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I’ve been known to make my own sunscreen, but it’s not the main thing I do for natural sun protection. There are a lot of drawbacks to using sunscreen exclusively to protect the skin from sun damage, and a lot of other ways to approach it.
Is Sun Exposure Always Bad?
Mainstream medical advice says that sun exposure causes cancer while sunscreen prevents it. However, sunscreen doesn’t need to be the only possible solution. Also, some sun exposure is actually really important for optimal health, most notably, to provide the body with vitamin D.
In fact, a 2016 review concluded that non-burning sun exposure was important for avoiding health issues from cancer to cardiovascular disease. It also noted that the advice should not be to avoid sun exposure but to get enough sun exposure in a responsible way (i.e. not burning).
Additionally, cells in the eyes and skin are sensitive to blue light from the sun. This blue light signals to the body that it’s time to be awake, eat, and digest. This is why blue light is so problematic at night time since it can confuse the body and cause the circadian rhythm to get skewed. Getting blue light in the morning helps keep the circadian rhythm healthy which in turn helps to keep hormone production optimal. This means taking a vitamin D supplement is not going to replace all of the benefits of getting some sun exposure every day.
Why Sunscreen Isn’t Always the Best (or Only) Choice
But even when we get enough sun exposure for healthy vitamin D levels and circadian rhythm, sunscreen isn’t necessarily the best option for protecting the skin afterward:
- It’s Expensive – If you’re slathering on sunscreen as your main sun protection, you can easily run through a few containers per person each summer. Because safe sunscreen is more expensive, this can add up fast.
- It May Contain Harmful Chemicals – Many sunscreens are toxic to humans, animals, and the environment – Unless you are careful to buy only EWG recommended sunscreens (or make your own) most sunscreen is not safe.
- It blocks Vitamin D – As I mentioned, sun exposure is critical for vitamin D production. Routinely using sunscreen when outside can make getting enough vitamin D difficult or impossible.
To be clear, natural sunscreen is a great tool as part of a holistic approach to safe sun exposure but it isn’t the end-all be-all of sun protection.
How to Get Healthy Sun Exposure (and Not Burn!)
Unless I’m doing activities where I have to be in the sun for long periods of time (like boating or spending a day at the beach), I don’t use sunscreen. Instead, I use these safe sun practices to both get much-needed vitamin D and avoid burning:
Get Sun at the Right Time of Day
Mainstream advice is to stay out of the midday sun, but this is not the best advice. Midday is actually the best time of day to get vitamin D. At midday the sun is at it’s highest position and UVB rays (the ones that provide vitamin D production) are most intense. So you can get adequate vitamin D in less time at midday than you can earlier or later in the day.
Get Sun for the Right Amount of Time
How much time? This depends on where you live and your skin type, but this guide created by the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG) can help you find the right amount of sun exposure.
UV index can slightly change these times (a lower index means you may be able to be in the sun longer). Those who live in mountainous areas or near the equator may have more intense UV rays. There is also some evidence that optimal vitamin D levels can help the body produce melanin (the dark pigment that we get when we tan) faster, helping to avoid burning. For me, this was true. Since improving my vitamin D levels I don’t burn as easily.
Of course, consult with your doctor for a discussion about the best approach for you based on your family history, skin type, and other factors.
Eat Your Sunscreen
But even getting sun at the right time of day (and not too long) can cause a sunburn if the skin isn’t prepared for it. One of the best ways to prepare the skin for sun exposure is with diet.
- Healthy fats – One of the biggest things for avoiding sun damage is to eat a low-inflammation diet. I eat lots of healthy saturated, monounsaturated, and omega-3 fats while avoiding polyunsaturated fatty acids and high omega-6 vegetable oils. This helps support the body in making hormones, improving skin health and reducing inflammation.
- Antioxidants – Antioxidants help reduce inflammation and free radicals which can negatively affect skin health. Eating an all-around healthier diet by focusing on healthy protein, fats, and vegetables (while avoiding grains and omega-6 oils), the antioxidant content of the diet will naturally increase. Real food “treats” dark chocolate and berries are a great source of additional antioxidants.
- Vitamin D – Melanin, the dark pigment that we get when we tan, is a barrier produced to protect the skin from further UV exposure. SO a tan is a sign that you’ve had enough sun. Some research shows that optimal vitamin D levels (from sun exposure or supplementation) help the body to produce melanin faster, thus preventing burning. If vitamin D levels are low, the skin may not be able to produce melanin and will burn instead of tan. I know this was 100 percent true for me and my pale skin. When my vitamin D levels were optimized (read more about how to do that here), I was able to handle more sun exposure without burning.
A healthy diet is one of the best ways to naturally protect the skin from burning (and it’s great for overall health too!).
Gradual Sun Exposure
Even when the diet is optimized for sun exposure, most of us still can’t spend the day in the sun without getting a sunburn. Gradual sun exposure is key. This is also the best way to get the most vitamin D without causing harm. I always get less sun exposure than I think I need at first and work up from there (slowly!).
Stay in the Shade
Here’s a truly natural solution! Once I get enough sun for vitamin D production, I strategically stay in the shade while outdoors. Going for hikes and walks in the forest are a great way to avoid the sun while still being outside. Umbrellas and shade trees in the yard or at a park are perfect when you have little ones that won’t wear hats.
Speaking of hats, covering up is the easiest way to avoid sunburn. It works at the beach, on outdoor adventures, and in your yard. Clothing and accessories made for sun protection often have a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of 50. This means the only let in 1/50th of the UV rays.
Keep in mind that regular clothing also helps protect against sun exposure. The UPF of clothes varies from 3 to 50+ and is based on how thick and how tightly woven the fabric is. A thin white t-shirt has an estimated UPF of 5, meaning it allows 1/5th of the sunlight through.
- Hats – While hats are great for sun protection, it can be annoying when you have long hair. This sunhat is perfect for women who like to wear their hair in a ponytail (they have kids’ hats too). For something a little more beach chic, try a floppy beach hat.
- Long sleeves – Covering the arms with a swim shirt or long sleeved (but light and airy) shirt can help protect from the sun when you can’t get in the shade. Kids love swim shirts too!
- Beach tent or umbrella – If you’re at the beach or another outdoor event where you’ll be staying put, a canopy or umbrella is a great way to make your own shade. I like this one because it’s light to carry and the whole family can fit under it.
Add some sunglasses, and you’re ready to go!
Natural Sun Protection: It’s Not All About SPF!
While sunscreen can be helpful when I head to the beach, I try to avoid it unless it’s really necessary. Using sunscreen too often can make it hard to get enough vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency can lead to more burning!
I prefer to boost my overall health so my skin is in a good place to deal with moderate sun exposure. I also like to cover up with clothing or find a shade tree when I’ve had enough sun.
When I do use sunscreen, I look for non-nano titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and check that there are no chemical sunscreen ingredients. These physical sunscreens are safest for people, wildlife, and the environment.
This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Scott Soerries, MD, Family Physician and Medical Director of SteadyMD. As always, this is not personal medical advice and we recommend that you talk with your doctor.
Do you cover up from the sun in more ways than one?