Should We Avoid the Sun or Do We Need it For Vitamin D?

The great sunscreen debate.
Michelle Villett
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The great sunscreen debate.

As a beauty AND health writer, sometimes I feel like I'm caught in the middle—especially when it comes to things like sunscreen.

Let me explain:

When I'm wearing my beauty hat, I'm on the phone with dermatologists all day, who ALL tell me the number one thing everyone should do for good skin is wear sunscreen. Not only does it protect against skin cancer, but it also prevents wrinkles, sagging, brown spots and broken blood vessels. (Specifically, they say you should wear a broad-spectrum, SPF 30 or higher sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays.)

I've seen bad cases of sun damage (well, maybe not quite in the same ballpark as the lady on the right), so I believe them. When I lived in sunny Australia, I was often shocked when people revealed their ages, because their crinkled foreheads, crow's feet and hyperpigmentation added a good 10 years. (Hey—it's one reason to be thankful I grew up in this crazy Canadian climate.)


So all of the sunscreen talk makes sense to me... but then I put on my health hat—talking to naturopathic doctors and the like—and they tell me that dermatologists have made all of us unnecessarily fearful of the sun. Because we DO need sun in order to get vitamin D—and the majority of us, especially in Canada, don't get enough of it, not by a long shot. Serious deficiencies are linked to increased risk of cancer, heart disease and multiple sclerosis. So theoretically, by trying to avoid getting skin cancer, you could be setting yourself up for other health problems. Scary.

Adding to the confusion is a report today from the Environmental Working Group (a non-profit U.S. watchgroup) that says most sunscreens on the market contain chemicals that may pose health hazards or don't adequately protect skin from the sun's damaging rays. (To find out how your usual sunscreen fared in the study, check out the widget in the right hand sidebar of this blog, or search the EWG site here.)

Yet another controversy: many companies have recently introduced sunscreens with SPF 50, 60 and 70. But did you know that anything higher than an SPF 30 offers negligible additional protection? We're talking an extra 1% or so—the difference really ain't that much.

Some beauty experts, like my girl crush Kimberly Synder of Envision Beauty (who I wrote about here) go even further on the sunscreen debate. Here's what she has to say:

"Sunscreens are extremely toxic. They create a “block” on the surface of the skin, so your skin doesn’t get red, but deep within the skin there can still be damage from the sun.


What’s really scary is that, similar to when you heat oil to high temperatures when you're frying food, which creates free radicals, the active ingredients in most sunscreens heat on the surface of your face with the warmth of the sun. [This] “cooks” the sunscreen, creating more free radicals right on the surface of your skin. In my opinion, most sunscreens are extremely aging—and consider that in areas where there is more sunscreen used, there is more skin cancer! Our media and society and many doctors say to use sunscreen—even the toxic kinds—but they also tell us that dairy is a great source of calcium and that counting calories is the best way to lose weight.  So there is a lot I disagree with!"

What's my take? While I'm as vain as the next person (scratch that—obviously, I'm more vain) and I certainly don't want to get wrinkles, etc., in the long run I'm more concerned about health over beauty. Here's my approach—I know many of you will disagree, so this may or may not work for you:

1. I don't sunbathe, unless I'm on holiday somewhere tropical (which on a journalist's salary doesn't happen too often). I think it's smarter to mostly avoid direct sunlight, rather than bake in it with sunscreen on and (falsely) think you're safe.

2. If I am going to be in direct sunlight (like if I know I'll be walking around all day), I'll wear an SPF 30 on my face, neck and chest. I like Kinesys because it's a clear, oil- and alcohol-free spray that never leaves my face greasy.


3. Otherwise, for everyday, year-round protection I try to use natural sunscreens (like titanium), which are less toxic and found in many mineral powders (Pure + Simple makes a good one) and my newly beloved Physicians Formula Organic Wear Foundation.

4. I don't wear anything higher than an SPF 30. I'm being completely honest here—I believe the higher SPF sunscreens contain too many unnecessary chemicals that I don't want my body absorbing. (The thinking behind them is that most people don't apply a generous enough amout of sunscreen, so these are like additional "insurance." My response to that? See point #1 above.) You should also know that Australia has banned sunscreens above SPF 30 because of health concerns.

5. I take 4,000 IU of vitamin D every day. (Yes, higher than what the Canadian Cancer Society recommends, but get your vitamin D levels checked in a simple blood test—chances are, you're deficient and will need more vitamin D for a period of time to get back in balance.)

So that's my sunscreen rant/manifesto/public service announcement. What about you? Tell me what YOU think about sunscreen safety in the comments.