Deflecting the Sun: Avoiding Nutritious Light
Avoiding Sunlight is a Recipe for Nutrient Deficiency
As we cross the season of the summer sun, common sense suggests that we pay greater attention to protecting our skin. Yet, there are questions about the best way to do this. Should we avoid the sun? Is all sun exposure bad for us? Are all sunscreens created equal? Does clothing afford any protection?
On one hand, we’ve all been warned of the dangers that lurk behind those golden tans, like an increased risk of skin cancer and wrinkles. On the other hand, there is evidence that sun exposure does not cause melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. In fact, there are studies that demonstrate sun exposure can actually protect us from cancer. The exposure to UVB radiation has been shown to reduce the risk of 19 major types of cancer through the production of vitamin D.
Remember that our ancestors lived naked in the sun for several million years. We evolved in equatorial Africa where the sun, shining directly overhead, supplies inhabitants with year round Ultra-Violet-B (UVB) photons for making vitamin D. Our ancestors absorbed much higher doses of sunlight and corresponding vitamin D compared to most humans today, especially in the US. Around 50,000 years ago, a mutation supposedly occurred that is responsible for the appearance of white skin in humans. White skin has less melanin and synthesizes vitamin D from sunlight much faster than dark skin. Theoretically, people possessing this mutation were able to migrate north and south to places with less sun.
Then we began wearing clothes, started working indoors and living where buildings blocked the sun. Then we started traveling in cars instead of walking or riding horses, and glass blocked even more of the UVB in sunlight. When we were children we were told that sunshine was great and that we needed the sun to be healthy. We were always encouraged to go out and play in the sun. Then, only a few years ago, we started being told that be needed to actively avoid the sun and if we had to go outdoors, to put on sunblock. All this time humans have been steadily reducing the tissue levels of one of the most important nutrients, and the most important steroid hormone in the body. The really significant reductions in sunlight exposure have occurred since the industrial revolution, coinciding with greatly increase in diseases like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.
Ultra-Violet Radiation: The Risks and Rewards
There are two types of ultra-violet radiation waves. Ultra-violet A (UVA) rays are known to cause cancer. It also destroys collagen and vitamin D on the skin and causes many of the skin problems associated with UV rays. Ultra-violet B rays produce vitamin D when it makes contact with skin.
Sunblock and Sunscreens: Nutrient Blockers
Most people use the terms sunblock and sunscreen interchangeably. However, they are not the same. Sunscreens absorb ultraviolet light so that it doesn’t reach your skin. On the other hand, sunblock physically blocks the sun’s UV rays. Although they work well, they are messy, and you can see it on your skin so it is used less frequently. Sunblock has the added benefit over sunscreen of blocking UVA rays, in addition to UVB rays. It should be noted that many experts reject usage of the term “sunblock” because none of the products actually block all of the sun’s rays. Also, unfortunately many products are labeled as being sunblock, but are actually just sunscreen. Furthermore, many sunscreens do not provide the UVA protection that they claim on their packaging. Nor are they actually waterproof or contain the SPF level they advertise. The FDA continues to postpone its regulating of sunscreen companies and their claims. No Federal Agency is verifying that any particular sunscreen works. Same for lip balms and moisturizers with an SPF label. There are sunscreens that supposedly block UVA rays, including those with aveobenzone, oxybenzone, and octocrylene. However, some of these chemicals may do more harm than good.
Most sunscreen products in the United States are formulated to block the essential UVB rays while allowing the harmful UVA rays to penetrate the skin. (Newer sunscreen lotions also block out UVA.) Sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 8 or higher appear to block most UVB rays. The FDA so far has failed to finalize UVA standards for sunscreen. In direct contrast, standards in the EU, Japan and Australia require that sunscreens protect the skin from damaging UVA rays. Also, in contrast to the FDA’s blanket advice to stay out of the sun between 10a.m. to 4p.m., and the American Academy of Dermatology’s advice to avoid intentional sunlight exposure for any length of time, the American Medical Association (AMA) recommends 10 minutes of sun exposure before applying sunscreen to give the skin time to make vitamin D. Sunscreens can prevent sunburns and other skin problems but does nothing to prevent skin cancer (melanoma).
In fact, since sunscreens block UVB rays (which prevents cancer) and allows the harmful UVA rays (which cause cancer and destroy vitamin D), it can be said that the use of sunscreens may actually increase one’s chances of getting cancer. The statistics seem to back this up. Since sunscreen products entered the consumer market over a few decades ago, the incidence of skin cancer has actually risen. Also, skin cancers often show up on areas that have not been damaged by the sun. This suggests that sunlight exposure is not the only factor in skin cancer. In fact, skin cancer in the United States appears to be largely related to the over-abundance of omega-6 oils consumed. When sunlight hits these fats it can convert them into cancer causing molecules, and if not healthy, cancer can develop. This cancerous transformation does not happen with omega-3 fats. So, changing the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 oils in your diet is one of the key ways to prevent this.
Furthermore, 3 out of the 5 major chemical ingredients in sunblock are absorbed into the skin directly into systemic circulation. This means that it is ingested through your skin. The result is similar to what would happen if one were to drink sunblock. Not that eaing sunscreen has been proven to be harmful but it is not recommended for obvious reasons. The FDA only checks to see that it blocks UV rays and they do not bother to check if ingredients in sunblock have trans-dermal properties or its implications when it enters systemic circulation.
Recently, The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization with the mission of using the power of public information to protect public health and the environment, came out with a fairly disconcerting report about sunscreens. EWG researchers recommended only 39 of 500 (that’s only 8 percent) beach and sport sunscreens for this season. The reason? As the word got out that the higher the SPF the better, there was a surge among manufacturers misrepresenting that their products contained an SPF over 50. Additionally, there have been new disclosures addressing potentially hazardous ingredients. In particular, recent government data has linked the common sunscreen ingredient vitamin A to accelerated development of skin tumors and lesions.
According to EWG, the best sunscreen is a hat and a shirt. No worries about chemicals that will be absorbed through the skin, and no question about their effectiveness. But if you choose to wear a “teenie weenie yellow polka dotted bikini,” or any clothing that provides only partial skin coverage, EWG suggests using sunscreens that provide broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB-sunburn) protection, as well as those that contain fewer hazardous chemicals.
In an effort to make a wise decision regarding which sunscreen to purchase, many consumers look for The Skin Cancer Foundation’s “seal of approval.” However, this shouldn’t be the sole criteria you use to make a purchasing decision. According to the EWG, The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) lends its logo to hundreds of sun protection products that have not necessarily been thoroughly scrutinized. Before purchasing a sunscreen, consult with a website such as www.ewg.org to ensure you are purchasing a product that is both safe and effective.
It’s important that we all try to get 10-20 minutes of unprotected sun-to-skin exposure every day while making sure you don’t get burned. This is essential for meeting our most basic needs for Vitamin D. Once this is taken care of, it is recommended to use both physical protection like hats, clothing and umbrellas, as well as topical protection like coconut oil or safe sunscreens. However, it must be mentioned that many sunscreens on the market today have come under fire not only due to inaccurate labeling (a product states it has an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 50 and it’s actually a four) but many have been found to contain a host of controversial chemicals that include potential carcinogens, cancer promoters, free radical generators and hormone disruptors. In addition, the use of sunscreen is known to reduce the production of Vitamin D in the body.
Make every effort to avoid burning your skin. There is sufficient data to know that sun burns cause serious, long-term damage. It is important to stress that it is important to avoid getting sunburned and should only implement sun exposure gradually. While we all benefit from regular exposure to the sun, it is important to recognize that you should always limit exposure to avoid getting burnt. Sunburn has been clearly related to an increased risk of skin cancer. Interestingly though, if you avoid getting sunburned yet have regular sun exposure, you will have a decreased risk of melanoma. Optimizing your sun exposure in this way also reduces your risk of 16 other cancers.
Still, people have a tendency to focus on the negative rather than the positives, and continue to frighten others about sun exposure. Humans were all designed to have regular sun exposure. It is very similar to water. Just because you can drown while swimming does not mean that you should avoid drinking water or not swim in it. As long as you avoid sun exposure that will cause burning, it will help improve your health.
Sunlight provides an essential nutrient, vitamin D, that should not be blocked. Furthermore, the whole point of sunscreens was based on the fear of melanoma skin cancers caused by sunlight. However, now that science has shown that sunlight is not a major cause in the development of melanoma, the whole reason for the existence of sunscreen products must be questioned. They could be useful for preventing sunburns and other skin irritations but that could easily be accomplished with clothing and natural products like pure coconut oil. Pure coconut oil is a great natural tan enhancer and sunscreen. It used to be commonly available but has seemingly been replaced with synthetic versions that are more toxic.
Nature gave up all the tools we need to protect our bodies and our skin. Do we really need or want synthetic chemicals to replace the time-tested modes of protection that have no side effects?