I’m conflicted about sunscreen. How about you? Of course, I don’t want to get skin cancer, wrinkles or sunburn, but on the other hand, slathering myself with a concoction of chemicals which block essential longevity nutrients doesn’t fill me with joy either. But, as I’m about to head off to somewhere hot and (hopefully) sunny, I need to think about what to put on my skin.
Annabel’s written in detail about the power of sunlight to help us age well here and her own experiment with short bursts of unprotected daylight exposure here. To summarise: sunlight provides more than bone-boosting Vitamin D. It also activates our T cells – vital components of our immune system. And it lowers blood pressure by mobilising nitric oxide from the skin. Research (on worms) indicates that nitric oxide protects against environmental stress and extends lifespan. Our own levels of this gas decrease as we get older, which may contribute to ageing. The sun helps transfer nitric oxide from the skin to the circulatory system.
Dr Richard Weller, a dermatologist from Edinburgh University, is a man who can see both sides of the issue. He’s aware of the risks of skin cancer, of course, but has spent years studying the benefits of a little exposure to the sun. In a fascinating lecture, he urges us to ‘let sunshine into our hearts’ and points out that the further from the equator we live the higher the average blood pressure among the population. You can watch the whole lecture here: https://media.ed.ac.uk/media/Let+sunshine+into+your+heart/1_wzfry11l
I’m heading close to the equator, however, and can’t risk sunburn or increasing my skin cancer risk. According to Cancer Research UK skin cancer rates in the UK have “soared” over the last decade, mainly due to our increased appetite for travel. Melanoma is the fifth most common cancer in the UK – with just under 16,400 cases in 2016, the vast majority of those in people over 50, although rates are increasing fast among younger people.
I know I need to use sunscreen. But recent headlines ranging from ‘Sunscreen causes cancer’ to ‘Sunscreen chemicals soak into your blood’ are somewhat off-putting. When I looked into these further, however, I discovered scientists have known for over 20 years that chemicals found in sunscreen reach our blood stream, and just because an ingredient is absorbed by the body, it doesn’t make it unsafe. In addition, none of the chemicals regularly found in sunscreen has been classified as a cancer-causing substance by any major scientific organization.
What is ‘mineral’ sunscreen?
I’ve seen multiple mentions of ‘mineral’ sunscreen in the press recently, but had to research what the term means. We’ve all be using ‘Chemical’ sunscreen for years: it works by absorbing the sun’s rays. It’s tends to be easy to apply and looks clear on the skin. Mineral sunscreen is the new kid on the (sun) block. The active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which block the sun’s rays and reflect them off the skin. In the past, these ingredients have been hard to blend into the skin (think of the multi-coloured strips of sunblock favoured by cricketers and young skiers). But the technology behind mineral sunscreens has improved, with new formulations being made of much smaller particles, so they can rub into the skin without leaving an opaque, sticky residue.
Research published in Australia at the end of last year provided evidence that zinc oxide nanoparticles used in mineral sunscreen neither penetrate the skin nor cause cellular toxicity after repeated applications. Volunteers applied zinc oxide nanoparticles every hour for six hours on five consecutive days.
“Using superior imaging methods, we established that the nanoparticles remained within the superficial layers of the skin and did not cause any cellular damage,” said the research team. “We hope that these findings help improve consumer confidence in these products and in turn lead to better sun protection. The terrible consequences of skin cancer and skin damage caused by prolonged sun exposure are much greater than any toxicity posed by approved sunscreens.”
The other advantage of mineral sunscreens is that they are classified as ‘reef-safe’. Two common sunscreen chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, are deemed potentially harmful to aquatic life. They’ve been banned in Hawaii and in Key West, Florida, to protect sensitive coral reefs and marine life. But…… there’s no clear definition of ‘reef-safe’ and even sunscreens with this label aren’t guaranteed to be harmless when they leach into underwater ecosystems. The best way to avoid putting more chemicals into the sea is to swim in UV protective clothing, or just an old t-shirt, rather than slathering yourself in sunscreen then diving into the sea in nothing but a pair of budgie smugglers.
Always check the ingredients of any sunscreen you buy. If you’re after a mineral sunscreen, look for zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or a combination of both. Your product should also be at least SPF30 and be broad spectrum, meaning it will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays.
And what about getting enough Vitamin D and nitric oxide while you’re smeared in the sunscreen? Dr Richard Weller has a solution. After years of trying to get the sunscreen industry to take note of his findings about the importance of sunlight to our health – and particularly blood pressure levels – he gave up. And created his own. It claims to maintain ‘delivery of Nitric Oxide and Vitamin D3 to the skin, whilst retaining full protection from the potential harmful effects of UV exposure’. His ‘Sunwell’ sunscreen goes on sale this week. It’s not cheap, £25 for 100ml, but I’ve ordered some and will report back. I’ve also stocked up on Holland & Barrett’s Nature’s Block mineral sunscreen which describes itself as reef-safe. It contains zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and is considerably cheaper than Dr Weller’s brand. And, of course, I’ll seek shade and cover up as much as I can – big hats and billowing shirts provide chemical free protection.
We’re heading off on our holidays now and will be back in September. Do follow us on social media – links to our Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are on our home page – to see what we’re up to. And don’t forget that our book, The Age-Well Project, makes a great summer read!
Have a wonderful Age-Well summer,
photo: William Picard