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Sunscreen is my frenemy

Reviewed by Marta July 15, 2010 12 Comments

Having grown up on dismal little island in the North Sea otherwise known as Britain, the sun was – and is – a huge treat to be soaked up and savored.  And winter sun seems like a miracle. A few of us ex-pats in NYC never fail to marvel to one another “… and its sunny with blue skies even in winter…”. I am outdoors as much as I can be, I walk everywhere, exercise outside, even work on my computer on the deck whenever I can. I can feel the vitamin D coursing through my body.  Unfortunately though, I am naturally fair and freckly and, like Copley, I am having to come to terms with serious and consistent sun protection.

Now there are some big caveats for me and a few hurdles to overcome before I slather on and cover up. First of all, I am, dermatologically speaking, the Princess and the Pea. My super sensitive skin breakouts almost instantly at a mere whiff of a chemical sunscreen.  Even the more benign mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide can be part of some comedogenic, gloopy mix that has my pores clogged and erupting within a few days.

The best thing that I have found for daily, around town facial coverage is ColoreScience Sunforgettable ($50, initially, and I buy the cheaper refills). This is a brush on mineral powder that is all but invisible, light as a feather and quick and easy to apply.  I never react badly to it and I love the fact that I’m not obliged to layer yet another cream on my skin.

My main concern about sunscreens is that almost all are in some way compromised. ColoreScience has titanium dioxide as well as zinc oxide. Titanium dioxide doesn’t just reflect rays, it also absorbs them. And this means that, like chemical sunscreens, TD is a photosensitizer, absorbed by the skin and resulting in an increased production of free radicals. Colorescience says, however, that the micronized particles are too large to be absorbed and do any damage.

I use Epicuren Zinc Oxide ($37.50) for when I am likely to be more exposed to the sun than I am when just walking ten blocks in the city. Epicuren takes an interesting approach to sun protection. It uses enzymes to protect the skin and bearberry extract to inhibit melanin precursors. I also like the inclusion of vitamin D, which I’d be converting from sunlight if I wasn’t covering up. My other sunscreen standby is Yes To Carrots Hydrating Body Lotion PSF30 This is perfect for taking on vacation as it is a body lotion and sunscreen - without white, chalky pr greasy streaks - all in one.

As well as being skin sensitive to chemical sunscreens, I am more than convinced by the wealth of research demonstrating that, like titanium dioxide (perhaps more so), they become carcinogenic when exposed to the sun. This pretty much puts products with chemical sunscreens out of bounds for me. I do make a few exceptions and these include Chella’s antiaging moisturizer ($82), which uses something called Silasoma, a microcapsule that wraps itself around the sunscreen particles. Sunscreens are then rendered harmless because they can’t penetrate the skin. Mind you, Chella also contains retinyl palmitate, which also has this tendency to break down and cause free radicals to form.

Which leads me to my somewhat heretical conclusion that sunscreens – what with all of that and issues from micronized minerals and nano particles, not to mention vitamin D deprivation – are the frenemy. And for that reason, I don’t wear sunscreen everyday. It is a dull, cloudy day today and I am sunscreen free.

Also, I am curious about the growing body of research that suggests that plant extracts that are high in antioxidants help your skin prevent UV damage and eating foods high in antioxidants will do the same. I am convinced that my ever-improving diet and the better class of antiaging serums (for example a Duke study found that ferulic acid prevents sun damage) that I’ve been putting on my skin seem to (within reason) preventing sunburn.

  • December 31, 2010

    by marta

    Hi Jennifer, Heliocare is based on an extract of a plant called polypodium. We wrote about it here: back in May 09. Looks like something that I should go back to though and see of there is more information or studies on it.

  • December 31, 2010

    by Jennifer

    oops i mean Heliocare

  • December 31, 2010

    by Jennifer

    Marta, have you heard of an oral Sun protection supplement called Helocare?

  • August 9, 2010

    by marta

    Welcome Monica! It sounds as if you need a skin lightening/brightening product. Look for ingredients such as alpha arbutin and vitamin C. I think that Lumixyl sounds very promising: Although I am not sure if it is available in the UK yet.

  • August 9, 2010

    by Monica

    Dear Martha,

    I have just found your website and I am so happy...I haven´t stopped reading for 1 hour. I need your help. I come from a sunny country in the Ecuator and have been living in England from 5 years. My skin has changed from dark tan to kind of fair... I don´t really know my colour right now. The only thing that is really worrying me is that I am getting some dark marks in my upperlip area. I usually pull the few hairs that grow there with a tweezer and I use sun protection... All the natural ones I can get for children. As my skin is not really fair but not dark either what would you recommend? I am really dreading my holidays coming in a few weeks we will go to a very sunny place and I am worring that the dark patches will get worse... and worse of all I have a long weekend party coming I don´t seem to be able to even the tone of my skin even using the concealers... please help!!!!

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