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A Natural Alternative to Sunscreen?

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For years, conventional medical wisdom had it that the best way to prevent skin cancer was to avoid exposing your skin to the sun as much as possible, and to slather yourself with sunscreen whenever you should plan to spend time outside in the sunshine. But now, all that has changed — at least, from the perspective of a growing number of experts who believe that our lack of sun exposure and excessive use of sunscreens are to blame for the vitamin D deficiency epidemic.

With more and more research demonstrating the importance of maintaining optimal vitamin D levels, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that avoiding the sun may be a big mistake. And while they may help to prevent sunburn, commercial sunscreens block out the ultraviolet (UV) rays that the skin needs to produce vitamin D. Ironically enough, research has linked low vitamin D levels to increased risk for cancer.

And to make matters worse, most commercial sunscreens are loaded with toxic chemicals like retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has put together a comprehensive, science-based guide to sunscreen safety. According to the EWG, “Our review of the technical literature shows that some sunscreen ingredients absorb into the blood, and some are linked to toxic effects. Some release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, some act like estrogen and could disrupt hormone systems, several are strongly linked to allergic reactions, and still others may build up in the body or the environment.

According to holistic physician, Jonathan Wright, MD, researchers tracking the incidence of skin cancer from 1920 to the present found that increase in sunscreen use and increase in skin cancer have both risen steadily every decade with the same momentum. Wright acknowledges this doesn’t prove sunscreen causes skin cancer, but it also suggests it hasn’t done anything to minimize it either.

Wright, who advises his patients to eat organic foods and take supplements, feels that proper nutrition would do more to protect against skin cancer than “all the sunscreens currently in use.”

Among the most effective “internal sunscreens” are the fat-soluble red, orange and yellow plant pigments known as carotenoids. Beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene and astaxanthin are powerful antioxidant carotenoids and have been shown to help protect against sunburn — they provide an SPF of about 4. However, it takes at least 10 weeks of supplementation before you build up to sun-protective levels.

Where to Get the Carotenoids You Need for Sun Protection

  • Goji berries
  • Tomatoes and canned tomato products
  • Watermelon
  • Carrots
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Squash
  • Leafy greens
  • Spirulina
  • Krill oil (rich in astaxanthin)
  • A good multivitamin (make sure it contains vitamin A as beta-carotene with mixed carotenoids)

In one study, people who ate 1 1/2 ounces of tomato paste daily for 10 weeks had 40% less artificially induced sunburn than those not eating tomato paste. Researchers credit tomato paste’s 16 mg of lycopene with fortifying the skin against sun damage.

Research has shown that nutrients such as  vitamins E and C and omega-3 fatty acids also offer internal sun protection. Vitamin E helps protect your skin from damage caused by sun exposure.  It’s best used as both a supplement and as a lotion. Vitamin C is used to make collagen, the connective tissue that plumps up the structure underlying your skin. It too helps reduce sun damage, used internally or externally. Omega-3 fatty acids are used in your body to make the oils that help keep your skin moist and supple, and that reduce inflammation and allergy-related eczema. Fish oil is the most concentrated source of omega-3s.

Of course, whether or not you choose to use a topical sunscreen, it’s important to limit your sun exposure sensibly and to avoid burning. Overexposing your skin to the sun’s UV rays can age your skin prematurely and increase your risk for skin cancer.

If you plan to be out in the sun for an extended period of time, there are safe, non-toxic sunscreens available. Check out the Environmental Working Group’s online sunscreen guide for more information about choosing a safe sunscreen.

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