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Can You Avoid Skin Damage Without Sunscreen?

Are you concerned that sunscreen chemicals are absorbed into your body? Can you prevent skin damage without sunscreen or is that an impossible goal?

It comes as a great shock to learn that sunscreen gets under your skin.  Most people assume that what you put on your skin stays on your skin. Wrong! FDA researchers wrote in JAMA (May 6, 2019) that some popular ingredients in sunscreen are absorbed through the skin and get into the blood stream. They circulate throughout the body and could have hormone-disrupting activity. That has readers concerned, especially for their young children. Is it possible to protect your skin without sunscreen?

How Did Our Ancestors Avoid Skin Damage Without Sunscreen?

Sunscreens are relatively new. Effective UV blockers have only been around for several decades. For thousands of years, humans dealt with ultraviolet rays without sophisticated creams and lotions. No doubt many outdoor workers suffered from skin damage that led to premature wrinkling and skin cancer.

But people learned how to prevent damage without chemical blocking agents. Look at re-creations of clothing from ancient Greece, Egypt and other Mediterranean countries and you will see that people covered up.

If you lived in Europe two centuries ago, you would have discovered that wealthy people shunned the sun. Women who were “fair” were considered beautiful. They wore gloves and hats and if they went out in the middle of the day, they probably carried a parasol to block the sun. Poor people and farmers had tans.

Have you ever heard the phrase:

“Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun.”

There is actually a song titled “Mad Dogs and Englishman” written by Noel Coward.

Here are a few verses to whet your appetite:

  • “In tropical climes there are certain times of day
  • When all the citizens retire
  • To take their clothes off and perspire
  • It’s one of those rules the greatest fools obey
  • Because the sun is far too sultry and one must avoid its ultry-violet ray
  • The natives grieve when the white men leave their huts
  • Because they’re obviously, definitely nuts!
  • Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun
  • The Japanese don’t care to
  • The Chinese wouldn’t dare to
  • Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve ’til one
  • But Englishmen detest a siesta”

Listen to the whole song or read all the lyrics at this link.

Protecting Skin Without Sunscreen:

Q. I decided I wouldn’t use sunscreen about 25 years ago. I take a lot of medication and my decision was based on that. I didn’t want any more chemicals on or in my body. I feel vindicated now that I read about sunscreen ingredients being absorbed through the skin.

I avoid the sun whenever I can. I wear a hat and a shirt that blocks sunlight when I go swimming.

A. A study in JAMA (May 6, 2019) demonstrated that some popular sunscreen ingredients are indeed absorbed.  Because these compounds are suspected hormone disruptors, the investigators have called for more research to clarify potential problems.

Your strategies to protect yourself from sunburn are prudent. Many medications sensitize the skin to the sun’s UV rays. This could lead to an exceptionally severe sunburn or a rash.

Sunblocking products containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide may be an alternative. The FDA considers these mineral-based ingredients to be safe and effective.

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Other Readers Avoid Skin Damage Without Sunscreen:

Alan in Dallas, Texas got blood shot eyes from sunscreen:

“I am staying out of the sun from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm. If I go out I wear a broad-brimmed hat. When I mow the lawn I wear a long-sleeve cotton twill shirt. It seems to be working.”

John in New York came up with a concoction:

“Drinking one glass of 100% organic purple (Concord) grape juice plus a cup of green tea before yard work in the sun is all I need to not get sunburned anymore. Like many of your readers, I too am a fair-skinned/freckled person. The success I saw with grape juice convinced me to read up on the PubMed articles about it. Absolutely fascinating.”

We would never recommend just grape juice and green tea as a protection against UV damage. But there is research to suggest that such “systemic” agents (plus prudent cover up) could be helpful. It is possible to protect your skin without sunscreen. 

An article in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology (March, 2019) notes:

“Skin cancer is the most frequently diagnosed cancer in the United States, and solar UVR is an established causative factor for approximately 90% of these cases. Despite efforts aimed at UV protection, including use of sunscreen and clothing, annual cases of skin cancer continue to rise. Here, we report that dietary grape powder mitigates UVB-mediated skin carcinogenesis in an SKH-1 hairless mouse model…Overall, our study suggested that dietary grape, containing several antioxidants in natural amalgamation, may protect against UVB-mediated skin carcinogenesis.”

Researchers at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine and Department of Dermatology conclude (International Journal of Molecular Sciences, Sept. 9, 2016): 

“There is increasing evidence that different forms of polyphenols used orally and topically may be beneficial for skin health and, more specifically, for prevention of sunburns. Many naturally occurring products contain polyphenols, including green tea, chocolate, red wine, Romanian propolis, Calluna vulgaris extract, grape seeds, honeybush extract, and Lepidium meyenii (maca), as reviewed here. Physicians and other health care professionals should be aware of the studies examining the beneficial effects of polyphenols as they could potentially be used as alternatives in skin care and protection from the damaging UV rays.”

The authors encourage “prudent sun exposure, the use of sun-protective clothing, and the diligent use of sunscreens…”

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How Good are Sunscreens in Preventing Skin Cancer?

Dermatologists understandably want to prevent skin cancer. That is one of the primary reasons they are so adamant that people slather on the sunscreen. But how good is the evidence that sunscreens accomplish this goal?

Here is a heretical article you might want to read:

How Well Do Sunscreens Work to Prevent Skin Cancer?

One systematic review of the medical literature concluded (European Journal of Dermatology, April 1, 2018

“While the current evidence suggests no increased risk of skin cancer related to sunscreen use, this systematic review does not confirm the expected protective benefits of sunscreen against skin cancer in the general population.”

We find that pretty shocking given the enthusiastic embrace of sunscreens by the dermatology community.

The Bottom Line When it Comes to Preventing Skin Damage Without Sunscreens:

It is possible to prevent skin damage without sunscreen by avoiding sunlight. That is not practical for most people. Next best is limiting exposure during peak hours (10 am till 3:00 pm).

If you go out during the midday sun, wear a good hat and protective clothing with built-in UV protection. If you cannot find a shade tree for your picnic, bring along your own shade in the form of a beach umbrella.

If you are going swimming, wear a special UV protected shirt while you swim. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends zinc oxide and titanium dioxide mineral sunscreens because:

• “They provide strong sun protection with few health concerns;
• They don’t break down in the sun; and
• Zinc oxide offers good protection from UVA rays. Titanium dioxide’s protection isn’t as strong, but it’s better than most other active ingredients.”

If you are worried about absorption of zinc and titanium, here is what EWG has to say on that front:

“Nanoparticles in sunscreen don’t penetrate the skin. Some studies indicate that nanoparticles can harm living cells and organs when administered in large doses. But a large number of studies have produced no evidence that zinc oxide nanoparticles can cross the skin in significant amounts.”

Do NOT breathe in any sunscreen! We discourage aerosol sprays for this reason. Use a tube and apply the cream with your fingers the old-fashioned way.

Not surprisingly, we have taken some hits from angry dermatologists. You may wish to read this response to our previous article on this topic:

Does Sunscreen Prevent Skin Cancer? Dermatologist Is Irate!

Share your own thoughts in the comment section below.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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  • Matta, M. K., et al, "Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients A Randomized Clinical Trial," JAMA, May 6, 2019, doi:10.1001/jama.2019.5586
  • Singh, C. K., et al, "Chemoprotective Effects of Dietary Grape Powder on UVB Radiation-Mediated Skin Carcinogenesis in SKH-1 Hairless Mice," Journal of Investigative Dermatology, March, 2019, doi: 10.1016/j.jid.2018.09.028
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