Guide to Sun Care and Non-Toxic Sunscreen

I came back to Denver with a pretty nice tan after a week in Maui. Since I spent last summer recovering from my cliff jumping accident and consequential surgery, my skin hadn’t felt the sun in a while. The sun is strong in Colorado, so I’m prepping for this coming summer to be spent outdoors a whole lot more.

I want this article to open up the conversation on how you can care for your skin in the sun without the toxic chemical-based sunscreens we all grew up using.

Sun is an interesting topic with health care professionals. There’s a lot of lackluster and conflicting research about the rising rates of skin cancer, because the rate of people avoiding the sun and using high SPFs is higher than ever.

It’s a topic that hits close to home for me as I’ve had family with serious melanoma, but I also know that it’s not genetically my fate.

genes AREN’T our destiny

The field of epigenetics has proven that while our genes provide the blueprint for health, it’s our environment that builds it out. Genes aren’t our destiny. When it comes to skin cancer, I see a lot of people worry that because their mother or grandfather had melanoma they are at a super high risk.

If you have a poor diet, use toxic chemicals on your body, clean your house with lysol and clorox, and have a stressful as hell home life... then perhaps yes, you might have a higher risk. If you choose to eat organic foods, avoid endocrine-disrupting products, and manage stress properly then your genes will likely not drive you to develop a cancer that runs in the family. Same goes for any disease or dysfunction, you are not your family history unless your environment fosters it.

how much sun is too much sun?

The amount of UVA and UVB rays we let in can be helpful in small amounts (this is how we manufacture vitamin D - through cholesterol in the skin) but harmful when exposure is too long, combined with toxic chemicals that claim to “protect”.

A good rule of thumb for optimal vitamin D synthesis is to get 15 minutes per day of unprotected exposure on your skin. Depending on where you live in the world and what time of year it is, you might need more or less based on the sun’s angle.

More than 30 minutes of unprotected exposure to the sun is generally when burning begins.

is your sunscreen a mineral or chemical barrier?

The majority of sunscreen on the market (most of which is chemical) is toxic as hell. Roughly 5% of the sunscreens on the market meet the safety standards established by the Environmental Working Group.

The EWG has a database called Skin Deep. You can search for a breakdown of how safe or toxic your own personal-care products are, sunscreens included.

mineral sunscreen

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two primary ingredients found in mineral sunscreen. It’s the minerals that create a protective barrier from the sun because they sit on top of the skin. The classic example of the lifeguard with a white-out nose is a coating of zinc oxide.

While it’s the more natural choice, that doesn’t mean it’s totally safe. These minerals can also get absorbed by the skin and cause negative side effects in some. It’s also hard to entirely say the precise SPF because quantity applied of the physical layer influences the SPF value.

chemical sunscreen

If your sunscreen contains ingredients by the likes of obenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, or oxybenzone, it’s a chemical sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens absorb the sun’s rays as it sinks into your skin.

These chemicals have been cited as endocrine disruptors, meaning they alter the function of your hormones and detoxification pathways. This is especially scary when used on young kids whose developing reproductive systems shouldn’t be influenced by endocrine disruptors. Research has shown positive correlations between increases in cancer development and the increasing exposure to toxins of the everyday environment. Chemical sunscreen is no exception.

Your skin is your largest organ and it absorbs everything you put on it and then absorbed into your tissues. When you’re using toxic skincare, it doesn’t stay on the surface. If you wouldn’t eat an ingredient, don’t put in on your skin.

we need vitamin D3

Because of the rise in skin cancer, more and more people avoid the sun and use insanely high chemical sunscreens with 50+ SPF. We need to practice safe sun exposure though because it’s one of our best sources of vitamin D. Some estimates say 75% of all Americans are deficient in vitamin D when evaluated on a serum blood test.

Vitamin D is critical to absorbing fat-soluble nutrients, bone health, hormone synthesis, and an active immune system to name a few. There are 5 types of vitamin D, but D2 and D3 are the only ones you’ll ever really see in your food. D2 comes from plants and is produced synthetically to often fortify plant-based milk. While it’s a nice thought, we can absorb less than 10% of it.

D3 comes from pasture-raised animal foods and we synthesize it internally from exposure to the sun’s UVB rays. Particularly when we eat food sources of D3, the body also needs vitamin K2 and vitamin A to work in conjunction for D3’s absorption and utilization.

my trusted, non-toxic sunscreens

  • suntegrity - smells lovely if you buy the scented version, rubs in surprisingly well

  • raw elements - a good option for eco-friendly packaging and affordability

  • babo botanicals - great for kids and areas of sensitive skin

  • baiser beauty - the formula N°5 sun tan oil my favorite for a beach day, contains both red raspberry seed oil and carrot seed oil (the tried-and-true oils of functional health junkies, have an SPF of 30ish)

what to avoid

Just like I teach people in my practice to read food labels, you also have to read the labels on your personal-care products. The label “mineral-based” sunscreen if often a blend of mineral sunscreens (zinc and titanium) with a toxic chemical base.

I don’t recommend aerosol sunscreen because the aerosol is not only bad for the environment, and has negative implications for your respiratory system if inhaled when applying.