• Dr. Erica Oberg

Skin, Sunscreen and Science.

Updated: Aug 4, 2019

Knowledge and Resources to help you make good decisions about sun exposure.


My relationship with sunscreen is complex. My happiest moments involve playing outside in the sunshine – sailing, skiing, hiking, and yes, sometimes simply laying out on the beach or by a pool. I hate the feel of most sunscreen – greasy, hot – and I swear, the only times I seem to burn is when I’m using sunscreen! And then there’s the vitamin D dilemma. I’d much rather recommend 20 minutes of playing in the sun to correct a vitamin D deficiency (and perhaps a deficiency of fun) over taking a pill. (Side note – we published some pioneering vitamin D research back in the day which lead to tighter label dose reporting and safer products for everyone – link here if you are curious).

My personal sunburn prevention strategy has always involved maintaining a “healthy base tan” plus good hydration, high oral intake of antioxidants, and minimal application of nontoxic low SPF (Sun Protection Factor) sunscreen. Maintaining a base tan ensures the melanocytes are active and primed to make melanin. What is the definition of base tan? It means getting regular (at least weekly) sun exposure to ensure the melanocytes in the epidermis are primed and activated to produce melanin, the substance that gives skin its pigment. Melanin is also ultimately our own UV defense. Increasing the concentration of antioxidants in the epidermis also improves our own UV defense, which is why oral antioxidants found in whole foods contribute. Fortunately, summer’s bounty provides many of the best sources of these orange-yellow pigments – tomatoes, red & yellow peppers are but a few. Other antioxidant can be found in other oral and topical solutions and help prevent skin cancer (studies here). For example, nicotinamide , one of my favorites, “enhances DNA repair, reduces UV radiation-induced suppression of skin immune responses, modulates inflammatory cytokine production and skin barrier function and restores cellular energy levels after UV exposure.” (studies here)

Another botanical antioxidant bears mentioning for its skin protective benefits; hemp and the constituent CBD. The benefits are likely multifactorial. CBD itself has been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits through transdermal absorption. Furthermore, it has demonstrated anti-cancer effects, specifically against all types of skin cancer cells.

Yet, my personal sun protection strategy still includes a low SPF sunscreen lotion, especially when sun exposure is long and combined with dehydration like when I race sailboats every Wednesday evening! So why do I prefer a lower SPF? Higher SPF products don’t necessarily offer great protection; sometimes they just have higher chemical concentrations. SPF indicates how much longer you can stay in the sun without getting burned. For example, if you normally burn in 10 minutes, and you apply SPF 30, you’d burn in 300 minutes. The catch, however, is that most products degrade (or get washed or sweated away) within 2 hours. Thus, despite the SPF rating, manufacturers recommend re-applying every 2 hours. The FDA has discouraged SPF claims greater than 50 as these are misleading and not safer. The Environmental Working Group (“EWP”)is a fantastic organization and they have compiled a database to help you check the safety of your skincare products. They’ve also written a nice review of traditional sunscreen ingredients.

Another very important consideration when choosing a sunscreen product is to ensure that is safe for the oceans. Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are two of the most common sunscreen ingredients and they are believed to have contributed to the massive coral bleaching worldwide. In fact, they are being banned from Hawaii. Other common chemical additives, such as parabens, have well known endocrine disrupting and carcinogenic effects. There is absolutely no reason for a skincare product to include these risky chemicals when there are safer, equally effective options available. Not sure what’s in your products? Check the EWG database.

So, in my opinion, the perfect sunscreen doesn’t yet exist. I recently dug into the science and attempted to make one myself – with the help of some very talented chemists and pharmacists! Last week, I got to share the beta product formula with a few friends at the beach and on the boat, and I am excited by their reactions - both their feedback and how their skin looked after a few hours in the sun. While the products aren’t quite ready to buy, I wanted to make sure everyone knows about some resources where you can get accurate information about the confusing, potentially toxic landscape of sunscreen so you can protect yourself.

If you overdo it and get burned, it is important to stop the burn immediately. Just like burning your finger on the stove, the burning/tissue damage doesn’t stop until you cool it down. Get out of the sun as soon as you realize you are red. Cool down in the water, get in the shade, and use multiple applications of aloe in the first few hours following a burn. Make sure to rehydrate the skin before going to bed using a rich emollient lotion.

See you out in the sun!

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© 2020 by Dr. Erica Oberg, ND, MPH