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The Problem with Sunscreen: In Defense of Sun

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

Written by Caitlin Woolery, CCMH, HHP ™

April 27, 2021

With summer approaching, I felt it a good time to address the issue of sunscreen. The billion-dollar industry has inundated our culture with gloomy concepts about UV/UVB rays and skin cancer. This article is an analysis of some of the science and physiology around these issues and will point out some missing pieces of the overall story, hopefully giving people a more thorough and comprehensive picture of the problem. It is not actually the sun’s rays that are causing cancer. History is full of sun worshipping cultures. That big ball of light is our energy source and from it all life is possible. The CDC states that cancer is caused by UVB/UVA rays that generate oxidative/free radical damage in the cells of the skin. The general (erroneous) consensus as a solution to this problem has therefore been to simply block the sun. In this article, I will describe why it’s not actually the UV rays that are causing cancer, but rather a lack of antioxidants to combat to the oxidative free radicals generated by the UV rays. Cancer is not caused by free radicals, it is caused by a lack of antioxidants. Antioxidants are obtained from diet and can also be placed on the skin to counteract any potential danger. Herbal and mineral antioxidant sunscreen is chemical free, provides a physical barrier (as well as SPF) and it also delivers large amounts of antioxidants to the skin to protect from the UVA/UVB damage (all while still delivering Vitamin D to the body).

Sunscreen is a recent phenomenon, considering that people have been outside (directly under the sun) for the entire history of human evolution. The first sunscreen wasn’t invented until the 1940’s and it wasn’t commonly used until the 1970’s and 1980’s. From 1940 until 1975, the sunscreen used was in a category described as “physical barrier” protection. It did not contain chemicals and was largely oil and petroleum based. Zinc oxide is used for this purpose today. The oil and the minerals coat the skin and literally create a physical barricade between the sun and the epithelial tissue of the skin. There were not high mortality rates of malignant melanoma (the scary kind of skin cancer) before and during this time. However, by 1970 the cases of skin cancer started increasing and they continued to, quite drastically, over the past 50 years. Also occurring in 1970 was the introduction of the first chemical base sunscreen. The drastic increase in skin cancer co-occurred alongside the advent and increased use of chemical based sunscreen products. Whereas physical base sunscreens simply bounce the sunlight from the skin, chemical base sunscreen absorb the UVB rays with an active ingredient called avobenzone. The safety of avobenzone (and the other toxic chemicals it requires to prevent its rapid breakdown) have never been established in long term use.

How are these sunscreen chemicals toxic and what do they do in the body? To start, they cause allergic reactions on the skin and kick the immune system into hyperdrive (not a good thing in the time of Co-vid and auto-immune disorders). They cause biochemical chaos and prevent cellular metabolism (this is important if you want your cells to receive nutrients, excrete intracellular waste and make energy for you). They react with the chlorine in pools and generate a series of chemical compounds that make even scarier toxic molecules. And finally, they cause severe endocrine disruption. Endocrine disruption is a serious problem. Our endocrine system dictates how our body makes hormones, determines where those hormones go and enables the hormones to lock into receptor sites to do their job properly. Should they become disrupted, the following systems will begin to fail: the thyroid hormones will stop regulating metabolism properly (think weight gain), the estrogen ratio to progesterone will become too dominant (think PMS, infertility and uterine problems, or lowered testosterone in men), insulin will become confused and not know how to adequately tell the cells to uptake glucose (think insulin resistance and diabetes), and cortisol and adrenaline metabolism will become confused (think stress management and anxiety). Not a fun time….

Putting this stuff on our skin obviously isn’t a great idea. But how do we enjoy the sun if it gives us cancer? Good question, but I think a better question to ask is…does the sun truly give us cancer? The CDC says that UVA and UVB rays reach into the skin, damage connective tissue and mutate DNA. But this is an extremely incomplete picture and needs a far more comprehensive understanding of what is actually happening with the UVs, cellular membranes and DNA damage. Please follow.

The UV/UVB rays are considered damaging because they produce something in the body called reactive oxygen species (ROS). The sudden increase in ROS shifts the natural balance toward a pro-oxidative state, resulting in oxidative stress. What is oxidative stress? Oxidative stress happens when the amount of free radicals outnumber the amount of antioxidants in the organism. Oxidation is a very natural chemical process that happens in the body. When oxygen molecules break down, they split into single atoms with unpaired electrons. These atoms with unpaired electrons are called free radicals. Free radicals scavenge the body trying to stabilize themselves by stealing electrons from healthy cells. They bounce around the body like a pinball, busting holes in the walls of cell membranes. Cell membranes are fatty tissues surrounding and protecting the cells. The free radicals burn a hole in the cell membrane which allows the damaging free radical to enter inside the cell. This is very, very problematic. The entire idea of the cell membrane wall is that it keeps bad stuff outside of the cell and the good stuff in. The bad stuff needs to be kept outside of the cell because the inside of the cell is where our DNA lives. Once inside the cell, the free radical attacks and mutates the DNA. The result is cancer, which is defined as a genetic (DNA) mutation that causes the rapid replication of erratic and damaged tissue.

This problem doesn't end there. The human body is constantly working to remove waste (poisons from food, water, air pollution, lotions, shampoos and a million other things). One of my herbal medicine teachers published a book on chronic disease and the toxic overload of modern culture, referencing many government websites that quote the human body as being exposed to a whopping 60,000-100,000 chemicals PER YEAR. That is pure insanity, we have never seen anything like this in the history of time. The body has to suffer the incredible burden of dislodging and disposing of all those toxins. There are four main avenues through which the toxins are expelled: through the urine, through the feces, through the breath and through the skin. The skin is our largest organ and is constantly pushing toxins from its pores. When you put a coat of chemical laden sunscreen on top of your skin, you not only add to your toxic (free radical) burden but you stifle and suffocate the toxins that need to be released from inside the body. It creates an insulating effect, trapping those toxins under the skin while the sun literally cooks them. The chemical sunscreen compounds the effects of toxic overload and free radical damage. This is likely why the rates of skin cancer have risen in accord with the increased use of chemical sunscreen.

Some of this process of free radical damage and oxidative stress is unavoidable. We create free radicals and oxidation anytime we are in the sun, any time we breath air, digest food, and exercise. It’s quite ironic actually, that the very things that are needed to keep us alive are also slowly killing us. But the answer isn’t to avoid these natural activities. Don’t stop exercising and don’t avoid the sun. We desperately need the vitamin D from sunlight! Vitamin D levels are consistently falling because of the use of sunscreen and we need Vitamin D in order to have healthy immune systems, bones, hormonal cascade and mood. The answer instead, is to combat the negative effects of the free radicals with antioxidant diet therapy and switch to an herbal based sunscreen that feeds the skin with potent antioxidants that contain a natural SPF.

Why are antioxidants the solution and what do they do? Antioxidants neutralize the damaging cancer-causing effects of free radicals by donating one of their electrons to the free radical. Once that happens, potential damage to the cell ceases to be a threat. What this means in terms of the skin, is that the oxidative free radical damage caused by the UV/UVB rays are mitigated. Problem solved. The cause of cancer isn’t the presence of UV rays but rather the absence of antioxidants that protect the cells from free radicals caused by the UV rays. By adding antioxidants to your world, you get your vitamin D, you get to enjoy your day in the sun, and you have zero exposure to more harmful chemicals. But where do you find antioxidants and how do you know if you have had enough?

Antioxidants come from food and herbs. They are phytonutrients in the form of vegetables and fruits. The more colorful the rainbow of foods you eat, the better the chances are that you are getting sufficient levels of antioxidant therapy. What does this look like? 10 servings of vegetables and 4 servings of fruit…everyday. In other words, you are responsible for taking control of your own cancer risk via your dietary choices. The toxic sunscreen should not be doing the work for you (and in fact, is actually increasing your risk of illness). Keep in mind that certain foods have higher amounts of antioxidants (measured by the ORAC scale) and also that there are many different kinds of antioxidants. Please reach out for a consultation if you’d like to learn the most powerful ways to boost your body’s internal antioxidant production and how to combine foods to achieve the highest antioxidative protection. The body makes three of its own powerful antioxidants to protect us from cancer, but many people have compromised their body’s ability to do so.

Should you desire to block your skin from the sun, a natural antioxidant rich sunscreen is the way to go. Herbal and healing oil-based sunscreen will not trap and bake toxins. It will not disrupt hormonal cascade. It will not send the immune system into hyperdrive. Herbal medicine is extremely effective at providing high medicinal doses of antioxidant therapy and will counteract the potential damage of the UV rays. One plant for example (which I add to my herbal sunscreen and take internally), will prevent the breakdown of connective tissue caused by UV. Another plant contains a powerful nucleotide that naturally occurs in the body and is designed to absorb the full spectrum of UV radiation. It prevents cellular damage to the DNA. Other herbs contain high levels of antioxidant Vitamin C (synthetic Vitamin C does nothing to truly neutralize free radical damage and is largely a marketing ploy. The C must be derived full-spectrum from an herb or food and must have all co-factors for assimilation still in tact!). Olive oil contains high levels of a substance called squalene, which is one of the most protective compounds for the cell membrane. Carrot seed oil has a natural SPF of roughly 30 and is extremely high in carotenoids, a specific type of antioxidant. Zinc oxide is a harm-free naturally occurring mineral that acts as a physical barrier between the sun and the skin. Various types of these natural medicines are entirely effective at protecting and nourishing the skin while also brilliantly counteracting the oxidative effects of the sun. I have combined 9 of them in my sunscreen product for you to enjoy!

Happy healing and may we all return to health and wellness by remembering the perfect power of the earth’s medicine.

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