We’ve all been told for years that the sun is a dangerous harbinger of cancer, and that we should avoid by slathering ourselves with sunscreen and hiding in the shadows. In recent years, evidence has shown that the chemicals in most common sunscreens not only promote cancer, but disrupt our natural hormone balance, which can lead to a whole slew of problems, including endometriosis and low sperm count.
On top of this, sunscreen is harmful to the environment. The toxic substances it contains can make animals sick, and the common sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone has contributed to coral bleaching and has decimated local wildlife in areas with high boat and tourist traffic. The plastic bottles it’s stored in are filling up our landfills with non-biodegradable material, and the metal aerosol cans that are often used poolside project ozone-depleting chemicals into the air and can be extremely harmful if inhaled, especially by children or those with asthma or respiratory problems.
For those of you thinking, “there’s got to be a better way,” there is. There are several safe and natural ways to protect your body from the inside out.
Build Up A Tolerance
Despite what we’ve been told, regular sun exposure is healthy. Our bodies need sunlight in order to produce vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiencies can lead to bone problems, as well as high blood pressure and even cancer. While over exposure and frequent burning is harmful, a moderate amount of regular sun soaking can boost your body’s synthesizing of vitamin D and help keep you from getting burned.
When it starts to warm up, try to get out into the sun a little each day. Start with 15 to 20 minutes, maybe a short walk through the neighborhood or lunch in the park. Go with shorts and no sleeves (or even no shirt) and don’t bother with sunscreen. Slowly work up the amount of time you spend out until you can go an hour, maybe slightly more for some people.
Protect Your Eyes
Protecting your eyes from the more harmful varieties of sunlight is just as important as protecting your skin. The easiest way to do this is with sunglasses, which will also help you see better on bright, sunny days. Make sure to select a pair that has UVA and UVB protection built in, and don’t worry about all those common myths about round sunglasses for square faces and square for round faces: as long as you feel like you look good, and your eyes are protected from the sun’s harmful rays, you’ve got the right pair for you.
It may seem counterintuitive to wear long sleeves and pants during the warmer months, but it is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the sun. After you know you’ve reached your limit, it’s best to cover up if you can. There are several varieties of cloth that are lightweight and don’t get too hot, like cotton and linen, but make sure to go with a variety that doesn’t have an open weave. Dark colors are better than light colors, but wearing white can also keep you from getting overheated. You can find a light summer scarf or swimsuit cover up that you can remove easily for a few minutes if the heat becomes too much. There are also several manufacturers that make clothing and swimwear that is UV-resistant. This can be a great option if it’s going to be a long day at the beach or a whole day’s hike in the mountains.
Another great way to protect yourself from the sun is a wide-brimmed hat. The wider the brim, the more shade and protection it will provide. The hat itself will also keep your scalp from getting sunburned. It might help to select a hat with a light colored material on the outside to keep you cooler, and a dark lining on the inside to help reflect UV rays away from your face and shoulders.
While it’s true that you can get sunburned while in the shade, it’s much less likely, and depending on what is providing the shade, you are exposed to a lower amount of harmful UVA and UVB rays. If you’re out of options and know you’re going to get crispy soon, your best bet is to find some shade to rest in for a while. You can also bring along an umbrella or a portable canopy so you know you’ll always have access to shade when you need it. If you’re swimming, try to swim in shady areas as UVB rays still penetrate the water, but its cooling effect makes it harder to tell when you’re burning. When you get out of the water, dry off immediately and try to find shade soon.
Use A Natural Sunscreen
When you need a little more, there are several natural oils and substances that have SPF properties: shea butter, coconut oil, and almond oil all have natural SPFs around 5, olive oil and peppermint oil are closer to 7, carrot seed oil can have up to 40 SPF, and red raspberry oil can get up to 50.
Zinc oxide is also a natural substance that many choose to use as sunscreen, and it can have anywhere from a 2 to a 20 SPF. I wouldn’t suggest using it too terribly often, as it can create free radicals when exposed to the sun. But, it can be a great way to protect yourself when there’s no other option, and this recipe for homemade sunscreen is about as healthy as it gets: combine 1/2 cup almond oil, 1/4 cup beeswax and 1/4 cup coconut oil in a glass bowl. Mix in 2 tablespoons Shea butter, 2 tablespoons non-nano zinc oxide powder and 1 teaspoon of vitamin E oil. Melt the ingredients in the microwave, or place the bowl over a pot of hot water on the stove. Stir the ingredients together, then let the mixture cool in the refrigerator for one hour.
Change Your Diet
There are a number of foods that can help your body protect itself from sun damage from the inside out. First off, a diet rich in antioxidants is one of the best ways to help prevent sun damage naturally. Antioxidants keep cells safe from oxidation and help them repair themselves, as well as fighting off free radicals that can be produced when skin and eyes are exposed to the sun. The best antioxidants for sun protection are lutein, zeaxanthin, astaxanthin, lycopene, selenium, vitamin C, vitamin E, and polyphenols. Many of these antioxidants occur naturally in fruits and vegetables, so including a wide variety of fresh produce in your diet is the easiest way to keep fully stocked up on these free-radical fighting nutrients. Some of the best antioxidant foods include green tea, citrus, carrots, spinach, broccoli, tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, wild caught fish, and even dark chocolate.
Omega 3 fatty acids are helpful because they also fight off free radicals and oxidation, as well as inflammation. Omega 3s can be found naturally in nuts, seeds, oils from nuts and seeds, and wild caught fish (especially cold water fish.)
Know Your Limits
In the end, one of the best ways to keep yourself safe from sun damage is to know your limits. If it’s been too long or the sun is just too bright, get out of it as soon as you have a chance. Protecting yourself from sunburns and sun damage doesn’t mean you have to be afraid to go outside or soak up plenty of rays. Hopefully these tips can help you have a safe and happy summer.