These days, pouring on the sunscreen lotion has become a national summertime obsession. But more than that, the idea is to somehow hide from the sun whenever we go outside. The catch-phrase recommendation of the American Cancer Society is to, "Slip! Slop! Slap! ...and Wrap!" That is: Slip on a shirt, slop on the sunscreen, slap on a hat, and wrap on a pair of sunglasses to avoid the ultraviolet (UV) light that is believed to cause skin cancer.
But there are two problems with this advice: 1) most sunscreen products contain a chemical that may be toxic, and 2) the best protection for your skin comes, not from the outside, but from the inside - provided that your body is getting the right nutrients.
When you limit your sun exposure to short periods at the beginning of the season, your skin will adjust and prepare natural defenses so you can spend more time in the sunlight by the time summertime is in full swing. But you certainly don't have to spend the whole summer hiding under the boardwalk, wearing long-sleeved shirts, and covered scalp to toe in SPF 2,000.
Writing in his Nutrition & Healing newsletter last year (June 2002), Jonathan V. Wright, M.D., took a long look at sun exposure and skin damage, noting that for many millennia before sunscreen was developed, humans spent plenty of time in the sun. And, not coincidentally, for most of those millennia, humans ate whole foods that weren't stripped of nutrition by chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides.
Dr. Wright makes the excellent point that many of today's most common dietary deficiencies involve the very nutrients we most need to protect our skin from the sun damage that can lead to skin cancer.
The "DNA Repair Group" is what Dr. Wright calls the foods and supplements that everyone (and especially sun-lovers) should be consuming in abundance.
He begins by singling out folic acid in particular, which he says rivals essential fatty acids for the number one spot on the vitamin deficiency list. Dr. Wright calls folic acid deficiency "a major contributor to skin cancer risk," and he adds, "Folic acid is destroyed rapidly by heat, cold, and exposure to light, including sunlight. So it's sunlight's destructive effect on folic acid in the skin, not the actual sun exposure itself, that accounts for a significant part of the skin cancer problem. Folic acid (along with vitamin B12 and zinc) is absolutely key to DNA reproduction and repair."
The best dietary sources of folic acid include spinach and other dark green vegetables, brewers yeast, lima beans, cantaloupe, watermelon, wheat germ, and liver from organically raised animals. In addition, Dr. Wright suggests supplementing with 1,000 mcg of folic acid per day, and more if you spend a good amount of time in the sun or have a family history of skin cancer. (Just a quick note: in an effort to further protect us from ourselves, the FDA has made it illegal to sell folic acid in a daily supply of more than 800 mcg, so don't waste your time trying to find a 1,000 mcg dose when looking for a supplement.)
Dr. Wright adds that to further relieve stress to the skin, extra doses of vitamin C and antioxidants such as vitamin E round out the nutrients in the DNA Repair Group that will do far more for skin health than any number of applications of the highest SPF sunscreen.
But even if you're getting sufficient nutrition, you might still find yourself turning to sunscreen to help prevent sunburn. Unfortunately, most sunscreen products contain a chemical that could be destructive to your skin in another way.
A 2000 study conducted by the Norwegian Radiation Protection Authority, showed that low doses of octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC - the UV ray absorbing ingredient included in almost all sunscreen products) killed mouse skin cells. According to researchers, their results suggest that OMC may be toxic to human skin tissue as well. I've tried to find further research on OMC, but as far as I can determine no studies have yet examined the effects of OMC on human skin. So until we know more about OMC, the Norwegian research suggests that the safe choice would be to look for effective sunscreen alternatives that don't contain this chemical.
Robert A. Sinnott, Ph.D., wrote about a shrub that grows in the Arizona desert called Larrea tridentata, or creosote bush, that protects itself by producing natural chemicals that function as both a sunscreen and an antioxidant. Dr. Sinnott has developed a creosote bush extract, which he calls Larreastat, that contains antiviral and anti-inflammatory agents.
Larreastat is rich in flavonoid compounds, which are especially helpful in absorbing the light from the regions of the solar spectrum that are most likely to cause skin damage (the UV-A and UV-B regions). In addition, the flavonoids and the lignans in Larreastat function as powerful antioxidants. If some ultraviolet energy does make it through the sunscreen layers, the antioxidants in Larreastat quench the free radicals before they cause damage.
You can find more information about Larreastat and its use as a sunscreen at larreacorp.com.
Obviously it's time to stop blaming the sun for the sins of insufficient nutrition. Especially when Dr. Wright has spelled out the exact dietary and supplement needs for optimal skin health.
"Sun-Care Chemical Proves Toxic in Lab Tests" Mark Henderson, The Sunday Times, 10/15/00, mercola.com