The sun is not the enemy we have been led to believe. The sun is important for many aspects of our health; vitamin D production, boosting the immune system, improving oxygen content in the blood, lowering blood pressure, improving skin conditions, lowering risk for depression, and improving mood.
But of course too much of it, especially when it burns the skin, can be a problem. In order to protect your skin from the summer sun though what do most of us do? Slather on chemically-laden sunscreens. I don’t believe this is the best answer. Even when it comes to skin cancer, the relationship isn’t as straightforward as we think.
Sunlight is made up of UVA and UVB rays. The UVB rays are the ones responsible for vitamin D production and tanning of the skin. The UVA rays on the other hand are the rays more closely tied with skin damage and cancer. UVB light is actually protective against melanoma, the most fatal form of skin cancer.
According to a 2004 study in the Lancet, “outdoor workers have a decreased risk of melanoma compared with indoor workers, suggesting that chronic sunlight exposure can have a protective effect.” So where does this leave us? It leaves us with learning how to create a balance between getting a good amount of healthy sun exposure while protecting our skin from the dangers of too much sun.
We’ve already talked about the role our food choices play. When we load up on the good stuff; antioxidants, healthy fats, and SPF boosting foods we help to counter the free-radical damage caused by too much sun exposure and lessen the chances of us burning & causing damage.
We also need to take external protective measures. One of the first ways to do this is to be mindful of your sun exposure. Start with small amounts at the beginning of summer and gradually increase the time your skin is exposed to the sun. This gives your skin a chance to get used to the sun, produce more melanin to protect your skin, and minimize the chance of redness or burning. Here are some other ways you can increase your external protection.
- Wearing a Wide Brimmed Hat to protect the skin of your face, neck, and chest.
- Wearing Sunglasses to protect your eyes and the delicate skin around your eyes.
- Wearing Loose Fitting and Light Clothing to protect the rest of your body when you have to be outside and in the sun for longer stretches of time. Materials like linen or 100% cotton are best to cover the skin but still breathe and keep you cool.
- Stay in the Shade and Out of the Sun when the sun is at its hottest. Depending on where you live this is generally between noon and 3pm.
- Using Safer Sunscreens when needed. There are still times when you may need to add a sunscreen. Thankfully you don’t have to go straight to the chemicals. There are many more natural versions now available. The Environmental Working Group updates their list annually of safer sunscreens and is definitely my go-to for all things non-toxic. In general, mineral based sunscreens offer the best non-chemical option; zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.
Take Home Message
The most important take home message is that the sun is an integral part of your health. Humans have evolved to live and work and be outside, in natural sunlight.
Spending our lives inside, in front of screens, and under artificial light likely causes more damage to our health than spending too much time outside.
That said, there are steps you can take to get the benefits of healthy sun exposure while still minimizing the risks for burning, premature aging, and skin cancer. Do what you can to protect your skin both from the inside and outside and enjoy that lovely summer sun!