We’ve inherited a fear of the sun. It has developed out of simplistic thinking and a commercially-fuelled set of false beliefs. Here’s the inside story: Ultraviolet light is NOT the fundamental cause of skin aging nor skin cancer. Exposure to the sun is not the main reason that skin wrinkles happen. And here’s some shocking news: The chemical sunscreens we now use to protect ourselves from wrinkles and cancer contribute to both.
Rough, loose, creviced, wrinkled skin, complete with irregular blotches—it’s known as photo-damaged skin or extrinsically aged skin. It is always blamed on exposure to sun. It is not exposure that causes it; it is the misuse of sun coupled with exposure to mounting levels of destructive chemicals that are the real culprits. To get a first-hand feel for what this looks like, take a look in the mirror at the skin on your bottom. It looks ten or twenty years younger than skin on your face. The difference speaks volumes about what extrinsic aging looks like. How do you avoid it?
The ads tell us to smear on more sunscreens. The truth is far more complex. Extrinsic aging means skin damage triggered by external factors—high exposure to UV light from tanning beds or sitting in the sun at the wrong time of the day, chemicals in the environment, and—in many ways—the products you’ve been told to use to protect yourself from them.
Mounting evidence indicates that many sunscreens contain carcinogens and that the rise of skin cancers parallels the increase in sunscreen usage
Most sunscreen chemicals which should be protecting your skin from damage actually cause it. They eat up your body’s natural enzymes designed to guard against degeneration. A growing awareness of this in the cosmetic industry has led manufacturers to add free radical scavengers, like vitamin A derivatives and phytonutrients, to their sunscreen products. It’s a bit like sweeping dust under a carpet; this only hides the issue. Chemicals used in sun products and other toiletries do not belong in our bodies. As Rachel Carlson insisted half a century ago, their ubiquitous presence in animal bodies undermines health, vitality, and in this case, beauty too.
The sun produces high energy rays from cosmic and gamma and X rays through longer, lower UV, infrared, microwaves and radio waves. Gamma and X radiation are mostly filtered out by the earth’s atmosphere, although flying in jets at 35,000 feet exposes your body to them in big quantities. This is one reason we need extra antioxidant protection when boarding a long haul flight. When gamma rays—which are also used to irradiate foods and sterilise medical equipment—hit water molecules in a living body, free radicals are generated in large numbers, important enzymes are destroyed and your skin’s natural protective ability is undermined.
BREAKING THE WAVES
The UV rays—most likely to trigger aging in an unprotected or polluted skin span from 190 to 400nm. They come in three varieties:
- UVA (320-400nm). Deep penetrating ‘silent-killer’ aging rays. UVA radiation can delve deep into the dermis and wreak havoc with DNA and collagen, triggering degenerative changes especially in light-colored skin, messing up the skin’s enzyme systems and cross-linking its collagen.
- UVB (200-290nm). Shorter, these guys penetrate more superficially. They can oxidize skin’s natural oils, dry it out and undermine its ability to protect itself on the surface. UVB are mostly responsible for burning. They are what chemical sunscreens try to mitigate in an attempt to prevent sunburn.
- UVC (280nm and shorter). Highly dangerous to skin. Most of these are filtered out by the biosphere, but you can be subjected to them from most office lighting.
FACTS AND FICTIONS
Photo aging got its name because it often develops out of excessive exposure to UV radiation. You see it in sun-worshippers on the beaches of Australia’s Gold Coast or California’s Venice Beach. Extrinsic aging mimics the destructive damage all skin is exposed to over time. This damage can happen fast when you hang out too long in the sun, especially between 11am and 4pm. Chemical pollution, long periods of intense physical activity, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs—just like excessive UV radiation—all generate high levels of reactive oxygen species in the skin: Super oxides, hydroxy radicals and hydrogen peroxide. These cause free radical damage, degrade and cross-link collagen, and help produce wrinkles, sags and age spots. Like the rest of these onslaughts, big doses of sun also accelerate the formation of advanced glycosylation end-products (AGEs) to interfere with cellular functions and make skin lose elasticity. However, the notion that sunlight is the bête noir in all extrinsic aging is absolutely untrue.
Our ancestors were exposed to the sun’s UV rays for over a million years of evolution. The human body is genetically adapted to sunlight, and well equipped to handle it. The exponential rise in skin cancers began in the twentieth century—not in all those years of evolution. What’s happening? Two things. With each decade that passes, we are bombarded with higher and higher levels of chemical aggression in our environment, and forced to handle more electromagnetic pollution. Together they produce toxic build-up in our body, stressing its natural antioxidant systems and undermining our immunity. This triggers degenerative processes, increasing our skin’s sensitivity to UV damage. It also makes us highly susceptible to cancers. Yet we continue to assault our skin with more chemicals in the form of irresponsibly formulated cleaning products, herbicides and insecticides, and to use skin and body care products to deliver yet more chemicals directly to the skin.
CHEMICAL OR PHYSICAL
The standard protocol for sun protection is to smear on more chemical sunscreens. Selling them is a $3.5 billion a year business, and growing rapidly. We fear aging and skin cancer so we keep buying. Yet much of what we buy significantly contributes to the damage we are trying to prevent.
Sun “protection” products come in two forms—chemical sunscreens and physical sunblocks. A few products contain both. Physical block products literally create a physical barrier of fine, non-reactive minerals on the surface of your skin, rather like micro-fish-scales.
They reflect excess UVA and UVB back into the atmosphere instead of letting skin absorb it. They are good and not dangerous. Using them is like wearing a hat or a veil so the sun’s rays don’t penetrate at all.
No commercial sunscreens have been proved safe. Their chemicals penetrate the skin into the circulation and add to the burden of toxins to be detoxified.
Chemical sunscreen products—most sun protection products fit into this category—are different. They do not reflect. They absorb UVB and UVA rays, allowing them to penetrate your skin. Many chemical screens these days have begun to target UVA radiation as well as UVB, but the “sun protection factor” (SPF number) you read on a product’s label will have been calculated entirely by how much UVB radiation the chemicals it contains are able to absorb. Unlike physical sunblocks, chemical sunscreens “absorb” the UVB radiation in an attempt to neutralize. They are rapidly used up in the formation of new chemical compounds which your skin then has to find ways of detoxifying from your system.
WAY TO GO
To protect yourself from aging and cancers, you need to limit your use of chemically-based sunscreens. Better still, throw them out. Go for a mineral-based sunblock, or use one of the new mineral foundations every day. Based on physical agents like titanium oxide and zinc oxide, these products reflect the light instead of relying on chemicals to ‘absorb’ and transmute it. They are safe, inert, and protective. Other physical screens are commonly used by surfers, skiers, cricketers, and tennis players. But choose your block carefully. Unless the mineral fragments have been milled into micro-particles, they can make you look a bit like Marcel Marceau.
GET SAVVY ABOUT THE SUN
Here are some important things to remember about tanning and how to protect your skin from extrinsic aging and cancers:
- There is no way to get a safe tan.
- Never use a sunbed. They filter out UVB burning rays but let the UVA in deep. They are automatic aging machines which increase your risk of melanoma.
- SPF numbers don’t tell you about UVA protection from wrinkling and aging. Most only deal with UVB protection against burning.
- For the safest protection from aging and burning, read labels. Shun chemical sunscreens in favor of physical sunblocks—products based on micro minerals such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide which won’t absorb the sun’s rays or react with your skin.
- Apply a sunblock a quarter of an hour before going out into the sun.
- Water resistant products are not what they seem. Their effectiveness is compromised by sweat and swimming. Reapply your sunblock often.
- If you are or have been using any kind of AHA’s, Retin-A or Renova or any other pharmaceuticals on your face, cover it with a hat as well as a physical sunblock and don’t spend a lot of time outdoors.
- Never get sunburnt—the damage it causes continues to get worse for 24 hours after the initial burn appears, and when the burn has been severe, can last a lifetime.
- Think twice before taking oral contraceptives or HRT. Use of these hormone-based drugs is correlated with a three times greater risk of sunburn and skin damage.
- Take a tip from the Arabs, who know a lot about sun protection. Cover your body well when you plan to spend long hours outdoors. Always wear a hat.
- Use one of the excellent non-reactive mineral-based makeup products on your face which last all day, look natural, cover your skin and reflect UV rays, while making your skin look fabulous.