Detox Series: How to detox your suncare routine, & the best natural sunscreens

* Post update: Some of you may of heard, in the media this morning, that Friends of the Earth have withdrawn their Safe Sunscreen Guide Summer 2011-12 until further notice. They are working hard to update the guide as soon as possible, to ensure they are delivering the most accurate information. The uncertainty stems from a piece of research conducted by the National Measurement Institute (NMI) showing that some sunscreens that claim to be nano-free do in fact contain nano-structured material. NMI is urging consumers to continue using sunscreen because the risk of nanoparticles to human health is uncertain (whilst the risk of cancer from prolonged sun exposure is certain). I agree. Use sunscreen when prolonged exposure to the sun is the case. 

But what I write below still stands. Use sunscreen that is made with natural ingredients, not petroleum-derived toxins, especially parabens. Wear a hat, cover up with a shirt, and avoid the sun when it's strongest (the middle part of the day). Get a little sun on your face every day, best in the morning, no sunscreen. Vitamin D can help your body fight against cancer. 

Photo via GraphicDesigna

Summer's here. It's right about the time we start slopping on sunscreen like our life depends on it. But to be honest, I don't use sunscreen. Not the conventional type. Here's why: 

  • I'm vitamin D deficient, and the best way to get vitamin D is through sun exposure. But sunscreen actually diminishes the body's ability to synthesise vitamin D from the sun. 
  • Conventional sunscreens contain chemicals that are known to be harmful to our health. The latest concern is what effect nanoparticles found in sunscreens have on our DNA. But there are others too. 

So (before I cause a flurry) this is what I do instead:
  1. I make an effort to get 20 minutes of sun every day. On my face. No sunscreen. 
  1. If I'm going to be exposed for longer periods (like at the beach), I cover up, or use a natural sunscreen. I don't sunbake.

Here's the detail:
1. Sun & Sunscreen & Vitamin D
Experts say up to 25% of Aussies are vitamin D deficient. And they know why: lack of sunshine. But the thing is, experts are not willing to issue recommendations for how much sun we need to meet our D requirements because of the link between sun exposure and cancer. Instead, we're told to pop pills. And stay out of the sun. And wear sunscreen if ever in the sun.

But here’s the rub - even weak sunscreen (SPF8) can diminish our body’s ability to make vitamin D from the sun by 93%.

Bad news, considering  vitamin D plays a variety of extremely important roles in our body:
  1. It reduces the risk of osteoporosis and depression
  2. It may help to reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases related to inflammation, including type 1 diabetes and lupis
  3. Low D levels are linked to higher rates of early death
  4. There is now a strong link between vitamin D and breast, colon and prostate cancers.

So we need vitamin D. We can get it from food, but the form present in food differs from the one our body produces from the sun, and experts are unsure whether one can substitute the role of the other. It's also worth mentioning that vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin - we need fat in our diet in order to absorb it properly from our food.  But we’ve been told to eat a low-fat diet (ergo I don’t do low fat - I eat real butter and full fat milk and yoghurt, but that’s another post).

2.  Sunscreen & Chemicals
Suncreens work in one of two ways - they either absorb UV rays, or reflect and scatter them. A report by Choice in 2010 offers a nice explanation:

  • “Chemical absorbers absorb UV radiation and stop it reaching your skin. They can irritate and even cause allergies, but of deeper concern is their role as endocrine disruptors and skin penetration enhancers (which have implications for people in contact with other chemicals, such as agricultural pesticides).”
  • “Physical blockers, which are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, reflect and scatter UV radiation. They have generally been considered safer and more effective than chemical absorbers, are better for sensitive skin and renowned for their broad- spectrum UV radiation-blocking abilities. It was discovered that micronising physical blockers (into nanoparticles) resolved the unwanted ghostly look these sunscreens gave, but there are now concerns that these small particles fall into the nano range.”
There's a huge debate going on right now between scientists, manufacturers and safety experts. They're debating about whether nanoparticles found in sunscreen can penetrate our skin. If so, these nanoparticles can damage our DNA and mitochondria, causing us more harm than good. Whether nanoparticles found in sunscreen can penetrate into the deeper layes of our skin, where they can do the damage, is yet to be confirmed. Some studies have shown it to be possible, others haven't. The conclusion made by Choice is this - there is reason enough to take the precautionary approach (and avoid using sunscreens containing nanoparticles).

The problem is that labelling of nanoparticles in Australia is not compulsory. So you won't know if your sunscreen containing titanium dioxide contains titanium dioxide in nano form. In 2006, Australia's sunscreen regulator the TGA said that 70% of titanium dioxide sunscreens and 30% of zinc sunscreens sold in Australia contain nanoparticles. Choice tested some of the major brands themselves, which you can check out here.

But there's another major problem with sunscreen, besides whether or not they contain nanoparticles. Conventional sunscreens contain a long list of petroleum-derived chemicals that are known skin irritants, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and allergens: PABA, parabens, fragrance, oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, benzophenone, octyl-methoxycinnamate, dibenzoylmethane, octyl salicylate... that's to name a few!

Thankfully, Friends of the Earth Australia have compiled a superb list of sunscreens according to safety. You can download it here. Their top safe sunscreen recommendations, based on the fact that they don't contain any nanoparticles or chemicals, are:

Graham’s Sunclear*

*Company provided FoEA with documentation to substantiate their nano-free claims.

They also list cosmetics that contain nano and chemical-free sunprotection properties, for those interested.

Another good option is Miessence's Reflect Outdoor Balm, SPF 15, made with all natural ingredients:

If, like me, you like the completely natural, one-ingredient approach:

Coconut Butter
I'm a big fan of coconut butter (or oil). I cook with it, eat it raw, rub it into my hair, and the souls of my feet. It also has sun protection properties, around SPF4. SO, it's a terrific option if you're heading out into the sun for a quick vitamin D fix. Use extra-virgin cold-pressed. I buy brands that are imported from the Pacific Islands, because that's our closest supplier.

What do you think of all this? Do you know of other natural alternatives? Me, I think responsible sun exposure is possible without slopping on toxic chemicals. It just doesn't make any sense to.


  1. Thank you so much for providing all of this helpful information, I found your blog just now and I can't stop reading your posts, love it!

  2. I'm a big fan of coconut butter (or oil). I cook with it, eat it raw, rub it into my hair, and the souls of my feet. It also has sun protection properties,

  3. I am a big fan of coconut oil, but don't use it as a moisturizer because I can't figure out the mess. Whenever I use it on skin, it gets on everything! Clothes help some with the mess, but then it gets the clothes all oily and spotty. What am I doing wrong?



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