As a child of the 70s and 80s, I have never lived in a world that wasn’t obsessed with sunscreen.
I grew up wearing it whenever I went outside. As an adult, I was taught to be diligent about protecting my face and décolleté at all times or risk premature sun damage and wrinkles.
We wear more sunscreen today than ever before, yet skin cancer — particularly melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer — has been steadily rising for the last 40 years. Childhood skin cancer has increased about 2.5% a year since the 70s.
What if our well-intentioned efforts to protect ourselves from skin cancers have actually back-fired?
Thanks to the official advice to sunscreen up all day everyday, it might be surprising to learn that the jury is still out on whether sunscreens actually help to prevent the most common types of skin cancer. The research is all over the place. Some studies show that sunscreen to be protective against squamous cell carcinoma but not basal cell carcinoma. Others are simply inconclusive. Studies on melanoma showed little-to-no protective effects from sunscreen use, and some even indicated an increased risk.
You read that right. Sunlight is considered to be a risk factor for cancer, yet to date, no link demonstrating increased all-cause mortality (i.e. death) exists.
A toxic load
95% of UV radiation reaching the Earth’s surface is Ultraviolet A (UVA). Most sunscreens contain a combination of chemical and physical UV filters and block UVB, the radiation responsible for causing sunburns. UVA radiation does not cause burning, but since the 90s when it was discovered to also cause cancer and photoaging (and that UVA exposure is made exponentially worse in the absence of UVB’s vitamin D synthesis) modern “broad spectrum” sunscreens now also contain UVA filters such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. (More on that later.)
Many of these chemical and physical UV filters not only penetrate the skin and absorb into the bloodstream, but also mimic the shape of our body’s natural hormones. The structural similarity allows them to bind to the corresponding receptor sites, disrupting estrogen, progesterone, testosterone and thyroid hormone levels. Many commercial sunscreens also contain retinyl palmitate, a vitamin A additive that may promote the development of skin cancer.
We have a UV deficiency (not a supplement deficiency)
UVB radiation is also how we produce vitamin D from sunlight. Vitamin D is linked to bone and dental health, to the prevention of autoimmune diseases, cardiovascular disease and more. It also is protective against cancers — including skin cancer.
Sadly, vitamin D deficiency, once a rare thing, is now one of the most common health conditions in the world. Standard advice is that it’s safer to take an inexpensive vitamin D3 supplement than to risk UV damage, but is it the same thing?
A randomized control trial that looked at the impact of increased sunlight exposure versus vitamin D supplementation on lipid profile in vitamin D-deficient Indian men found significant improvements in total cholesterol, HDL and LDL numbers while the D3 supplemented group saw significantly increased total cholesterol, HDL and insignificantly increased LDL.
A European study found that melanoma actually increased with less sun exposure.
Stephanie Seneff, PhD explains that there’s actually a significant difference between the type of vitamin D our bodies produce naturally from sunlight and the kind that comes in a bottle.
In the presence of sunlight, skin cells produce vitamin D3 sulfate, which is a water-soluble form that is able to travel freely throughout the bloodstream. The vitamin D3 found in oral supplements is an unsulfated form that is strictly fat soluble and requires low-density lipoprotein (LDL) for transport to receptor sites throughout the body.
Sunlight is not a one-trick pony
But that’s just the beginning. There’s much more to sunlight than just being a catalyst for vitamin D production.
UV light from the sun also synthesizes nitric oxide, a powerful vasodilator that promotes sustained lowered blood pressure and improves overall cardiovascular health. It makes blood platelets less sticky and reduces the risk of clot formation. Endothelial nitric oxide (eNOS) also increases blood flow to the brain, improving brain function via increased oxygenation.
It also synthesizes another lesser known but vitally important substance: cholesterol sulfate.
“Sulfate synthesis in the skin is a powerful way to capture the sun’s energy. Sulfate’s diverse roles in the body are essential for good health, and particularly for maintaining a healthy vasculature, an electrical supply to the body and an efficient delivery system for sulfate-conjugated biologically active molecules — such as cholesterol, vitamin D, dopamine and melatonin.”
Sunlight exposure stimulates the skin to make large amounts of cholesterol sulfate, which may actually be responsible for some of the many benefits credited to vitamin D. Sulfate transport is the delivery system for a number of important molecules such as cholesterol, vitamin D, melatonin and dopamine.
Seneff believes that sulfate deficiency is a key driver behind most, if not all, modern diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and autism to name a few. In addition to its other health-boosting effects, cholesterol sulfate also protects the body from the negative effects of sun exposure.
The body electric
Seneff describes the sulfate transport system as the body’s electrical supply, essentially turning the skin into a “solar-powered battery.” The body as a biological battery is not a new idea, but understanding just how that battery works is still in its infancy.
Gerald Pollack, Ph.D is one of a small group of researchers who have dedicated their careers to sorting it out. Pollack has demonstrated that a “fourth phase” of water exists that is not solid, liquid or gas. Dubbed exclusion zone water or “EZ” water, it is characterized by a negatively charged, gel-like structure.
EZ water lines the endothelium of healthy vessels, the bone matrix, the collagen helix, and pretty much everywhere else in the body. The exclusion zone creates a charge separation between the negatively charged EZ water and the positively charged regular water — forming what is effectively a biological battery.
Infrared light provides the energy source for the formation of this EZ water. Sunlight synthesized cholesterol sulfate plays an important role in helping the exclusion zone to maintain this gel-like structure, which allows for the negative/positive separation of charge that supplies electrical energy to the body’s tissues.
Apparently, there’s no substitute for real sunlight on the skin. In order to keep our “battery” running, we absolutely need a certain amount of unprotected sun exposure. But what about the rest of the time?
Surely it’s a good thing to wear a natural mineral sunscreen some of the time, right…?
No such thing as a “safe” sunscreen
In response to the questionable safety of sunscreens, recent years have seen an avalanche of “natural” mineral sunscreens come onto the market. But are they any safer?
A study released in October 2021 found that after only two hours exposure to UV radiation, zinc oxide-based sunscreens began losing effectiveness and become toxic. The team of researchers sought to determine the stability, safety and effectiveness of sunscreen ingredients in combination rather than as individual compounds (which is how they are considered for FDA approval).
TLDR: Both nano-sized* zinc oxide particles and so-called “safe” non-nano zinc oxide particles degraded UVA protection and caused toxicity upon UV irradiation.
* A nano particle is one-billionth of a meter. By definition, any particle greater than 100 nanometers is called a non-nano particle.
According to Oregon State University professor and toxicology expert Robyn Tanguay:
“The findings would surprise many consumers who are misled by ‘nano free’ labels on mineral-based sunscreens that imply the sunscreens are safe just because they don’t contain those smaller particles. Any size of metal oxide particle can have reactive surface sites, whether it is less than 100 nanometers or not. More important than size is the metal identity, its crystal structure, and any surface coatings.”
In addition to promoting endocrine disruption and even cancer, chemical and mineral sunscreen chemicals have made their way into the ocean where they’re taking a toll on the plants and animals. They bleach coral reefs and cause reproductive issues and birth defects in fish and other aquatic life.
Sadly, the alternative mineral sunscreens don’t fair much better in the environment. Evidence is mounting that even “natural” zinc oxide-based sunscreens are accumulating in the oceans and are affecting the ecosystem. This applies even to non-nano particles, which cause just as many problems as nano, impairing photosynthesis, bleaching coral, killing ocean phytoplankton and disrupting the base of the marine food chain.
The chemicals build up in fish muscle tissue and are passed back to us when we eat them. Just as these sunscreens block UV for us when we wear them, the UV filters also affects the vitamin D levels in the fish. Fatty, wild-caught fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, mackerel and sardines are some of the best sources of dietary vitamin D, but that may be changing thanks to sunscreen contamination in the ocean.
At best, sunscreen may provide a false sense of security and allow us to stay in the sun beyond a healthy amount of time. At worst, sunscreen’s UV filters may be downright toxic and do far more harm than good — both to the environment and to us.
So what can we do about it?
Eat a photoprotective diet
It may sound a bit backwards since most of us grew up believing that sun avoidance was key to keeping our skin healthy, but the cornerstone of effective sun management is actually maintaining healthy skin.
95%+ of UV radiation is blocked by a healthy epidermis, and most of the remaining 5% is absorbed by the collagen just beneath your skin. The catch is, if you don’t have healthy levels of collagen, that last 5% may really increase your odds of sunburned, sun-damaged skin.
Oi. It’s no wonder we’re confused! So what can we do to keep our skin and collagen healthy?
Ditch the sugar
Minimizing sugar and processed foods — which are known to significantly decrease collagen production and break down the collagen you already have — is a great place to start. Sugar binds with collagen fibers and produces free radical compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which not only accelerate aging and disease, but also deactivate the body’s natural antioxidant enzymes, leaving you more vulnerable to sun damage.
Get enough building blocks for making collagen
Amino acids such as glycine, leucine, lysine and proline are among the raw ingredients that our bodies use to create collagen. There are plenty of supplements on the market to be had, but nourishing food will always be the safest and best medicine. A 2019 study found that consuming bone broth resulted in a slower and more prolonged release of amino acids compared to supplements. Pastured beef, chicken, wild-caught fish, wild game, eggs and dairy are also good sources of these amino acids (not to mention protein and healthy fats!)
Foods containing vitamin C and vitamin A also promote collagen synthesis. Vitamin C is found in foods like peppers (especially the colorful red, orange and yellow ones), citrus fruits and rosehips. Vitamin A comes in two varieties – active vitamin A (retinol) and beta carotine, which needs to be converted by the body to the active form of vitamin A.
Beef and chicken liver (which also happens to be the best dietary source of vitamin D) are a good source of active A, as are cod liver oil and egg yolks. Winter squash and sweet potatoes are good sources of beta carotene.
Support your sulfate transport system
Consuming sulfur-containing allium and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, (particularly broccoli sprouts/microgreens) onions and garlic are also important to support the body’s sulfate transport system. Raw dairy products from pastured cows and goats and eggs from free ranged (in the sunlight) hens are also good sources of dietary sulfur.
Unfortunately, the ubiquitous herbicide glyphosate — better know by its trade name Roundup® — interferes with sulfation by disrupting the sulfate transport system as well as our ability to synthesize sulfate from the sun. This is why it’s important to choose organic, non-GMO foods whenever possible.
Seneff suggests that common detoxification herbs such as dandelions and barberries may be protective against glyphosate by supporting sulfate transport.
Eat the rainbow
Aim to fill your plate with as many colorful, polyphenol-rich fruits, vegetables and herbs as you can. Studies have shown that antioxidants such as lycopene (found in tomatoes and particularly concentrated in tomato paste, since cooking increases lycopene bioavailability) are effective as an internal sunscreen to minimize burning and UV damage. Another powerful antioxidant is astaxanthin, a carotenoid found in wild-caught salmon and pink/red colored shellfish that has shown UV-protective properties.
I believe in getting your medicine from whole foods whenever possible, but in real life, sometimes it’s just not convenient. For those times, it might be useful to have lycopene or astraxanthin in supplement form handy. Or you could just eat a few spoonfuls of tomato paste before a day out in the sun. I’ve tried this, and it seems to work! 100 grams of tomato paste contains roughly 18-20 grams of lycopene, though some sources report more.
Traditional fats > seed oils
A diet rich in healthy fats (and all the lovely fat-soluble vitamins that come along with them) are vital to building a resilient dermis. Lipid peroxidation (i.e. the oxidative degradation of lipids in your skin) is one of the primary drivers of photo-oxidative stress that promotes cancer and photoaging. And what causes excessive lipid peroxidation? Consuming unstable polyunsaturated oils (PUFAs), particularly seed oils that oxidize rapidly upon exposure to light or heat. PUFAs + a naturally light skin tone is especially problematic.
Saturated fats, on the other hand…
A study done on mice showed that saturated fat suppressed tumors in mice exposed to UV radiation:
“When mice were exposed acutely to UV radiation (UVR), a diet of 20% saturated fat provided almost complete protection from the suppression of CHS, whereas feeding 20% polyunsaturated fat resulted in 57% suppression.”
Focus on traditional saturated and monounsaturated fats, while minimizing omega-6 polyunsaturated fats as much as possible. Ghee, tallow, lard, duck fat, olive and coconut oils are all great choices. If you supplement with fish oil or flaxseed oil for extra omega-3, make sure it’s the highest quality you can afford and store them in the refrigerator.
I’m a pretty fair-skinned person and this was most definitely my experience. Despite diligent sunscreen application, I had only two skin tone choices during the summer: pasty and deep fried.
When I finally started cleaning up my diet during my college years — switching from the Standard American Diet to low carb to paleo and eventually evolving to Weston A. Price — I noticed a huge improvement in my ability to tolerate the sun. I was able to spend increasingly longer periods in the sun without sunscreen before my skin started turning pink. I tanned for the first time in my life.
It’s really incredible what a nourishing diet can do. Committing to unprocessed, homemade foods including bone broth, healthy fats and homegrown vegetables and fruits made it possible for me to freely enjoy the sun for the first time.
Of course, I will still get pink and even burn if I don’t build up my base tan every year or stay in the sun beyond my personal tolerance level, but the difference is night and day.
And without being fully aware of it at the time, this enabled me to move to the next level of natural photoprotection…
Building your base
There’s no question that UV-radiation from the sun can create reactive oxygen species (ROS) that cause cellular oxidative damage, but we human’s evolved under the sun and have developed a nifty natural defense against solar radiation: melanin.
Studies suggest that our skin cells, similar to bacterial cells, have a UV-response DNA repair capacity (dubbed the SOS response) that induces melanogenesis (i.e. tanning) and protects against further UV exposure. Skin melanin’s antioxidant activity absorbs free radicals generated by UV radiation that would otherwise cause oxidative damage.
A study entitled “Melanogenesis: a photoprotective response to DNA damage?” found that repeated exposure to UV results in faster DNA repair.
“These findings suggest that tanning may be a measure of inducible DNA repair capacity, and it is this rather than pigment per se which results in the lower incidence skin cancer observed in darker skinned individuals.”
This supports the idea that incremental tanning that builds up protective melanin gradually is the best natural protection again sun damage. Start out with 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a few times a week and build from there.
Smart sun exposure
Of course, we still need to be smart about our sun exposure. You do not want to burn. Burning is never a good idea, period.
Remember, gradual color is key here. Get consistent, small doses of unfiltered sunlight to build your base.
Avoid peak sun hours between 10 am and 2 pm whenever possible.
Pay attention to your skin. If you begin to burn, get out of the sun immediately. Move to the the shade or underneath an umbrella.
Wear a physical barrier such as long sleeves or a sunhat if you have to be out in direct sunlight for a longer length of time.
If, despite your best efforts, you still get too much sun, there are some things you do to help the healing process mitigate the UV damage.
Carry an emergency sun kit in your car with things like a loose long-sleeved coverup, a sunhat and an umbrella for times when you’re caught off guard.
Eat extra antioxidants while you heal. Take a spoonful of tomato paste everyday until your skin is back to normal. Pop an astaxanthin supplement or eat some salmon. Eat broccoli sprouts on everything.
Treat your burn with oils and herbs that support healing the skin. Lavender essential oil can be applied neat (undiluted) to burns to kickstart the healing process.
Last but not least, think about what went wrong and commit to doing better next time.
So you’re saying if I do all this, I don’t have to worry about UV-induced cancer…?
I am not saying that. Obviously, this is not medical advice. We all make the best choices we can based on the information we have.
I’ll end with a few wise words from a study entitled Sunlight Has Cardiovascular Benefits Independently of Vitamin D that concluded:
“All-cause mortality should be the primary determinant of public health messages. Sunlight is a risk factor for skin cancer, but sun avoidance may carry more of a cost than benefit for overall good health.”
I couldn’t agree more.
For more reading (and listening) on the latest science behind smart sun protection and why sunscreen may not be the magic bullet we hoped it would be:
Sunscreens Biohazard: Diet and Guide to Safe Sunning by Dr. Elizabeth Plourde, PhD
Sunscreens Biohazard 2: Proof of Toxicity Keeps Piling Up by Dr. Elizabeth Plourde, PhD
Cindy & Erica’s Obsession to Solve Today’s Health Care Crisis: Autism, Alzheimer’s Disease, Cardiovascular Disease, ALS and More by Dr. Stephanie Seneff, PhD
The Fourth Phase of Water: Beyond Solid, Liquid, and Vapor by Dr. Gerald Pollack, Ph.D
Cells, Gels and the Engines of Life: A New, Unifying Approach to Cell Function by Dr. Gerald Pollack, Ph.D
“Sunscreens: the dark side of avoiding the sun“ by Dr. Elizabeth Plourde, Ph.D
“Sunlight and Vitamin D: They’re Not the Same Thing” by Dr. Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D
“Cholesterol Sulfate Deficiency and Coronary Heart Disease” by Dr. Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D
Podcasts & TED Talks:
Is the Sun to Blame? Or is it the Sunscreen? with Dr. Elizabeth Plourde
Is Sunscreen Okay to Use? with Dr. Elizabeth Plourde
TEDx: Water, Cells, and Life by Dr. Gerald Pollack, Ph.D
TEDx: The Mineral Power for Your Body’s Electrical Supply by Dr. Stephanie Seneff, Ph.D
Next up: we’ll be formulating a daytime photoprotective moisturizer using St. John’s wort and several other antioxidants and photoprotective ingredients ♥