Mother Earth Living

Natural Sun Protection

An herbalist's strategies for avoiding and treating sun damage.
By Kathi Keville
July/August 2002
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Save your skin with these natural tips for avoiding and treating sun damage.
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I remember when a pair of sunglasses was all the gear anyone grabbed to spend a summer day outside. Times have changed. Now we’re off to the beach or lake—or out to work in the herb garden—ladened with wide-brimmed sun hats, scarves, extra shirts, and tubes of sunscreen. The threat of premature wrinkles, leathery skin, uneven skin pigmentation, and especially skin cancer is enough to make anyone approach summer sun more cautiously. Almost three-quarters of sun damage occurs without our even trying, as we walk down the street, ride a bike, or even drive a car.

Examining sunscreens

Prevention is the key. However, sunscreens can be a mixed blessing. Your sunscreen may contain the purest natural ingredients but still rely on harsh compounds for its sunblocking properties. The higher the sun protection factor (SPF) number (which is used to rate sunscreen), the more sunscreen it contains. Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), a component of the B vitamin complex, was the darling of the natural sunscreen industry until it gained a reputation for causing sensitivity and allergic reactions. However, these reactions are uncommon and can occur with other popular sunscreen compounds such as cinoxate, cinnamate, or cinnamic acid from cinnamon, and the synthetic benzophenone. Two nontoxic solutions are the sunblocking minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which have the advantage of deflecting all types of sunrays. Because both are drying to skin and impart a whitish color when undiluted, you may prefer using them mixed into an herbal sun lotion.

Herbal sun protection?

A new wave of natural sunscreens is based on antioxidants. Research from institutions such as Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and the Xienta Institute for Skin Research in Bernville, Pennsylvania, shows that vitamins C and E not only protect against free radical damage but also reduce your chances of getting sunburned. So does taking vitamin C supplements. Potent antioxidant herbs, such as green tea (Camellia sinensis), are also proving effective. (A note to savvy shoppers: The cosmetic ingredient TEA is not green or black tea but the chemical tri-ethanol-amine.) In the future, look for sunscreens containing a variety of herbs. Horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) has compounds that absorb UV-B rays. An extract of helichrysum (Helichrysum angustifolium), best known by aromatherapists for its essential oil, is an effective sunscreen. Amino acids from sea algae are currently being tested in Australia. And one caveat: when out in the sun, avoid wearing skin-care products that contain citrus essential oils, especially bergamot (Citrus bergamia). They increase the skin’s sensitivity to light and occasionally cause skin discoloration or rashes.

Vegetable oil straight from your kitchen offers some sun protection. Sesame oil decreases the impact of burning rays by about 30 percent, while olive, coconut, and peanut oils block out a good 20 percent of the rays. The same is true of aloe vera (Aloe vera), with about 20 percent screening ability. My home experiments estimate sesame oil at around SPF 7, much lower than the protection achieved with commercial sunscreens. Still, these can provide a completely natural alternative when you’re getting a limited amount of sun exposure or wearing a big hat.

Actually, the best botanical sun protection might be the shade of a large tree. Experts such as Margaret Kripke, M.D., of the Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, say that slathering yourself with sunscreen can give you a false sense of security about spending long hours in the sun. Although you may not get burned, ultraviolet light still suppresses the immune system. Even having a tan or naturally dark skin doesn’t help prevent this repression, according to research at the University of Miami School of Medicine. So, if you’re under the sun a lot, pump up your immune system by taking herbs that enhance it. One of my favorites is pau d’arco (Tabebuia spp.), due to its ability to heal a variety of skin conditions.

Burn remedies

Once your skin is burned and there’s no turning back (or when your skin has been overexposed to hot, drying sun and wind or chlorinated swimming pools), use the same herbs, essential oils and vitamins recommended to treat any injured skin. My first choices are lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), aloe vera and calendula (Calendula officinalis) to repair damaged skin cells. The essential oil of geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) has skin-rejuvenating properties that encourage healing. Expensive, but exquisite in scent and skin-healing properties, are rose flowers (Rosa spp.). These all are suitable for either dry or oily skin. Long used in Europe, pansy (Viola tricolor) is gaining popularity in U.S. skin products to treat inflammation and burns. One sunburn remedy tip that’s quick and easy to carry when traveling is green tea bags. Soak them in cold water and pat them on the burned area. These make a handy remedy for burned eyelids because they won’t irritate your eyes.

Carrot seed (Daucus carota) essential oil is especially beneficial to sun-damaged skin and to eliminate precancerous skin spots. The antioxidant beta-carotene that it contains helps protect against skin cancer due to sun exposure. An easy solution is to add 10 drops of carrot seed essential oil to 1 teaspoon of vegetable oil and apply a couple of times a day directly on any questionable skin spots. If you develop dark “age” spots or splotches on your skin, check that you are getting a sufficient amount of B vitamins and limit the sun exposure on those areas.

My sunscreen solution

Faced with the dilemma of rubbing on potentially problematic chemicals versus increasing my chances of skin cancer, I opt for wearing a hat or visor and loose, cool tops with sleeves. When I’m in the full sun, I choose the lowest SPF to do the job, and that’s a homemade herbal concoction whenever possible. Because I don’t react to PABA (and most people don’t), I feel better about using it than other sun-screening chemicals. These others are more difficult to find, but I also like to use products that incorporate sunblockers such as zinc oxide. Even when I’m not out under the summer sun, I protect my face with either an aromatherapy cream or aloe vera.


Kathi Keville is the author of eleven books, including Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art (Crossing Press, 1995) and Herbs for Health and Healing (Rodale, 1996). She teaches herb and aromatherapy seminars throughout the United States and is director of the American Herb Association ( www.ahaherb.com ).


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