It was 100 degrees in Portland last weekend. I can't remember ever feeling this kind of heat so early in the Northwest. Our weekend plans included a park wedding and a grandma that had a hotel with an outdoor pool. Needless to say, we got an incredible amount of sun exposure on skin that had been off for the winter. We all came home with mild sunburns.
There are some tips for treating sunburns in our June newsletter, but I also wanted to include some ideas for preventing sunburn on the blog. A mild sunburn is a common thing, but you want to make sure that you’re preventing any more than that. In the worst cases, a sunburn can blister and this is when there can be a genuine cause for concern. While a mild sunburn isn’t much more than annoying, It is a blistering sunburn that can increase your chance of developing melanoma later in life.
It’s worth noting that while melanoma rates are increasing, appropriate amounts of sun exposure are vital to preventing skin cancer and increasing one’s overall health. Indoor workers actually have increased rates of melanoma. The use of chemical sunscreens, which are full of endocrine disruptors, is not a great solution so it’s important to find ways to balance one’s sun exposure and achieve a healthy amount.
When the spring gently changes to summer, this gives our skin a chance to get limited exposure and warm up to what is coming. However, with climate change, we are experiencing drastic highs and lows that make this process harder for our bodies. Living in the Northwest, where we have very limited sun during half the year, exacerbates this stress on our skin.
Try and remember that we are only just beginning the summer. We have many months of sun to come. On the hottest days, try and get sun exposure on your legs, arms and back, but limit it to no more than a few hours until your skin has a chance to adjust. The river and pool are amazing and fun, but if you take care of your skin now, you'll be safer to spend more time swimming as we get deeper into the season.
It's important to keep the skin hydrated and fed. When the skin has good circulation, it can maintain it's integrity. There are a lot of moisturizing products on the market but I find that the best way to do this is with an organic oil (like apricot) or simple salve (I like the locally made Bee Yourself Balm.) An oil or salve does not contain water in itself, so it won't do anything unless you hydrate the skin first. Soaking in the bath for 15-20 minutes is enough to let your thirsty skin drink up enough fluid. Right after blotting with a towel, apply a generous amount of oil or salve to lock the moisture in.
You can also use a lotion, which is a mixture of oil and water. This preparation isn't quite as moisturizing as the above process, but it's quick and easy. Be careful with modern lotions, though. Many modern products contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals or worse. Alaffia is a trustworthy brand that's easy to find almost anywhere in Portland and it's made in Olympia, WA, just a few hours away. Check the Skin Deep Database for other lotion brands that are safe for you and your family members.
Cucumbers, melon, avocado and honey are a few of the amazing foods that can be used directly on the skin to increase hydration and health.
Protect your face and eyes by getting a hat and sunglasses that you love. If you've had some good exposure for the day but want to keep swimming or playing, add some lightweight layers to protect your body and seek shade. Try to stay out of the sun during the hottest times of the day.
There are many ways that you can use your diet to help increase the resiliency of your skin and lessen your chances of sunburn.
- Tomato Paste & Olive Oil: The lycopene in tomato paste can help a bit to prevent sunburn when eaten every day for many weeks (at least 7 weeks) and is best when combined with oil. This dietary addition can act to increase the protective abilities of the skin by about 2-3 SPF. You need about 2 tbsp of paste per day to get the effects.
- Essential Fatty Acids: Supplementation with EFAs has been shown to lower the risk of sunburn. Look for foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, including fresh pressed and refrigerated flax oil, walnut oil, chia seed, seaweeds, fish, seafood and pasture-raised eggs.
- Minerals: Mineral deficiencies can contribute to sun damage. Mineral oxides absorb and filter UVA and UVB, reducing the amount of radiation that penetrates the skin. Minerals may also boost the antioxidant defense mechanisms in your skin. Eating a high quality salt, rich in trace minerals is one way to get your minerals on a daily basis. Epsom salt baths are another good way. We know that zinc and selenium are two very important minerals for skin health. Foods rich in selenium include brazil nuts, oysters, whole wheat, seeds, mushrooms and most meats. Get more zinc by eating beans, chocolate, spinach and nuts.
- Astaxanthin: This anti-oxidant is produced by a sea algae and then eaten by salmon, shellfish and krill. As well as many other health benefits, it is a potent UVB absorber and prevents damage to DNA. Adding shrimp and salmon to the diet is a good way to get this in your diet naturally. I like Davinci Labs Astaxanthin with D3 when a supplement is necessary.
There are two types of sunscreens on the market today: mineral and chemical. The most common that you'll find contain chemical filters that include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. These chemicals can cause allergic reactions in the skin and they act as a hormonal disruptors. (Remember that balanced hormones are necessary for many things, including normal puberty/maturation, our fertility, mood, growth, metabolism, immune system and behavior.)
Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Be cautious of sunscreens that combine zinc with chemical filters. These types of sunscreens do better in terms of avoiding allergic reaction and hormonal disruption. However, manufacturers need to use forms of these minerals that are coated with inert chemicals to reduce their photoactivity. If they don't use these forms, slathering a mineral sunblock on can cause skin damage too. The Environmental Working Group is asking the FDA to set guidelines on these mineral sunblocks so that consumers do not have to worry about the potential for skin problems.
Overall, the best way to prevent sunburn is not to use sunblock, but rather, to use the other methods listed here: gradual exposure, keeping the skin moist and healthy, using physical barriers to the sun and eating a healthy diet with plenty of EFAs, vitamins and minerals. If you're going to use a sunscreen, check the EWG's Guide to Sunscreen to find the safest one for you and your family.