I love the summertime—seriously: Who doesn’t look better with a healthy glow of sun-kissed color? Yet in light of the recent viral photo of a truck driver whose sun-exposed, window-side face showed severe wrinkling, it’s hard not to wonder whether we should head outdoors in a full bodysuit this summer. Alas, could there be a middle ground and can we do it safely?
Quick and dirty guidelines
Sunlight, in reasonable doses, enables natural immunity, promotes skin growth and healing, stimulates hormone production and contributes to an overall sense of well-being. Getting 15 to 20 minutes of sunlight a day enables the body to manufacture vitamin D naturally, and sun is responsible for the synthesis of the pigment melanin, the skin’s natural sunscreen. While you don’t have to be a summer hermit, the key is to be conscious in the sun. Use caution in the sun during peak hours (such as 10am – 4pm) by covering up with light clothing. You can also check the local UV Index at the EPA website.
Should you apply sunscreen?
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Each year, more than 68,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma, and another 48,000 are diagnosed with an early form of the disease that involves only the top layer of skin. Certainly not the recipe for living gorgeous, so with fears of excess wrinkles and skin cancer, what do we do? Over the past 30 years, the number of diagnosed cases of melanoma has increased dramatically, whereas cases of most other cancers are currently on the decline. Surprisingly, during this time the use of sunscreen also increased, leaving researchers wondering if the two may be related. It is not known whether melanoma is caused by exposure to ultraviolet B rays (UVB), ultraviolet A rays (UVA) or both.
How to be sunscreen smart
Another concern is whether the actual ingredients of sunscreen are toxic. Like many cosmetics, you should be prudent when selecting a sunscreen to avoid toxic chemicals. The biggest culprit is retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate and avobenzone. These ingredients have been known to produce skin lesions in the sun (ironically enough), while others can interfere with hormone receptors in our bodies. If you take a look at the back of any sunscreen bottle you will find quite a few items that I have previously recommended that you steer clear of, including parabens (if you don’t believe me, scan through the sunscreens in your local drugstore, right down to the sun-protecting lip balms).
Many sunscreens typically block only the sun’s rays that burn us, the UVB rays, but allow UVA rays to penetrate the skin. These types of sunscreens allow us to stay in the sun longer without burning but result in a high absorption of UVA rays. Exposure to UVA rays may be detrimental in the long term and increase skin cancer risk. To avoid excessive exposure to UVA rays, it is best to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks out both UVA and UVB rays, which is mineral based including zinc and/or titanium. These ingredients are the most stable, and provide protection from the sun without adding to your toxic load. The Environmental Working Group is a great resource for a comprehensive list of recommendations (one of my personal favorites is Colorscience).
What about vitamin D?
Vitamin D is essential for healthy and strong bones. It may also help prevent cancer of the breast, colon and prostate; it assists with the prevention of autoimmune diseases and is also important in the treatment and prevention of insulin resistance. With all these benefits, it’s hard to say no to a little sunshine. Previously it was thought that adequate amounts of vitamin D can be made in the skin after only ten to fifteen minutes of sun exposure at least two times per week to the face, arms, hands, or back without sunscreen (providing the UV index is greater than 3). New research, however, suggests that with increased pollution and the use of stronger sunscreens, more skin exposure for longer periods of time is required to get the vitamin D your body needs. The good news is that the sun is not your only source of vitamin D. I recommend taking 2000 IU to 3,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day in the summer and 3000 to 5000 IU in the winter.
Photo: flickr user Robert S. Donovan