Not Getting Burned Anymore

Sometimes I wonder if all of the modern ailments, which seem ever more numerous as the years pass, are really just the result of adopting chemicals as a regular component in nearly every part of our lives. Can it be that simple? The sudden outbreak of peanut allergies, the increase in chronic diseases, the fact that cancer now seems more the expectation than unpredictable tragedy—have we just become more aware of them, or are these things really becoming more and more the status quo?

What I know for sure is that chemical interference has decimated other natural systems, and with so many examples at our disposal, it seems completely reasonable to think they’ve done the same for us. In fact, much like with biocides, the immediate results often seem great: If we put on sunscreen, we don’t get burned, and of course, that means less risk of skin cancer. However, as time passes, as we further expose our systems to the chemicals that are “helping” us, the worse and worse the results become.

Getting Out the Sunscreen

Sunscreen (Courtesy of Michael)

A few years ago, my wife Emma and I decided to start making all our own toiletries in an effort to get away from regularly putting known carcinogens directly onto and into our bodies while avoiding corporations that test on animals and/or increasingly pollute the planet. It seemed logical. Avoiding chemicals is something most of us recognize as a negative in gardens, yet many of us continue to use questionable chemicals on our bodies. Sunscreen is definitely one that has been under fire lately, and it’s something we’ve also given up.

Now, for two people who spend an abundant amount of time outside gardening and, when we can, swimming, this might seem a bit irresponsible. However, what we’ve come to realize is that sunscreen isn’t the only way to prevent getting burned. In fact, I’d say in the time since we’ve stopped using it, we’ve suffered much less from burns, which suggests that perhaps it’s been a healthier choice regardless of whether or not the contested studies about sunscreen causing skin cancer are true.

Much like approaching a garden exposed to excessive sun, we look for ways to prevent problems naturally and sensibly rather than chemically. We feel that this approach is not only better for us, but also for the environment, which often has to absorb these chemicals as they wash off of us, not to mention the process of mining the minerals and processing the lotions. For anyone interested in making some of the same steps, here are a few of the ways we have rethought sun-protection.

Our Nearly Foolproof Method

Shade (Courtesy of Andrew Ganz)

Our method begins with finding shade. At the beach, at the park, wherever we are outside and partaking of nature’s beautiful offerings, we seek out shady spots, both for staying a bit cooler and for preventing over exposure to the sun. We worked for years in the tropics, and the same method is often used for gardens. High shade is created with palm and papaya trees so that plants aren’t overexposed in the middle of the day. In the desert, gardens are shaded even more. This isn’t to say we never catch the sun. We get plenty, but finding shade and spending the bulk of our time there is a priority.

The next very effective method for preventing sunburns is wearing appropriate clothing when necessary. Sometimes the work (or fun) must go on, but that means so does the protective clothing. Whether it’s thin, long-sleeve shirts, hats, or a sarong draped over us, we block the sun with clothing rather than chemicals. Again, tender plants, like tender skin, often get the same treatment with shade clothes, and soils similarly received layers of sun-blocking mulch to prevent overexposure and moderate soil temperatures. If there is time and concern enough to put on sunblock, why not just block the sun with protective clothing?

Timing is something else we try to consider. Sun in the morning or late afternoon/early evening is much less punishing than the midday rays, so a walk on the beach is better taken around breakfast time or sunset. Again, gardens work the same way. Plants are much better off when watered in the morning or evening, as during the heat of the day, they more or less shut down to lessen the impact of the sun. In general, this usually is a more pleasant time to be out because it’s cooler, the colors in the sky are changing, and the animals, which have also caught on to this timing thing, are more active.

The other piece of the healthy skin puzzle, though this simply came by trying to have a healthy diet, is that food can do a lot for protecting our skin. Foods rich in vitamin A and vitamin C (carrots, dark leafy greens, red peppers), rich in lycopene (tomatoes, watermelon, papaya), in vitamin E (olive oil, nuts, mustard greens), and just a general balanced diet—all of this strengthens our skin from within. Again, our crops work the same, looking for the right nutrients to thrive and suffering when they aren’t supplied. In general, a mix of leafy greens, red peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, and fruits—like a great compost—makes a massive difference.

For Those Who Love to Slather

Homemade Sunscreen (Courtesy of thedabblist)

For many, these precautions seem to be lacking, but I must say again how effective they have been, much more so than any sunscreen we’d ever used, once we accepted the limitations. Even so, if having a sunscreen feels an absolute must, there are methods for making them at home, and these can at least assure that suspect chemicals aren’t present. There are even water-proof versions! There are even all-natural, commercially produced versions that are likely gentler on your body and the environment.

Then, when all systems do fail, and that can happen from time to time, it is vital to provide the troubled with skin with the care necessary. Again, in this circumstance, Emma and I prefer natural methods to chemical solutions. Aloe vera, it seems, pretty well exist primarily to help our skin: soothing, cooling, moisturizing, reducing inflammation, and healing. And, there are many other plants that can help, or natural products from stores also exist.

Slathering something on no doubt can feel reassuring, but some suspect that it is this very—often false—confidence that ends up causing burns. We either trust the sunscreen too much, we don’t reapply it often enough, or we simply, and probably, overindulge in too much of a good thing. In the end, we are much less likely to have sunburns when we approach the situation with simpler solutions rather than artificial lotions, and it’s highly likely that we’ll also have less of those cumulative problems as well. For us, rethinking sun protection has just made good, practical sense for our health and the planet’s.

Header Image: The Sun (Courtesy of Bruno Caimi)

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. sunscreen helps prevent UVB sunburn for sure.

    Realise that radio frequency / microwave / airborne communication electromagnetic radiation has been known since it was developed in USSR in 1940 to break hydrogen bonds in all living things. The rising levels of airborne Radio / tv / smart devices’ use has been proportional to the rise in all dis-eases (autoimmune, cancer, neuromuscular, degenerative ageing, autism, etc) Something to think, perhaps at least unplug the wifi router in your home when not in use? sleep away from electrics & electronic devices? Use wired computer rather than wire-less devices whenever possible? Radiation is radiation, regardless of the frequency & wavelength, there is interaction with bio-molecules of all things living & dead (microwave oven (AKA, “radar range”) cooks meat …dis-tastefully at that :-/
    –> Read the LaQuinta Middle School story in the book Dirty Electricity authored by Samuel Milham, MD, MPH…. brilliant epidemiologist physician.
    –> Watch the movie Take Back Your Power 2013 award winning documentary on YouTube.

  2. I agree about the chemicals and modern health problems. I’m not asthmatic, but I once had what seemed like an asthma attack and discovered that it was being caused by a cockroach bait in a closed wardrobe. There was no smell. I’m a painter and years later, the mystery of a disability which left me on crutches was solved ( the metatarsels in one foot had collapsed and the cartlilage was inflamed) when I realised that it was the chemicals used to suppress the odour in turpentine
    That were causing the trouble. Again no odour. I”m absolutely fine with smelly old turps so now, being the canary down the mine that I am with chemicals, I avoid being in a room with oil painters because smelly turps is now illegal in public places! Go figure. Have never dared to use sun block because everything goes into the bloodstream through the skin. I turn up the collar of a long sleeved shirt, wear hat and gardening gloves etc.

  3. Most off the shelf sun screens are petro-chemical bases. Always check the label. Handy hint (If it has benz or zine in the chemical ingredient names then they are carcinogenic ). Most preservatives (210,211,212) are Benzoates. Added to Ascorbic acid and 25 degrees it reconstitutes into Benzine (Petrol).
    Interesting statistic. Skin cancer has been on the rise exponentially since the invention of pink zinc. Hope that helps to enlighten

  4. Astaxanthin is carotenoid that is used by some algae to protect their DNA from the sun. It works for humans too, and like other carontenoids it has many anti-inflammatory effects. Taking astaxanthin affords considerable protection from the sun. I am from New Zealand where the sun UV is exceptionally strong, and the astaxanthin produced here works for me.

  5. Yup. I’m of the lot that wears a T-Shirt to the beach (when not in the water) and sit under the umbrella.. yet, I’m still tan (glare from the sand, most likely). I notice here in Florida a lot of Men are doing that. Women, around here? Not so much – they’re die hard sun & chemical worshipers (no judgment, do what makes you happy).

    I stay away from Chemicals, Bug Repellants, Lotions.. moreso out of laziness and frugality than anything else.. I loathe going to the store and putting money on the counter for anything but groceries.

    Wear a big floppy sun hat, keep your shirt on.. wear sleeves if the bugs are out or the sun is intense and be naturally happy.. or unhappy.. whatever your natural state of being is: just be.

  6. I’ve been living in south east Spain for the past 7 years and lead an outdoor lifestyle, working outside in my garden pretty much every day of the year, or when it’s too hot I take to lying by my pool and swimming. In the past 6 years I haven’t used any sunscreen products at all. Since stopping using sun ‘protection’ I haven’t suffered from any sunburn. Not once!

  7. Another great article. I have stopped using sunscreen 4 years ago – wear long sleeve shirts everyday, a hat that covers ears and back of neck, sunglasses as the sun destroys eyesight, gloves, long trousers…
    It is terrible to see in Australia now, how the primary school kids slap so much of the sunscreen on… so brainwashed they are.. when a good hat (they do have to wear a little hat) and long sleeves is so much better…
    If I go into the water, then I use a long sleeved ‘rashie’ (rash vest) and sunscreen only on neck and nose – this is the only time to use the horrible stuff!

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