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Do You Really Need Sunscreen?

Most of us have made sunscreen a staple through the summer months, lathering on lotions and sprays to spare ourselves the dreaded sunburn that can haunt us for days. We’ve been told by dermatologists and health professionals for decades now to routinely apply these products to prevent skin aging and, more importantly, skin cancer. Recently, however, experts are questioning the healthfulness of avoiding sun or using sunscreen with every exposure. Research continues to illuminate how sunlight benefits our bodies, including (but not limited to) our natural synthesis of vitamin D. In light of the findings, what should our sun routine look like? How do we optimize the benefits of sun exposure while minimizing skin damage?

The Perks of Sunshine

You know being outdoors feels good--how it energizes and relaxes us. After a long winter, it can feel like a serious release to get outside again. The advantages are more than mental, however. Our bodies need sunlight to produce a critical nutrient, vitamin D, which impacts nearly every system in the body, playing a vital role in immune function, bone building, mood and cognitive function, and cardiovascular health. Studies associate insufficient vitamin D with serious health issues such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, autoimmune disease. Research suggests, however, that nearly 60% of us have low blood levels of vitamin D, and 25% have a serious deficiency.

Although quality supplementation can help us overcome vitamin D deficiencies, not all of sunlight’s benefits can come in a pill. A recent University of Edinburgh study bolsters the case for regular sun exposure. Researchers found that sunlight reacts with our skin to produce nitric oxide, which in turn naturally lowers our blood pressure. Given the prevalence of high blood pressure in our society and the links between hypertension and both heart disease and stroke, the researchers suggest sun exposure’s benefits statistically outweigh the dangers of skin cancer.

Balancing Perks and Protection

After all those years of dousing ourselves in sunscreen, we might be confused now. Do we chuck the bottles we have on hand? What about the blistering burns  and photo aging concerns? The key is to balance our approach to sun exposure. Each day we should try to get some mid-day sun exposure (without sunscreen). How much we need depends on our latitude, time of year, our skin color and the amount of skin we have exposed. For those with a very light complexion who have about a quarter of their body’s skin exposed, approximately 10 minutes of mid-day summer sun should be enough to produce adequate vitamin D. We can use that figure to help calibrate our individual sun needs (increasingly darker complexions require increasing minutes of direct sun), but we should also consider vitamin D testing to ensure we’re getting enough of this nutrient each season. To reduce photo aging, we can use sunscreen on our faces and hands but make sure our arms and legs receive exposure. Once we’ve gotten our direct exposure time each day, we can apply sunscreen or cover up to reduce skin damage and prevent burning.

Scrutinizing Sunscreen Options

When you’ve gotten your daily sun, the choices you make for sun protection can likewise have an impact on your health. Sunscreen products work by absorbing, reflecting or scattering the sun’s rays on the skin, but not all sunscreens are created equal. Some contain risky chemical ingredients that can cause more harm than good. Before we look at healthier skin protection choices, let’s look at the terms we see in sunscreen products.


SPF stands for sun protection factor, but the measure only applies to their ability to shield against UVB rays, not UVA. Experts recommend at least a SPF 15, which blocks about 93-94% of UVB. An SPF of 30 offers about 97% protection. Instead of buying a higher number than 15 or 30, you’re better off investing in a sunscreen that’s water resistant. Most sunscreens, particularly if you're swimming or sweating, will need to be reapplied every couple hours.


Ultraviolet light comes in two forms, UVA and UVB.  UVA rays are high and constant throughout the day while UVB are generally just high during midday.  UVB rays are responsible for sunburns, however, they also help your skin synthesize vitamin D. UVA, on the other hand, penetrates your skin more deeply and can speed up the formation of skin cancers as well as skin aging. Although UVA is more detrimental to your health, there are relatively few brands of sunscreen that protect against these more damaging UVA rays. Most sunscreens on the market are designed to solely protect against UVB radiation and burning.

Clearly, you want to avoid products that only screen out UVB rays. Other formulations you may want to avoid include those that contain oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate. Oxybenzone, a surprisingly common ingredient in conventional sunscreens, can trigger allergic reactions and especially shouldn’t be used on children under 6. Although research is inconclusive as yet, the ingredient been linked to hormone disruption and to cell damage that may lead to sun cancer. Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A found in many sunscreen products, has also been questioned because of a link to increased skin cancer risk in some studies.

Better Choices

The good news is—you have options!  Your best bet is to choose a mineral (as opposed to chemical-) based sunscreen, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Mineral based sunscreens naturally offer broad spectrum protection and block harmful UVA radiation. These minerals are stable in sunlight unlike chemical sunscreen ingredients, which even when chemical stabilizers are added, need to be reapplied more often and can disrupt the body’s hormones.

A basic, mineral-based lotion is recommended over a powder or spray, which is more likely to contain nanoparticles that can penetrate skin and be inhaled, causing unknown health consequences. Look for good options at local co-ops or natural health sections of grocery stores or pharmacies. Although many products will claim to be “natural” on the label, do your research and take the time to read the ingredients. If you’re interested in making your own, look for recipes that combine a stable oil like coconut oil with zinc oxide powder. Beeswax can thicken the consistency, making it easier to apply.

How do you spend your time in the sun, and what have you used for sunscreen protection? Offer your thoughts and questions, and enjoy the return of summer sun!

Written by Anika DeCoster – Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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