zeichner is quick to point out benzene is not an ingredient in sunscreen, nor is it present in particularly high quantities.
"Several brands of spray sunscreens have been recalled because of reports that a carcinogen called benzene has been identified. Benzene is not put into the product, but rather is produced as a byproduct as it sits on the shelf. While benzene at high levels is carcinogenic, it is unlikely to cause harm at the low levels it is found at in sunscreens."
Still, the presence of benzene in sunscreen, not for the first time, has stoked skepticism towards claims, including those from the FDA, that sunscreen is fundamentally safe.
Dr. Andrew Huberman, an American neuroscientist and tenured Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine presented a somewhat foreboding critique on the Joe Rogan Experience:
"I'm not saying that all sunscreens are bad; I'm saying there are some sunscreens that contain some things that, were they to get across the blood/brain barrier, would be bad. These are small molecules that can cross the barrier and can cause neurodegenerative-like conditions. [...] There are safe sunscreens — there is no question. But, not all sunscreens are safe. Not all cosmetic lotions are safe. Not all cosmetics are safe."
For his part, Zeichner's recommendation for avoiding benzene, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and is the primary danger at issue, is specific and concrete: "For anyone concerned, my recommendation to avoid aerosol sunscreens in general."
Other ways to help stave off the sun
Fortunately, the art and science of protecting yourself from the sun dates back much further than the invention of chemical sunscreen. Here are time-tested measures to take to bolster your protection regime.
1. Layer Appropriately
The key to protecting your skin from the sun's adverse effects is to layer effectively and appropriately. Wearing a sunhat with a large brim will protect your face and neck, and keep you cool. (Many styles come with UPF protection built into them). A sunshirt and UPF-rated pants will protect the rest of your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays. If you're going to wear sunglasses, make sure they're polarized, and try to keep them off until 10am: exposing your eyes to early morning light helps align your circadian rhythm, and strengthens your eyes.
2. Monitor Your Sun Exposure
It seems simple, but many of us forget this tip: Be aware of how long you've been in the sun, and try and get into shade or rest indoors after multiple hours outside. The sun is at its strongest from 10am-4pm: if you can, try and plan your activities around those hours. If you're going to be outdoors during peak sun exposure, monitor your time spent outside, and build in breaks to provide some relief to your skin.
3. Eat foods that protect skin
Yes, there is such a thing as a "healthy skin diet". When you're considering edible sunscreen in the form of food, look for items that contain antioxidants: they protect against the damage done to skin by free radicals that are produced by the sun's UV rays. Foods including tomatoes, sweet potatoes and spinach, berries, grapes and pomegranates and oranges, grapefruit and kiwi all contain protective compounds that will strengthen your skin from the inside out.