03 February 2011

The sunscreen double paradox: it doesn’t protect you from skin cancer and blocks your body absorption of vitamin D!

In many ancient cultures and religions, from the Egyptians to the Aztecs, Hindus, Romans and many African cultures the sun was worshipped as a deity. In the Roman Empire there was a huge festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the birth of the unconquered sun) which was celebrated on winter solstice at the end of December and that was later adopted by the Christians as the celebration of the birth of Christ.

However in our modern western society the sun is blamed for the increase of skin cancer cases in the world and above all in Australia, and nothing could be further from the truth.
A daily exposure to the sun allows our bodies to produce vitamin D which is well known to have a prominent role in bone health, and it is less known to have quite an important role in protecting us from cancer.

Professor Rebecca Mason, a physiologist at the University of Sydney and an expert in vitamin D deficiency, has found that there is a direct link between inadequate amount of vitamin D in our body and our likelihood to suffer from several types of cancer, among which colon cancer and skin cancer are the most common.

Exposure to the sun has to be done sensibly and roasting yourself to achieve a good looking tan will not help the vitamin D absorption at all. Professor Mason has actually found that the absorption of vitamin D is much more efficient with a short exposure time than with a longer one. How fair or dark your skin is also plays an important role as people with a darker skin need a longer exposure to the sun to be able to efficiently produce vitamin D. If you have a very fair skin in winter you should aim to 15 minutes of sun exposure every day, as close as possible to midday, to about 15% of your body, which means face, hands and the lower part of the legs without sunscreen (I’ll explain this a bit later). In summer the exposure to the sun should be before 11am and after 3pm for 15 minutes a day. People with darker skin will need from two to six times these amounts (depending on how dark your skin is).

Another important finding of Prof. Mason’s is that an adequate level of vitamin D actually protects us from the damaging effects of the UV rays on our skin.

The great majority of sunscreen products use chemicals which completely block the ability of our body to absorb vitamin D from the sun exposure, increasing therefore our chances of getting some form of cancer, skin cancer being one of them.

Moreover, many sunscreen products actually contain chemicals, such as avobenzone, benzophenone, ethylhexyl p-methoxycinnimate, 2-ethylhexyl salicylate, homosalate, octyl methoxycinnamate, oxybenzone just to quote a few, which are powerful free radicals generators, and free radicals are known to be involved in the onset of cancer and other diseases. For a more comprehensive list of dangerous chemicals in sunscreen and cosmetics, please go to http://www.health-report.co.uk/ingredients-directory.htm

The cosmetic industry is now also very fond of nano particles, which is a way to make chemical substances so tiny that they can be absorbed by our skin much easier and faster.
Since everything we put on our skin gets absorbed by our body and goes into the blood stream and to our organs, by using sunscreen products we actually introduce in our bodies substances which make us more likely to get some form of cancer and that also block the vitamin D which, on the contrary, is paramount to help our body fight cancer.

Another very damaging addition to many sunscreens on the market is vitamin A. Although it is true that vitamin A is excellent to keep our skin young and supple, it is also unfortunately true that vitamin A has photocarcinogenic properties, which means that it can cause cells to become cancerous when exposed to the sunlight. Vitamin A, like other natural substances which are good for our skin but which are photosensitive, should be restricted to be used when we are not planning to go in the sun, so, doesn’t it sound like another paradox that they use vitamin A in a sunscreen?

So, what is a possible solution? Nutrition is definitively one way. Carrots and berries are well known to help build up our body defences against sun burn, and coconut oil is a precious aid for keeping our skin moist and supple, as well as being a great nutrient against free radicals. Get your daily dose of sun exposure and cover up at any other times if you have to be in the sun (hat, shirt and sunglasses).

If you really want to put something on your skin, make your own sun lotion using aloe vera gel and coconut oil in equal amounts, and add some drops of peppermint oil which has been found to have the highest SPF among all the essential oils. Remember however that the best Sun Protection Factor of all is a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruit which contain anti-oxidants, a good hat, a shirt, sunglasses and stay away from the direct rays of the sun from 11am to 3pm, but do get a 15 minutes exposure to the sun every day.


  1. Good article, Laura. When we traveled to El Salvador last March, I made a point of purchasing sunscreen which did not contain harmful chemicals or nano particles, which you mentioned. My family and I have a darker skin tone which tans easily and resists burning, but when we are by the water or out for long periods of time, we are sure to use some protection. I will try making up some of the aloe vera gel and coconut oil - sounds interesting ;) Stay well,

  2. Hi Julie! I have a darker skin myself so I can stay in the sun for a little bit longer to get my daily dose of vitamin D, but my partner Craig has a very fair skin and gets sun burnt quite easily, so we use the coconut oil and aloe vera gel but he has to cover up if he is out in the sun for too long... When you make the sun lotion, you will find that after a couple of days it tends to separate a bit, so you can either choose to just shake it before you use and mix it up again, or add just a tiny bit of guar gum which is an edible and natural emulsifier...
    Have a great weekend!

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