Sunscreen and Vitamin D

With summer weather finally here our babe has been playing outdoors a lot more. His fair skin and strawberry blonde hair, combined with his recent reluctance to wear a hat, have left me wondering how to best protect him from sunburn. In past, my first thought would have been to slather him up with sunscreen (as I’ve done myself for years), however I was recently surprised to learn that this may not be the best course of action. While sunscreen helps prevent sunburn, evidence suggests it may also harm to the body. In addition, there may be reason for me to allow him to get some sun!

The Environmental Working Group provides a resource called the Skin Deep cosmetics database where you can look up the ingredients and toxicity of your skin care products, makeup, bug spray, etc. The results are helpful and overwhelming at the same time. A look at the sunscreens category begins to clue you in to the potential dangers. The average sunscreen, even the baby specific formulations, may contain parabens, aluminum, avobenzone, artificial colors and fragrance, silica, formaldehyde and many other known carcinogens!

A search for a safer sunscreen does produce results, but even these may still contain ingredients such as “micronized titanium dioxide”. So what’s the problem there? Micronization is the process of reducing the size of solid particles, often down to nanometer size. This helps make the sunscreen more transparent and effective (more easily absorbed by the skin), but at the same time these nano-particles are unpredictable and can enter the bloodstream, even get lodged in the brain! The FDA is still in the process of conducting basic safety studies on nano-scale ingredients, and currently does not require manufactures to label their products or otherwise alert consumers to their use.

In conjunction with my research into sunscreen, I’ve learned that there may be a good reason to let the babe take in a fair bit of unprotected sun each day — sunshine is the best source for essential Vitamin D. Vitamin D confers many health benefits, and sunscreen blocks your body from taking it in at sufficient levels.

I’ve read that some dermatologists consider, “sun exposure without sunblock as analogous to promiscuous sex without condoms”, however recent medical studies have shown the Vitamin D from sunshine helps prevent some cancers that are generally seen as more dangerous than skin cancer. It appears to have a role in fighting infection and in preventing immune-system diseases as multiple sclerosis. Most recently, evidence suggests it prevents heart attacks!! It helps build strong bones and teeth, and may also play a part in battling neurological disorders and chronic diseases.

An article in this week’s Washington Post suggested up to 40% of infants and and toddlers are at risk for Vitamin D deficiency, and especially those that are breastfed (formula contains a supplement). The same goes for lactating moms, those that work indoors, and people who don’t regularly get a lot of Vitamin D in their diet. That makes me think that our entire family could use the supplementation!

So, do the “bad” ingredients in sunscreen make it more of a risk than the sunburn it’s designed to prevent? Does the potential for cancer avoidance outweigh the increased chance for skin cancer? Would we be better off to up our levels via sun exposure or via pills/potions?

I’m not ready to let the boy bake in the sun yet, so at this point I’m leaning towards the following strategy:

  • Keep out of the strong, middle-of-the-day sun.
  • Cover up or stay in the shade if possible.
  • Keep trying to get him to wear the hat and sunglasses.
  • Pursue a “safe” sunscreen and use it only when we have to be out in sun for prolonged period of time. (I’m leaning towards this one.)
  • Don’t worry about letting him have some sun exposure, just try to keep it reasonable.

A common sense and not overreactive approach, I think. I’m also going to get him a multivitamin that includes Vitamin D (the vegan D2 from plant sources), among other beneficial things, something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile now.