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Health Hack #40 - A Perspective On Sunscreen


Since the very beginning of language and oral traditions, we know that the sun has been upheld with the highest of reverence. Helios, in Greek Mythology, reigned as the God of Sun. The most useful and ubiquitous facilitator of life across so many species, trying to envision a world without the sun is like trying to picture our planet without gravity. Everything about our existence would change, if it existed at all.

Reverence for the sun is seen throughout all walks of life. Whether it’s a flock of chickens crowing at its appearance and hitting the hay once it sets, or the seed learning to sprout with its help, nature worships the sun, as it rightfully should.

As we learned way back when this weekly article series began (Vitamin D), a key building block of our good health is derived from Vitamin D, which is most appropriately found in our exposure to sunlight. Our immune system is heavily dependent on this free, highly available vitamin, and there have been links drawn between Vitamin D deficiency and propensity towards more dire health ramifications for those affected with COVID-19. “Cold season”, as our winter is often referred to (double entendre), uncoincidentally coincides with a drastic reduction in Vitamin D exposure, which effectively tatters the armor of our immune system. Seasonal Affective Disorder follows the same premise. Does it spike in the dead of summer? No, it’s actually directly correlated to a severe drop in sunlight.

Appropriate amounts of sun exposure should really be as paramount to our health as quality sleep. The key, though, lies in the quantity.

In the context of heat exposure (The Power of Heat) we used the term hormesis, which is that a moderate exposure to something could prove wildly beneficial, while crossing a very fine line - if only a little bit - could prove quite dangerous. There is arguably no subject in the realm of our physical well being where the concept of hormesis is more applicable than to our sun exposure. Sans sunscreen, lounge in the afternoon summer sun in a bathing suit for 15-20 minutes, and unless you’re abnormally fair-skinned, you’ll easily bank your daily recommended Vitamin D absorption benchmark without the risk of side effects. But fall asleep on the beach on a sunny July afternoon (again, without sunscreen) and awaken an hour or more later, chances are you’re in serious trouble.

Enter Sunscreen

The premise of sunscreen makes sense. Burning of our skin equates to cellular and tissue damage, regardless of the degree of the burns. Products that shield us from these ill-effects are seemingly beneficial. We apply them, and suddenly that nap on the beach is devoid of the redness and irritation that can last for days. But is this really in line with Mother Nature’s design?

How does one know their hormetic threshold to overdoing their sun exposure? In other words, devoid of sunscreens entirely, when does one know when to call it quits on the beach, or at least head for intermittent shade or cover themselves with clothing or towels? It’s super simple. They burn. Folks of Irish descent, naturally fair-skinned, having derived from a cooler, cloudier climate, will likely have a lower threshold. Descendants of regions closer to the equator will likely tolerate a higher limit of sun, having evolved to do so. But for everyone, regardless of their skin tone and melanin-producing capabilities, there is a very distinct threshold. When we apply sunscreen, we’re able to linger in full sun for prolonged periods of time without the risk of visible burning, drastically pushing that threshold outwards until the needle on our tolerance scale has shifted five-twentyfold. This would seem to be a magnificent hack, no? In some ways, yes - it absolutely is. But we shouldn’t lose sight of Mother Nature’s stubbornness, because she’s often unwilling to compromise.

Let’s consider an analogy. Suppose there was a supplement that one could take which significantly down-regulated the behavioral and neurological effects of excessive alcohol. Beer lovers could down a 12-pack of their go to IPA over the course of an afternoon BBQ on a hot summer day, and with the addition of a single pill, they would never become obnoxious or belligerent, and they would be perfectly competent to drive home. To properly evaluate the benefits, we must consider all factors. Personality doesn’t change, which at some point is generally a benefit (there’s no denying that certain personalities can improve with some alcohol in the correct setting, but even these folks can see themselves derailed when imbibing too aggressively). Neurological conditions remain centered. It’s hard to deny immense benefit here. But what about the health of the liver? Oh yea, there’s that to consider too. Physiologically, the supplement doesn’t provide any protection. 

Take someone who really loves beer. A full-fledged gastronaut. They drink for the flavor of the hops, not necessarily chasing the state of drunkenness that comes with it. For this individual, the magical supplement would likely prove disastrous. We’ve stripped away Mother Nature’s warning signal that says “enough’s enough - you can barely even stand up, dude!”. They’d likely rip through a 12-pack every chance they had, insidiously destroying their organs as a result.

Now take the individual who drinks socially, but doesn’t socialize all that often. Their tolerance is lower, which compels them to cross the line much faster than they’d like. Maybe they’re throwing them back once a month, on that big Saturday night in the city. For this person, the supplement is a wonder-drug. Low tolerance leads to overconsumption which leads to a wicked hangover. Take all of these concerns and throw them out the window. They can let loose on Saturday night and still have the energy and headspace to hit their 8am hot yoga class on Sunday morning. What about their liver? It certainly takes a hit, but overdoing it once a month is manageable in the long term.

The Mechanisms of Common Sunscreen

There are 3 primary types of UV Rays that emanate from the sun. UVC rays are incapable of penetrating our ozone layer, so they’re irrelevant for the sake of this discussion.

UVA Rays are responsible for tanning, and an excess of UVA Rays are what ignites wrinkling and the exterior aging of the skin.

UVB Rays are those which lead to burning.

An easy way to remember these two different rays: UVA = AGING. UVB = BURNING.

Traditional sunscreens block against UVB, which should make intuitive sense. Their purpose is to prevent burning, after all. The SPF (Sun Protection Factor) is a rating of what percentage of UVB Rays are blocked by sunlight.

UVB Rays also happen to be the type that generate Vitamin D, so an unfortunate side effect of all typical sunscreens is that we’re missing out on most of the good stuff. Compounding matters, UVB Rays can selectively target and destroy melanoma cells and help ward off the detrimental effects of excessive UVA exposure. In other words, by shielding oneself from UVB with the use of traditional sunscreen, you’re also opening yourself up to increased damage from the UVA Rays. Circling back to Mother Nature, there’s seemingly a very solid case for why our UV exposure is meant to come in a pair. There’s a symbiotic relationship between UVA and UVB at play, and it may not be wise to meddle with that, at least not regularly.

Sunscreens advertised with Broad Spectrum Protection safeguard against both types. We’ll hold off on recommendations for product types until the end of the article, but know that the USA does not stipulate that sunscreens block UVA, so if in the market for a sunscreen that protects against the amplification of UVA damage, you should seek out products advertised to contain Broad Spectrum Protection.

Inherent Dangers of Typical Sunscreens

Ever wonder about those folks in the above photo, with white markings on their face? (Yes, that's Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook.) What’s up with that? Maybe you’re on the inside club and know the deal already, but as it turns out, despite a goofy look, we now know that there’s a compelling reason behind the strange aesthetic.

What happens to traditional sunscreen when we apply it to our bodies? Where does it go? It’s absorbed into our skin. There are six primary ingredients found in most over the counter sunscreens that provide the protection from UV, all of which are synthetically produced chemicals: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate. Sound familiar? Probably not. As we learned back into our exploration of soaps and other body sanitizers (Be Careful What You Wash With!), there is reason to be wary of ingredients we can hardly pronounce when we’re scrubbing them into our skin.

The FDA stipulated long ago that if active ingredients (including those six named above) used on the skin are found in the blood at a level exceeding 0.5 nanogram per milliliter or higher, a process of scrutinization should ensue to determine their efficacy, since risks of cancer, reproductive abnormalities, and a slew of other adverse effects may be heightened.

Now twice in 2020 - most recently via a study released last week - all 6 of the aforementioned chemicals have shown to linger in the blood at alarming levels. Depending on the application style (lotion or spray) and the frequency of applications over a four day period, blood levels for the chemicals ranged anywhere between 3.3 nanograms per milliliter to 258.1! Oxybenzone proved far and away to be the worst offender. In some cases the levels lingered above the safe 0.5 threshold a whole seventeen days after the last application of sunscreen. To be clear - the 0.5 threshold isn’t meant to be surpassed at any stage, not even immediately following application. That it remains surpassed two and a half weeks after the last use is staggering by comparison to expectations.

There are two levels of irony to this narrative. One, the most recent study was conducted by the FDA. That would seem to warrant a recall on all products of concern, right? Well unfortunately, no. That’s because of the second dose of irony. Towards the end of 2019 the FDA put forth legislation aimed at holding the feet of the sunscreen industry’s manufacturers to the fire, aiming to require additional testing to validate (or negate) the efficacy of some 12 chemicals commonly used in their products. The CARES Act that was born in response to COVID-19, however, overhauled the regulation of the sale of over-the-counter drugs (including sunscreen), thereby negating the efforts in place to better police the industry and the chemicals it uses.

Key Takeaways

1. Honor Hormesis. If we can pulse our sun exposure such that sun protectant isn’t necessary at all, then we’re golden. What’s more important - our perfect tan, or our well preserved longevity? Hang out on the beach for a little bit and then take cover underneath the umbrella for a while. Maybe even repeat the process a few times, not pushing your boundaries too aggressively.

2. When the situation calls for excessive sun, act intelligently. Maybe you’re attending a music festival where there’s no shade, temperatures are hovering near 100 degrees, and you’ll be outside for 5 hours or more. This can be likened to the individual who drinks heavily one night per month. The drunkenness-suppressing supplement is extremely useful here, as would be the proper use of sunscreen in the context of the concert. Chances are that momentary exposure to chemicals we absorb from sunscreen are fairly innocuous. Everything in moderation. But when seeking sunscreen, consider sourcing Broad Spectrum Protection, which more closely approximates no UV exposure at all, as opposed to the disruption of symbiosis which comes with blocking one kind but not the other.

3. Become the dude or gal with the white stuff all over their face!
At the risk of becoming a social pariah amongst those in your tribe, zinc oxide is a natural alternative to chemical-laden sunscreens. The only caveat is that it’s non-absorbent. Don’t be fooled by seeing zinc oxide on a label and assuming it’s safe. It’s often used as a throw-in ingredient amongst the 6 primary felons. The key is to find zinc oxide as the only active ingredient. Badger Balm has a sound reputation within the industry (

Stay Protected.