[This article was publihed in the December edition of Nurture Magazine www.nurtureparentingmagazine.com.au]

I grew up with the Cancer Councils Slip Slop Slap campaign. I can still hear Sid the dancing Seagull singing the jingle now, listen, ‘Slip… Slop… Slap… Slip on a shirt, slop on sunscreen and slap on a hat’.

But sloping on a sunscreen, even a Cancer Council one, is not necessarily always a good idea. Some do not protect us against harmful UV rays, some contain nano-particles, and some are chocker full of toxic ingredients that affect our endocrine (hormone) systems, damage our skin, and even increase the risks of cancer. How ironic!

So this article is an exploration of sunscreen… just in time for the sizzling summer months. To start with though I have a quick ode to our friend the Sun and some simple advice:

don’t use sunscreen

Now that is a little controversial! And some would say darn right Un-Australian, but here is my rationale.

Getting some sun, without sunscreen, is good for us. In fact, it’s better than good. It’s necessary. Particularly given that nearly one third of Australian adults are suffering vitamin D deficiency.[i] In particular, doctors are even seeing the resurgence of rickets (bone-weakening disease) that had been largely eradicated.[ii]

The benefits of Vitamin D exposure, which can only be reaped without sunscreen, help keep bones and teeth strong, maintains healthy kidney function, produce optimal blood pressure and cholesterol levels, enhance muscle strength and protect against many types of cancer, including breast, colon, endometrial, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate cancers, as well as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

And get this: we stay out of the sun to avoid skin cancer, but we have a far greater chance of dying from a Vitamin D deficiency-related cancer than of a sunburn-related skin cancer. We don’t hear about that in the SunSafe campaigns do we?

This means that my girls and I sit in the sun most days – with no sunscreen on, no hat. No slipping or slopping. Getting sun every day, for about 20 minutes at a time is good for us.

Our family motto: get sun, not too much, don’t get red.

Here are a few things to take away about Vitamin D:

  • Sunlight that generates vitamin D in your skin cannot penetrate glass. So you don’t generate vitamin D when sitting in your car or in your home.
  • You can’t get all the Vitamin D you need from your diet.
  • It takes months of vitamin D supplementation and sunlight exposure to rebuild the body’s bones and nervous system.
  • It is impossible to generate too much vitamin D in your body from sunlight exposure: your body will self-regulate and generate what it needs.
  • Once vitamin D makes it into your body, cholesterol is essential to synthesise it and make it useful to your system. Cholesterol is transported in the blood plasma of all animals, which is why we should be eating some animal fats to get it. These are the good fats that our body needs to function effectively. They are essential for calcium to be incorporated into our bones, as well as to boost immune function, and to build a healthy nervous system and digestive tract.
  • Mushrooms are the only vegan source of vitamin D (besides sunlight exposure)

So as a family, this means we eat some high quality animal fats, eggs, and cook with organic butter daily. We don’t do low-fat. And when we wear sunscreen its only if we are outside longer than 20 minutes and in the middle of the day. This is what I recommend when it comes to sunscreen:

zinc oxide is the best

Sunscreens come in two forms: i) physical sunscreens, which contain either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which form a barrier (or film) on top of the skin that reflects the UV light, and ii) chemical sunscreens, which absorb UV rays before they can do damage.

The US Environmental Protection Agency‘s (EPA) graph below features chemical and physical sunscreen ingredients, as well as the type and amount of ray protection that they provide and their class. Note how zinc oxide fares.[iii] (sorry, no matter how

you don’t want zinc?

If you’re going to go for a chemical sunscreen, you need to know that while chemical sunscreens can protect against damage from UV rays, most also contain a range of nasty chemicals which can be absorbed through the skin and into our bloodstream where they can accumulate in our blood, fat, and breastmilk. A study in the Journal of Chromatography found that there was significant penetration into the skin of all sunscreen agents they studied.[iv] But here are some tips so consider if you go down that track:

1. Become a label detective: always check the label.

Worst offenders? Dioxybenzone and oxybenzone. These two are some of the most powerful free radical generators around as they can disrupt hormone function. A recent American study by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in the US found that nearly all people studied were contaminated with the sun cream ingredient oxybenzone. Human research on oxybenzone is limited, however a few animal studies have raised concerns that this chemical may be a skin irritant, may disrupt endocrine function, and can lead to free-radical cell damage on the skin – contributing to cancer-risk.[v]

What about Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)? This naturally occurring chemical is common in many sunscreens, and acts as a dye that absorbs ultraviolet B (UVB) light in much the same way as oxybenzone. PABA contains a benzene ring in which electrons can shuffle between different locations within the six-sided structure. This electron dance matches that of the lightwaves of UVB rays, absorbing and blocking UV-B energy by converting the light to heat. PABA releases free radicals, damages DNA, has estrogenic activity, and causes allergic reactions in some people.

Also … octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) which is the main chemical used in chemical sunscreens to filter out UV-B light. Researchers have raised safety concerns about octyl methoxycinnamate, demonstrating that mouse cells died when OMC was added at five parts per million, a much lower concentration than occurs in sunscreens[vi]. A further study which explored the effects of pre- and post-natal exposure to high doses of octyl methoxycinnamate in rats showed that the testes weight and testosterone levels were significantly reduced in male rats. [vii]

Finally, while Benzophenone-3 provides effective protection against UV radiation, research reveals that the substance can be found in people’s urine several days after its use. This means that it’s a substance that is absorbed and stored in the body, and young children do not have the enzyme capacity to excrete the substance. It’s also been linked to endometriosis and testosterone interference.[viii]

2. Check your sunscreen rating on the EWG.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates sunscreens (amongst other chemicals found in everyday products) based on safety and how well they protect against UV rays.[ix] But, whilst relevant to us, the information is geared towards the US market. Australia has different regulations and the majority of sunscreens the EWG recommend are not available on the Australian market.

so what brands to buy?

While my children and I eat a clean diet to build up an ‘internal sunscreen’, and then apply organic coconut oil on our skin for added protection, when we go out in the sun for extended periods of time we use:

Miessence Reflect Outdoor Balm (SPF 15) although it is actually SPF 27, the Australian company can’t claim it as such because it’s not classified via the Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA) as a primary sunscreen. Otherwise, Wotnot or Soleo can be found in most health shops across the country. And Invisible Zinc’s Junior low irritant sunscreen with micronised zinc is preservative free and fragrance free the last time I looked.

but, what about the nano technology?

The use of nanotechnology in sunscreens has become widespread in recent years, favoured by manufacturers because the resulting clear, easy-to-absorb creams give a market advantage. But there is a lot of debate about nano particles and what they do. The fear is that they are so small they seep in through our skin cells. In 2009 The Therapeutic Goods Act (TGA) stated:

  • The potential for nanoparticles in sunscreens to cause adverse effects depends primarily upon the ability of the nanoparticles to reach viable skin cells; and
  • To date, the current weight of evidence suggests that nanoparticles do not reach viable skin cells; rather, they remain on the surface of the skin and in the outer layer of the skin that is composed of non-viable cells.

The issue is though is that there have not been enough studies to conclusively say that nanotechnology in sunscreens are safe in all applications to human beings. We just don’t know. And if parents in Australia are wanting to err on the side of caution, we currently have no way of knowing if the brand of sunscreen contains the engineered nanoparticles material suspected of causing damage to human cells and DNA. Currently the TGA does not require manufacturers to disclose whether their products contain them.

This is in contrast to the European Union which give effect to the precautionary principle, and require manufacturers to disclose information about the safety of their products, putting public and environmental health before commercial interests.

You can check your sunscreen’s nano technology levels on the Friends of the Earth Australian Sunscreen Guide though. [x]

…and if all else fails here are a few home remedies for sunburn…not that I am advocating sunburn…but…

no matter how cautious we are, some one in our family always gets a little sunburnt as some stage during the long summer months. We have a few home remedies for soothing painful sunburn and they are found either in your kitchen pantry or garden. The first one is good ole’ aloe vera. The thick, gelatinous juice of the aloe vera plant can take the sting and redness out of a sunburn in a flash. Aloe vera causes blood vessels to constrict. Simply slit open one of the meaty leaves and apply the gel directly to the burn. Apply five to six times per day for severe sunburn. Another gem is an oatmeal compress or bath which offers wonderful relief to the skin. Simply add one cup oatmeal to cheesecloth or muslin to make a ball, tie off the top and add it to a temperate bath. The bath will become milky and soothing to the skin. Finally, soaking a cotton ball or soft sponge in apple cider vinegar works a treat. If you are sunburnt head-to-toe, take a bath in the stuff – simply add 2 cups of apple cider vinegar to the tub and soak for at least 15 minutes. Apple cider vinegar applied to skin effectively neutralizes the burn, relieves pain, and prevents blistering and peeling. If you smell a little like a pickle, a little coconut oil will remove most of the odor and at the same time add moisture to your skin.

Dr Sarah Lantz (PhD) is a Public Health Researcher, mother, and author of the bestselling book, Chemical Free Kids: Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World www.chemicalfreekids.com.au and www.nontoxsoapbox.com


[i] Daly RM, Gagnon C, Lu ZX, Magliano DJ et al. Prevalence of vitamin D deficiency and its determinants in Australian adults aged 25 years and older: a national, population-based study Clin Endocrinol (Oxf). 2012 Jul;77(1):26-35.

[ii] Robinson PD, Hogler W, Craig ME, et al. The re-emerging burden of rickets: a decade of experience from Sydney. Arch Dis Child. 2006; 91:564-8.

[iii] Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/doc/sunscreen.pdf

[iv] Sarveiya V, Risk S, Benson HA., Liquid chromatographic assay for common sunscreen agents: application to in vivo assessment of skin penetration and systemic absorption in human volunteers. J Chromatogr B Analyt Technol Biomed Life Sci. 2004 Apr 25;803(2):225-31.

[v] http://www.ewg.org/analysis/toxicsunscreen

[vi] Rob Edwards, Sinister side of sunscreens, New Scientist, 07 October 2000

[vii] Ma Axelstad, M; Boberg, J; Hougaard, KS; Christiansen, S; Jacobsen, PR; Mandrup, KR; Nellemann, C; Lund, SP et al. (2011). “Effects of pre- and postnatal exposure to the UV-filter octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) on the reproductive, auditory and neurological development of rat offspring”. Toxicology and applied pharmacology 250 (3): 278–90. y 2012 which is published in Environmental Science & Technology, measured concentrations of five kinds of chemicals called benzophenones in the urine of more than 600 women who were evaluated for endometriosis.

[viii] Tatsuya Kunisue, Zhen Chen, Germaine M. Buck Louis, Rajeshwari Sundaram, Mary L. Hediger, Liping Sun, Kurunthachalam Kannan. Urinary Concentrations of Benzophenone-type UV Filters in U.S. Women and Their Association with Endometriosis. Environmental Science & Technology, 2012; 46 (8): 4624

[ix] Environmental Working Group (EWG) http://breakingnews.ewg.org/2012sunscreen/

[x] Friends of the Earth Australia sunscreen guide: http://nano.foe.org.au/safesunscreens