For External Use Only? Tips for sun and skin care


Here comes the sun

After another dark and cloudy winter here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, I doubt there are any other people in the US more anxious to get outside and soak in some sun those living around here. Time to find the sunscreen lotion so we can apply a thick layer to protect our skin from the big, bright and evil sun, right? At least that is what we have been taught for most of our lives by well-intentioned authorities on the subject. They tell us that we need sunscreen lotion for prevention of skin cancer which definitely sounds like a disease that I would like to avoid, but is it really that simple? Life is rarely so black and white, and in the case of sun exposure it seems there are a lot of grey areas. Not only are there often grey areas, but sometimes we are told to do the complete opposite of what is good for us. For example, Time magazine recently had a cover story that said to “Eat Butter”, a radical change of thinking after we were told for decades to eat low fat food. Will a future edition of time say “Get Sun”?


Vitamin D

Last winter I posted an article called Confessions of an Ayurvedic Counselor: Part 1, Tanning where I basically argued that in small doses indoor tanning beds can be an effective form of light therapy to combat the Seasonal Affective Disorder that is so common in northern latitudes and cloudy places like the Pacific Northwest. Vitamin D is an important component to our overall well-being and our bodies manufacture this chemical during sun exposure, so to cover up and avoid sun exposure seems not to be in our best interest. For a more thorough explanation of the subject read this article written by Todd Caldecott, an Ayurvedic Practitioner from British Columbia. Speaking of Canada, remember when I said life is rarely so black and white? It is important to consider factors such as your geographic location, for example, think of how much less sun people receive in British Columbia than Arizona. Besides the latitude (north vs south) and climate (cloudy vs clear), consider the time of year (summer vs winter), length of exposure (field worker vs short walk), and skin type (pale vs dark). Finally, I think it is important to understand the cultural context of where much of this information originated. When we think of summer in America we picture people at the beach wearing skimpy swimsuits and baking in the sun for hours at a time. Of course the scientists and doctors needed to find a remedy for this lifestyle, but I’m not advocating such excessive behavior here. I’m saying that some moderate sun exposure can have great benefits, especially when the factors mentioned above are taken into consideration.

“For external use only”?

Besides blocking your skin from a healthy dose of sunshine my main concern with sunscreen lotion is that you are absorbing large quantities of chemicals through your skin, and the effects of these chemicals are poorly understood by the consumer. In Ayurveda there is an inside joke that the label commonly seen on cosmetic products, “for external use only”, makes no sense since most products applied on the skin surface are absorbed into the body. There really is no separation between internal and external, which is why it is always a good idea to ask yourself whether you would ever consider eating the product that you are about to apply to your skin. Horst Rechelbacher, founder of the popular Aveda salon chain, later went on to found a company called Intelligent Nutrients. The primary focus of Intelligent Nutrients is to develop cosmetic products that are non-toxic, food grade, plant based, and certified organic. You might ask, why should we seek these products when the Food and Drug Administration is already tasked with protecting me from harmful products? I don’t mean to sound cynical or conspiratorial, but anybody who lives in the US should understand by now the power of money, and the influence that corporations have over the agencies meant to regulate them. Just because a product is legal to sell doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe for you to use.

You are what you…apply to your skin

If “you are what you eat”, and if much of what you apply to your skin is absorbed internally, then it is reasonable to assume that “you are what you apply”. Ayurveda is unique and famous for using oils on the skin as a form of therapy called snehana. Different types of oils are used to treat specific conditions; some of these oils include sesame, coconut and ghee. Not only is the type of oil considered, but often during snehana therapy many different herbs are used to medicate the oil. In extreme cases of poor digestion when the body cannot efficiently process herbal medicines, the skin can be used instead to deliver medicine to the body. If the skin is used as a medium for delivering healing herbal medicines to the body then imagine what you are doing every time you apply a sunscreen, moisturizing lotion, or cosmetic containing heavy metals, artificial fragrances, and petrochemicals to your body.

In summer-y

  • Get some sun, produce some vitamin D, and feel good.
  • Don’t get baked at the beach, you’re not a potato in the oven.
  • Wear light, loose clothing to cover your skin as an alternative to sunscreen
  • Minimize it; use fewer skin products, or find safer alternatives.