Summer is here, which means the topic of sun exposure always comes up and there is always so much confusion about it. It’s similar to the saturated fat subject – most people believe we should all avoid it like the plague – when, in fact, it is incredibly important for our health. So is sunshine.
We really should be worshiping the sun, not vilifying it. It is crucial for health and life. We know that it is necessary for causing plants to grow and for maintaining life on this planet, but it is also vital for our bodies directly.
Sun exposure on bare skin causes our bodies to generate Vitamin D – a critically important nutrient which the body gets best from direct sunlight. A lack of Vit D has been associated with falls, fractures, cancer, autoimmune dysfunction, cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
Unfortunately, according to estimates, half of all people around the world are deficient in vitamin D and therefore at increased risk for serious and potentially fatal conditions. So, I want to stress this: moderate and natural exposure to the sun is incredibly important to our health.
Obviously, OVER exposure to the sun – or the use of tanning beds (just don’t) – is not a good idea as it can cause photo-aging and DNA damage that can lead to cancer. But DO get moderate sun exposure. And every day if possible.
How do we get over-exposed to the sun? BY WEARING SUNSCREEN!
Yes, you heard that. Sunscreens (mostly made of industrial chemicals) block our bodies’ natural burning signals, which are there to tell us we’ve had enough sun and when it’s time to find some shade. Getting slightly pink is the sign we have generated enough Vit D and should cover up. When we are wearing sunscreen, this doesn’t happen so we feel like we can stay out in the sun longer, thus causing the real damage to our skin. Never mind all the chemical exposure from the sunscreens.
As you can see in the following graph, people using more sunscreen than ever and yet the rate of skin cancer has increased dramatically over the last 50 years:
Sunscreen is NOT the answer and here’s why:
The sun’s rays consist of UVA and UVB rays. Excessive exposure to UVB rays cause the skin to burn, but moderate exposure to these rays produces Vit D which is good and is actually protective towards cancer.
Excessive exposure to UVA rays causes photo aging and DNA damage which is bad and can lead to cancer and skin damage. These are the really harmful rays.
Sunscreens block UVB rays, NOT most of the really damaging UVA rays. And because we don’t burn (as a result of blocking the UVB rays), we stay out in the sun way past safe exposure. We are also not producing any cancer-fighting Vitamin D because all the beneficial UVB rays are blocked, so this means we’re are way more susceptible to develop skin damage and eventually cancer.
In simple terms, when you use sunscreen you are in essence letting in the “bad” light, and blocking out the “good” light.
So, although it may be counter intuitive, the burning function of the UVB rays actually is protective. Most of us are smart enough to find cover well before this point, so we are only going to get the beneficial exposure.
So how do we make the most of the sun safely?
- Get enough Vitamin D! This is almost a chicken and egg situation, but adequate levels of Vitamin D have been shown to protect the skin against sun damage.
- Eat foods that contain Lycopene (found in tomatoes). This has been shown to protect the skin against sun damage.
- Cut down on Omega 6 fatty acids and make sure you’re getting plenty of Omega 3 fatty acids. A recent study showed that people with higher levels of DHA and EPA had the least “cutaneous p53 expression” which has been linked to melanoma. We should also know by now that we should be striving for as close a ratio of Omega 3:6 as possible.
- Eat plenty of saturated fat. This study showed that a diet higher in saturated fats was protective whereas a diet high in PUFAs (Polyunsaturated fats) was not.
- Drink green tea. In addition to it’s high anti-oxidant content, the polyphenols in tea have been shown to inhibit the development of skin tumors.
- Read more here.
If you are going to wear suncream – make it a sun BLOCK instead. This is a cream that contains natural minerals which provide a physical block of the sun’s rays and can be useful if we need to be out in the sun for longer periods of time. It is still not as effective as wearing a hat or finding a spot in the shade!