Here Comes the Sun

Its rays can promote skin aging and cancer development, so sunscreen is a must.

by Corinne Garcia

July/August 2014

Summer used to mean long hours spent soaking up the rays. But now many people take cover under hats, umbrellas and globs of sunscreen.

“The thing everyone worries about most is skin cancer,” says San Diego-based Jennifer Zeglen, ND, who recommends annual skin checks for early detection. “Here in sunny California, many people also worry about aging,” she adds; sun exposure causes skin to “not have the same level of firmness and to have trouble holding hydration.”

Studies have shown some chemical-based sunscreens can do more damage than good. Broad-spectrum (blocking both UVA and UVB rays) products are recommended and there are more natural formulas that not only block rays but also provide nourishing, anti-aging benefits. (Sunscreen should be used with, not instead of, precautions such as avoiding sunburns, staying under shade at midday and wearing as much clothing as possible.)

Free Radical Defense

Mineral-based sunscreen is ideal for full-spectrum protection. “The only beneficial minerals to look for in sunscreen are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which provide broad-spectrum protection on their own or when combined,” explains Bryan Barron, co-author, with Paula Begoun, of Don't Go to the Cosmetics Counter Without Me (Beginning Press). “Some researchers believe zinc oxide provides superior UVA (anti-wrinkle) protection, but that’s debatable.” He adds that zinc oxide tends to feel a bit heavier, but both are great for sensitive skin.

These minerals act as barriers that the sun can’t penetrate, Zeglen says. “Chemical sunscreens seep into the skin. Very little of these mineral barriers will get absorbed because they are too large to go through the skin.”

Many companies are trying to minimize the white-nosed lifeguard look that zinc tends to cause by making the minerals finer. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) states that although some studies on such nanoparticles have concluded they can cause harm, there is “no evidence that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide nanoparticles penetrate skin in any significant quantities.”

Zeglen agrees that they are likely harmless. “These oxide ingredients are even used as food additives,” she says. “But I always refer people to the EWG safe sunscreen list (ewg.org/2014sunscreen), which gives the best marks to the mineral ones that use a barrier function.”

Although the minerals are naturally derived, Barron adds that the process of turning them into cosmetic sunscreen ingredients isn’t natural—but it is safe. “That’s a good thing because in their natural, raw form these mineral ingredients are far from cosmetically elegant,” he says.

Natural sunscreens often include antioxidants that fight cell-damaging free radicals generated by sun exposure. “Sun damage can alter the DNA of the cells and can perhaps lead to a cancerous change,” Zeglen explains. “Antioxidants, in theory, can protect the body from these changes.”

Barron advises using antioxidants in combination to protect against different types of free radicals. Some of his favorites include vitamins C and E, ferulic acid, curcuminoids, soy and green tea; olive and resveratrol are also effective.

Providing Nourishment

Since sun damage and aging go hand-in-hand, more natural sunscreen formulas include anti-aging compounds.

The outer skin layers act as a barrier, sealing moisture in. Natural humectants such as glycerin and sodium hyaluronate help to attract moisture in the barrier layers. Niacinamide has been shown to even out skin tone and raise production of collagen, which promotes elasticity.

“A lot of the sun damage can come about with inflammation, which adds to the aging process,” Zeglen says. She recommends looking for naturally soothing, anti-inflammatory ingredients such as jojoba oil, aloe vera and calendula. And “chamomile and comfrey are both really classic herbs to soothe and reduce inflammation.”

There’s no substitute for being sun-smart. But a naturally based sunscreen can provide additional protection.

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