What's in our sunscreen and should we be worried?

A bottle of sunscreen is a must-have item for the Kiwi summer, but should be worried about what's actually in that bottle? Dr Kathleen Wills explains:


While the legendary Kiwi ‘slip slop slap’ slogan has been an effective campaign for prevention of sunburn, the major culprit of the skin cancer melanoma, we don’t want to avoid the sun completely.  We all need exposure to vitamin D - the sunshine vitamin.  Sunshine provides us with one of the most important nutrients our skin required to make vitamin D.  This vitamin is actually a hormone which supports healthy bones and muscles and helps keep the immune system healthy. And emerging research is finding promising links between our vitamin D consumption and reducing our risk of developing a variety of conditions including certain cancers, diabetes, heart disease and autoimmune diseases. Depending on skin type (darker skin needs longer time), 15-20 minutes of sun exposure allows our skin to produce enough vitamin D for the whole day.

So if 15 minutes of sun is enough exposure to keep us healthy, what do we do in the summer for the rest of the day to protect ourselves when we’re out and about?

Chemical-based sunscreens are a major contributor to toxins in the body. Steer clear of any sunscreen containing benzophenones and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABa). They not only contribute to allergies and skin irritation but also generate cell-damaging free radicals when exposed to sunlight. Parabens added to give a smooth and creamy texture to lotions should also be avoided due to the risk of playing havoc with our sensitive hormonal balance. Found in over 60% of commercially available sunscreens, parabens migrate through the body and are found in breast cancer cells and the male reproductive system.

Children are at the greatest risk of health concern from the use of chemical sunscreens, as their immune systems are not fully developed. Children’s skin is more sensitive than adults, with a greater ability to absorb toxins and accumulate toxic build up over time. This increases the risk of side effects from chemical sunscreens. This may include skin irritation, allergies and even worse toxic accumulation in their vulnerable bodies. That’s significant considering it just takes 26 seconds of application of a chemical product for it to be found in every organ in the body. This is why I recommend toxin-free products. When it comes to sunscreen, I recommend for all ages a zinc-based natural sunblock product.

For littlies, apply zinc based sunblock generously all over the body, paying special attention to burn prone areas of baby’s delicate skin, particularly the nose, ears, back of neck, and shoulders. If you want to be a smart shopper for toxin free sunblocks, you may wish to check out Skin Deep, a cosmetics and lotion database compiled by the US Environmental Working Group (EWG) that lists their safety and quality ratings for a multitude of products. I like Belly Buttons & Babies Sunscreen, ranked number one by EWG for safety and efficacy.

Don’t forget that we can protect ourselves and our families from the inside out too. Consuming omega 3 fatty acids gives you greater protection from sunburn. Best to get this from a high quality fish oil supplement. Try Nordic Naturals Baby’s DHA, a liquid fish oil product specially formulated for an infant’s omega-3 fatty acid needs or for pregnant and nursing mums, ensure to take 600mg of DHA per day to ensure healthy brain and eye development in your baby.

Direct sunlight is probably best to be avoided between 10am and 2pm.  During this time take advantage of the shade of an umbrella or pram, protective light clothing and good old fashioned tree shade.

If any burns do occur, you may find the best medicine in your backyard: aloe vera. Used for centuries for wound healing in cultures all over the world, aloe provides a cooling and soothing sensation that supports regeneration of healthy skin cells.  Simply break off one of the prickly leaves (very carefully so as not to prick yourself), slice it open, and apply the jelly-like substance inside to any affected areas of skin.


Dr Kathleen Wills currently practices Integrative Medicine in Westmere, Auckland. Dr Kathleen was featured in NZ Herald Viva (September 2014) as one of the top ten health practitioners in the country. She holds a US doctorate degree in Integrative Medicine (I.MD), graduating first in her class. This qualification incorporates the insights of both conventional and evidence-based nutritional medicine to support the total wellness of a person. 



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