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Solving The (Toxic) "Sunscreen Dilemma"

This is part two in the series: The Synchro Guide To Truly Healthy Skin. You can read part one here.

Beautiful skin doesn’t happen by accident.

Beautiful skin is the culmination of years of decisions in the foods you eat, your lifestyle and your skin care practices. Sure, there’s a genetic component to great skin, but genetic factors are outweighed 10x over by your nutrition and lifestyle decisions practices.

Skin care is an every-day, all-year project - but it takes on extra significance during the summer when sun exposure increases dramatically for most people.

The sunscreen component of the skin-care equation has been a consistent thorn in my side for the past few years. I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours over the past few years researching, testing and generally thinking about sunscreens and how best to deal with the damage done by the sun to our skin.

After all that time invested, I can say with complete confidence that not only does the perfect sunscreen not exist, there’s nothing that’s even remotely close.

 The article ahead is the result of all those hours (and dollars) spent looking for the perfect sunscreen. Once I realized that the perfect sunscreen does not (yet) exist, I instead invested my time in putting together the most intelligent skin-protection system given the reality of the products currently available.

But first, let’s look at why this is needed in the first place. 

UV Radiation And The Danger For Our Skin

It’s perhaps a bit ironic that the same gaseous orb responsible for all life on the planet is also perhaps the single biggest threat to the health of our skin.

Both the UV-A and UV-B radiation produced by the sun can result in significant damage if the skin is exposed in large doses. This is because both UV-A and UV-B will damage fats and other molecules in the skin to create reactive oxygen species, otherwise known as oxidative toxins. [1]

When allowed to accumulate, reactive oxygen species will damage and kill skin cells. This oxidative damage is the #1 driver of skin aging.

UV-B radiation is even more problematic as it will directly damage DNA in skin cells, leading to cell death and greatly increased risk for skin cancer. [2]

We’ve Got Sunscreen Issues

I mentioned earlier that there is no sunscreen I consider even remotely close to perfect. Here’s my problems with each of the three common types of sunscreens.

1. Conventional Sunscreens Contain Toxic Ingredients - Conventional “chemical sunscreens” use compounds known as photostabilizers that absorb the UV radiation before it damages your skin cells. The problem is almost all of the commonly used photostabilizers are also potentially toxic if absorbed into the skin.

By far the most problematic of these is oxybenzone. Oxybenzone has been shown in multiple studies to disrupt endocrine function by mimicking estrogen in the body. [3] If allowed to accumulate in the body, oxybenzone can lead to disrupted reproductive function in both sexes and endometriosis in women.

Unlike some of the other photostabilizers, Oxybenzone is particularly problematic because it absorbs readily into the skin, where it can then move easily into the bloodstream and be stored in fat throughout the body. Up to 9% of the oxybenzone you apply to your skin will be absorbed. For these reasons, oxybenzone is at the top of my list of sunscreen ingredients to be completely avoided. [4]

Other common chemical photostabilizers like octinoxate (octylmethoxycinnimate) and homosalate have also been shown to have estrogenic activity in the body. However, because both of these are absorbed into the skin at a rate of less than 1%, they don’t set off alarm bells quite in the same way oxybenzone does for me.

If allowed to accumulate in the body (with regular use), both octinoxate and homosalate will certainly have hormone-disrupting effects, but because the absorption rate is so low, I relax ever-so-slighly from the avoid-at-all-costs approach I take with oxybenzone.

2. Mineral Sunscreens Provide Terrible User Experience - I have tried literally dozens of the best-reviewed mineral sunscreens (some for upwards of $50/bottle) and I can report that every single one sucks in its own way.

Mineral sunscreens use either zinc oxide or titanium oxide to reflect UV away from the skin, and even the best of these products invariably leave your skin tinted white and feeling like you have a thin layer of clay covering your body.

Zinc oxide and titanium oxide are highly effective at blocking UV and essentially non-toxic when applied topically, so mineral sunscreens are vastly superior from those perspectives. Despite this, I still don’t use mineral sunscreens because I find the “user experience” (to borrow the phrase from the tech world) of even the best mineral sunscreens to be unacceptably poor.

If you want to take the route of absolute lowest toxin-exposure, are more willing to tolerate the white skin tint than I am, Prana Natural Defense SPF 25 and Soleo Organics Sunscreen offer the closest to what I consider a quality user experience.

3. Natural SPF Oils Are Rarely Adequate - In the past few years, the idea of using plant-based oils that contain natural photostabilizers has become popular. I was admittedly bullish on the idea myself for a while, as some sources claimed that oils like red raspberry seed oil and carrot seed oil had SPF in excess of 30.

After testing these oils pretty thoroughly, I can say they will work well, but only in very specific circumstances. Red raspberry seed oil is the best of the natural oils because it blocks both UV-A and UV-B radiation.

If you live in a mild or cool climate and are looking for a daily facial moisturizer that has SPF, red raspberry oil is a great option. If you’re looking for a product with which to cover your body and spend the day at the beach, you’d be in for a somewhat unpleasant experience. Red raspberry oil is a relatively thick oil that doesn’t absorb well into the skin. Using it in warm weather is like adding an extra layer of insulation on your body.

More importantly, despite claims of red raspberry seed oil having an SPF of up to 40, I’ve found it to be woefully inadequate for prolonged exposure to intense sun. I suspect that the natural photostabilizers simply break down much faster than the chemical ones, meaning while these natural oils may initially have a high SPF, that SPF is lost quickly as the oil breaks down in intense sun.

Solving The Sunscreen Dilemma 

 Given the far-from-perfect sunscreen landscape, this is what I believe to be the most intelligent strategy for protecting the skin from UV radiation:

1. Minimize Your Sunscreen Use, Cover Up! - Covering your skin should always be your first strategy, for protection from the UV radiation. Even the highest SPF sunscreens won’t block all of the UV radiation your skin is exposed to.

Wide-brim hats, umbrellas, scarves and light/flowy long sleeve shirts will be your best tools for the job - all of which have the added benefit of affording you an excellent opportunity to add some serious style to your summer wardrobe. (as a friend and I demonstrate in the photo below)

2. Choose An Oxybenzone-Free Chemical Sunscreen - Any product containing oxybenzone is obviously off the table, but what about a chemical sunscreen that doesn’t use oxybenzone? This is what I’ve settled on as the best available option at this point in time.

These products still use problematic ingredients like octinoxate and homosalate, so they’re certainly far from ideal. However, because absorption into the skin is relatively low, it’s possible to keep them from accumulating to the levels where they would potentially disrupt endocrine function.

I should say, it’s possible to keep octinoxate and homosalate from accumulating IF and only if you adhere to the rest of this protocol.

The best oxybenzone-free chemical sunscreen I’ve found is Coola Sport Spray SPF 30, closely followed by Alba Botanica Sport Spray SPF 40.

3. Don’t Use These Sunscreens More Than Once A Week - If you follow the skin detox techniques below, your body should be able to clear the majority of the octinoxate and homosalate that would absorb into your skin with once-weekly use.

If you use sunscreen more often than this, you should use a mineral sunscreen. The potential hormone disruption from allowing these photostabilizers to accumulate simply not worth the slight unpleasantness caused by mineral sunscreens.

4. Wash Your Skin Thoroughly - The best thing you can do to prevent absorption of these photostabilizers is to deeply clean your skin after you use them.

This is a good opportunity to point out that most “soaps” on the market are actually detergents that linger in the skin and can damage skin cells. I highly recommend choosing an additive-free true soap like Dr Bronner’s Liquid Soap.

5. Dry Brushing - Washing your skin thoroughly will remove any octinoxate and homosalate still sitting on your skin, but to clear chemicals that have already absorbed into the skin, you need to support your skin’s detoxification systems.  

Dry brushing stimulates blood flow and lymphatic fluids to clear toxins from the skin. See last week’s The Synchro Guide To Truly Healthy Skin [Part One]: Dry Skin Brushing.

6. Moisturize - Yes, using a moisturizing oil makes your skin look nice - but more importantly it keeps your outermost layer of skin (epidermis) hydrated which, in turn, improves clearing of toxins. The best moisturizer in my opinion is without question good ol’ coconut oil.

7. Antioxidants - No sunscreen - mineral or chemical - absorbs even close to 100% of the UV radiation that will hit your skin during a day in the sun. This means that oxidative toxins will always be formed in the skin during prolonged sun exposure, and neutralizing these oxidative toxins is just as important as removing potential endocrine disruptors.

Oxidative toxins in the skin won’t be neutralized until they come into contact with antioxidants. The body produces a number of potent antioxidant enzymes, but we can do a lot to support the body’s endogenous toxin-neutralizing systems by consuming high levels of antioxidants in our foods.

There’s virtually no food on the planet better at delivering huge amounts of antioxidants than the superfood nutritional shake Synchro Genesis. After I’ve spent a day in the sun, I’ll always drink a Genesis shake to ensure antioxidant levels in my skin are as high as possible.

Daily Skin Care

If your goal is truly healthy, glowing skin (not to mention minimized skin cancer risk), skin care can’t be something you focus on only when you’ve spent a day in the sun.

From the list above, numbers 1, 5, 6 and 7 should be practiced every day.

I’ll point out that I specifically omitted number 4 here - as I don’t use soap on my own skin every day. Soaps (and detergents) pull natural oils out of our skin and make it more difficult for our skin to maintain it’s natural oil balance.

 Our skin is “designed” to have a certain level of oils in/on it, so a hypothetical “clean” skin free of oils is NOT actually healthy skin.

Dry brushing, moisturizing and showering (sans soap) every day is a much better practice for keeping the skin healthy and “clean”.

The Nutrition Of Beautiful Skin

The focus of this article is sun-related skin care practices so I’ll keep this section brief, but any article on skin care not discussing the relationship of nutrition to skin health is decidedly incomplete.

Here are the biggest nutritional risk factors that can wreck your skin if left unaddressed:

1. Food Allergens - Dairy, soy, wheat, nuts, legumes, etc. If you’re not 100% sure you don’t have a food allergy, get tested or do an elimination diet. Like, now.

Nothing will have a greater positive effect on your overall health (including your skin) than eliminating a previously unidentified food allergen. If you have adult acne (particularly on the chest or back), I can almost guarantee that a food allergy is to blame.

2. Oxidative Toxins - Oxidative toxins from food create inflammation and damage cells, both are terrible for skin health. For more on avoiding food-based toxins, read this past article.

3. Vegetable Oils - Pro-inflammatory, Omega-6 bombs. Avoid whenever possible.

Stay Synchro, 

Graham Ryan


Looking for more on body optimization?

The Synchro Guide To Truly Healthy Skin [Part One]: Dry Skin Brushing

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