It’s almost summer and the sun is shining! Oh, wait…is the sun good for us or should we shy away from it? Or more importantly, should we enjoy the sun with or without sunscreen? This is a very, very, VERY controversial topic, and a decision that each of us needs to make individually. There are many factors to consider: Vitamin D absorption, free radical damage, cancer risk, painful sunburns…etc.
Vitamin D Absorption
Article after article in all of the top news sources are exclaiming the benefits of Vitamin D and the hazards of a Vitamin D deficiency. Only a few years ago the only problem with a lack of Vitamin D was a chance of rickets, but we have now linked a Vitamin D deficiency to MS, lowered immune function, and cancer. Vitamin D supplementation has SKYROCKETED over the last few years due to all of these new studies.
The sun is our body’s favourite way of absorbing Vitamin D. 15 minutes in the sun with your arms and face exposed will allow most of us to absorb 10,000 IU of Vitamin D (check your supplement, you’re probably only getting 1000 IU). A sunscreen with an SPF of 8 or above reduces our Vitamin D absorption by 95%. So, if we wear sunscreen daily, it would take 3 ½ – 5 hours of sun exposure to absorb the same amount of Vitamin D. I think it’s quite obvious that the push from the media to slather on the sunscreen has created a societal deficiency in Vitamin D.
Actually, this has been seen in Australia as well. Recent studies found that those who followed the successful "Slip-Slop-Slap" health campaign, encouraging Australians to cover up when exposed to sunlight to prevent skin cancer, had an increased risk of Vitamin D deficiency. And ironically, a Vitamin D deficiency is linked to a higher risk of many cancers, including melanoma.
Free Radical Damage
Sunburn is a sign of free radical damage…and for many of us it’s a very painful sign. Free radical damage can lead to early aging of the skin and possibly skin cancer, which is the main reason we wear sunscreen and why it’s in most cosmetics. BUT! What is usually forgotten is the free radical damage created by the very sunscreens we wear to prevent free radical damage!
A study published in October 2006 found that the three main sunscreen ingredients, octocrylene, octylmethoxycinnamate, and benzophenone-3 (once the sunscreen chemicals had time to absorb into the skin) create an increase in free radical damage which was higher for the sunscreen user than for the non-user. Such an increase in free radicals might increase the chance of melanoma.
This topic is still out for debate – do sunscreens prevent more cancers than they may directly, or indirectly cause?
A Vitamin D deficiency can be solved by taking a supplement, although absorption through the skin is best, but what about the other issues with sunscreen?
On top of the free radical damage caused by some of these chemicals, an uncommon nugget of knowledge is that many sunscreen ingredients become carcinogenic when exposed to sunlight (what?). Yup, many of the sunscreens on the market contain chemicals that once you slap it on and go outside, start to degrade and damage DNA. In North America, all new sunscreen ingredients must be tested for their photocarcinogenic effects, but as of 2008, most sunscreens on the market still contained known photocarcinogenic chemicals due to a grandfather clause.
Since 1% - 10% of the chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed into the skin, we need to take a very careful look at what we slather onto our skin. To add fuel to the controversy, in August 2007 the United States Food and Drug Administration tentatively concluded, "The available evidence fails to show that sunscreen use alone prevents skin cancer.”
Well...now what do I do?
- Protect Yourself - Slowly work up your body’s own protection to the sun, a tan. Slowly work up the amount of time you spend in the sun until you have the protection you need.
- Internal Sunscreen – Fight against free radical damage (either from the sun or from your sunscreen) with antioxidants. These are found in the skins of colourful berries, fruits, and vegetables. Before going outside have a big, colourful salad or a blueberry smoothie
- Vitamin D – If you’re concerned about your Vitamin D status, get a blood test from your doctor. Since it’s a fat-soluble vitamin, you can create toxic levels when supplementing. Interestingly, that won’t happen by absorbing it through your skin. Once your body has created enough Vitamin D from the sun, your skin will use the sun to destroy any excess. I love our body’s self regulating mechanisms :).
- Look at the ingredients – If you feel you need sunscreen (otherwise you’ll get a very painful burn), be sure to read the ingredients. Go to the Environmental Working Group’s website for a list of sunscreens they have tested to be safe and free of known carcinogens. www.ewg.org.
The most important thing to remember this summer is – Get OUTSIDE and enjoy the summer while it’s still here!