Brigitte Tolson

Sun Exposure: getting the facts straight

Brigitte Tolson
Sun Exposure: getting the facts straight

The sun: without it, nothing could live on Earth. It provides us with vital neurochemicals, nutrients, and allows everything we enjoy about life to exist. It’s as natural as it gets. It’s one of the most powerful forces in existence. So rather than start this out like a typical sun protection article, offering facts about its damaging effects and quoting skin cancer statistics, let’s discuss how live with the sun in a healthy manner, rather than avoid it like a firey ball of skin cancer, age spots and wrinkles: let’s start with the good stuff. The sun is vital to all life on earth. The sun is natural, and feeds everything that is natural. Not only are UVB rays the most effective and natural way to get vitamin D, but UV rays also assist in producing serotonin, the vital neurotransmitter that regulates mood, sleep, appetite, and memory. Millions of people in regions of the world with minimal sunlight in Winter months have even developed SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), a condition that occurs when a person is deprived of sunlight.

Ironically, though we attribute sun exposure with skin cancer, studies have actually shown that vitamin D is preventative for colon, kidney, and breast cancer, as well as many cardiovascular and neurological diseases. In another twist, the proper amount of sun exposure can actually help your skin desensitize to UV damage and prevent skin cancer. Just as if you completely abstain from something healthy in small to moderate doses (red wine, for example), you become extremely sensitive to it when you do expose yourself to it, and suffer a negative response (much like when a non-drinker gets a terrible hangover after 2 glasses of wine). Your body (in this case your melanocytes, the pigment producing cells in the deepest layer of your epidermis) becomes so sensitive to something it has no tolerance to, that any exposure results in your body reacting as though it’s being attacked.

So the sun’s bad rap is unfair, right? Yes and no. Like much of life, the true answer is balance. The answer is also different for everyone- what an Irish person tolerates and requires of UV exposure, differs greatly from what a person of Samoan decent tolerates and requires. This is not to say skin color or ethnicity is an easy gauge of UV tolerance- even the darkest complexions can be sensitive to sun burns. This is simply an example of a factor that makes one persons sun exposure needs different than the next.


The most common mistakes:

Paying attention to the SPF and not the active ingredient. With countless hard-to-pronounce chemicals serving as active ingredients for SPF, it tends to be easier to just pay attention to the number on the bottle, and trust that this is a fairly proper guideline. Sun Protection Factor numbers refer to the theoretical amount of time you can spend in the sun without getting burned, and refers to UVB rays only. This leaves UVA (yes, the one responsible for brown spots and wrinkles) out of the SPF labeling equation, and does not factor in whether the active sunblock ingredient is truly comprehensive, or capable of protecting for any length of time beyond it’s rating. There are two main type of sunblocks, chemical and physical. Physical sunblocks are the preferred formulations of dermatologists, cancer specialists, and most estheticians including myself. Let’s explore the difference:

Chemical sun blocks

Chemical sunscreens work work by sinking into the skin and dissolving UV rays on contact.

They are the preferred base of many cosmetic companies because they can appear clear, feel light and appealing with ease. The vast majority of drug store and department store products use chemicals for SPF because they feel and look more appealing.

In large quantities, these chemicals enter the bloodstream and are found in the blood, urine, and breast milk.

One of the most common chemical sunscreens is Oxybenzone (or benzophenone-3). It’s in Neutrogena’s sunblock, among many other popular brands. It performs as a synthetic estrogen and can create adverse hormonal responses. The American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS) named benzophenones “Allergen of the Year 2014.”

Chemical sun protection ingredients also create free radicals, which can lead to DNA mutations and age the body and skin.

Chemical SPF needs to be reapplied more frequently than a physical SPF, because once the chemical has performed it’s function it becomes inert. Futhermore, some sunblock chemicals are not truly stable and may not be giving you the protection labeled on the bottle if the bottle is old, shipped in extreme temperatures etc.

Physical Sunblocks

Create a physical shield protecting skin from UVA and UVB rays using a natural mineral (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide).

Zinc oxide, which is offers the most UV protection available, is also used in anti inflammatory products (it’s the active ingredient in hemorrhoid treatments). It reduces swelling, redness, acne, and itching in the skin. I have found it to be very useful as a post-extraction ingredient for both dry and oily skin for this reason.

Mineral SPF can feel heavy, because the nature of these minerals is to create an actual barrier protecting your skin from the all-powerful sun. Brands like Tizo3 and Avene have managed to create lighter feeling formulations of zinc oxide based SPF.

Need to be reapplied, but because it’s creating a physical barrier, you’ll always be getting some protection so long as the product is still on your skin, unlike a chemical sun block.

Titanium dioxide, though naturally occurring like zinc oxide, offers slightly less comprehensive protection and may pose health risks. For this reason, I recommend sticking with zinc oxide.

To illustrate this best, I’m including this graph provided by the FDA:


Never reapplying. Many dermatologists will say “the best sunblock is the one you’ll reapply” to their patients when asked, and this is with good reason. Most sunblock needs to be reapplied within 2 hours of wear to maintain the same level of protection. If you wear foundation, power, blush, BB cream and the like, this may seem like an impossible task to you, but fear not; Many mineral formulations such as Tizo3’s Daytime Replenish, which is a pure silicone and zinc oxide base, glide perfectly over makeup if patted on, and leave no trace of a white residue.

Expecting too much of your sunblock. I’ve emphasized how incredibly powerful the sun is, and how no sunblock can completely eliminate all sun exposure. The only way to truly avoid the sun is to not actually be in it at all. So rather that suggest you live like a hermit to achieve flawless skin, I’d rather recommend that you do your best to stay healthy and accept that some sun damage is part of being alive, and work to revise the existing damage. This is where antioxidants (both in skin care and in nutrition and diet) play a vital role in healthy cell development of your skin.


Nutriton’s role in your skin

We tend to think of being sun resistant as strictly about external protection, but nutrition plays a role in helping your skin cells resist sun damage.


Not only is this amino acid excellent for the production of dopamine (yes, the happy chemical), it benefits neurotransmitter production and thyroid function, it’s a precursor of melanin (our skin’s pigment pricing cells). Because of this, at proper doses, it can help your skin be more resistant to sun burns and damage. L-tyrosine is available as a daily supplement you take internally.

Grape seed Extract

If you know me, you know I am a fan of grape seed extract. From Dr. Katiyar: “These polyphenols have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Because of these characteristics, polyphenols have been shown to inhibit, reverse, or slow down the risk of UV-induced skin carcinogenesis”. In my personal experience, grape seed is as close to “internal sunblock” as we can possibly get currently. It works wonders both topically, and internally.


Beta-glucan stimulate white blood cell growth. White blood cells fight bacteria and cancer cells,  and they interact and metabolize beta-glucan in order to function properly. They assist in sun damage repair and make sunblock work to it’s full ability. Green Chemistry’s daytime moisturizer Day Glow utilizes beta-glucan’s power to make sunblock more effective, and it’s a fantastic internal supplement as well.


So, what sunblocks are the best?

I personally use and recommend Tizo3 for my clients. Tizo3 is a pure zinc oxide sunblock with a slight mineral tint to off-set the characteristic white hue most zinc oxide sunblock’s are infamous for. The texture is light yet velvety thanks to a blend of line-smoothing silcones. Tizo3 was developed for skin cancer patients and to be used post laser and peel treatment, so it’s as good as it gets. There are other formulas out there that are also great zinc oxide sunblocks. Here is a guide to some of the other great sunblocks out there:

Alba Botanicals Mineral SPF 30 Rich and emollient, this sunblock is affordable and straight to point.

Avene Mineral Light SPF 50 Very light and silky despite it’s high SPF rating. I personally keep this one in my handbag.

Sanitas Solar Block SPF 20 Fantastic for sensitive skin, this SPF has beta glucan, algae and multi-vitamins

Badger Balm Sunblock This organic range of SPF contains a whopping 20% zinc oxide. It’s thick due to being so protective, so it’s fantastic for the body or a serious outdoor trip.

Soleil Toujours Face SPF 45 A personal favorite, this formula contains green tea, CoQ10, and a range of humectants that feel luxurious.

I am a medical esthetician in West Los Angeles with over 15 years experience. My focus is creating a relaxing experience while using clinical strength treatments that are organic without the use of dyes, parabens, or fragrance. I also love animal rescue, long distance running, mixed martial arts, and eating food all over LA.