I know I might be a little late in writing about proper “sun care”: it is August, after all. But for a topic as important as this, I figure it’s “better late than never.”
I’ve touched upon the need for Vitamin D in the past. You may recall that here in the U.S. we are facing an epidemic number of vitamin D-deficient people. Why? Because we have been taught as a nation to avoid the sun at all costs, due to the increased risk of skin cancer and also the skin-damaging effects of long-term sun exposure. It is my purpose here to address the need for some safe sun exposure and also to provide information on safe sun protection.
First, it is important to note that humans have evolved to synthesize their vitamin D through a reaction that takes place on the skin after exposure to sunlight. Why do we need vitamin D? Vitamin D is needed in the body to aid in calcium absorption in the digestive tract. Without it, calcium is not absorbed. The calcium that is needed by the body for normal maintenance of the heart and nervous system must then be taken from the body’s calcium bank, the bones, leading to a greater potential for osteoporosis and fractures. Studies also show that adequate levels of vitamin D reduce the risk of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, and many cancers such as breast, prostate and colon cancers.
So how much sun do we need? According to Dr. Michael Holick, the man responsible for the majority of the research done on vitamin D, that depends on ethnicity, time of year, and geographic location. Typically for New Jersey’s latitude, that might amount to 10-20 minutes of sun exposure 2-3 times a week if you are Caucasian, much longer for darker-skinned populations. It should be just long enough to cause the skin to become mildly pink. And that’s without sunscreen: even a sunscreen of SPF8 reduces the synthesis of vitamin D by 95%, according to Dr. Holick. In the fall and winter months, oral supplementation with 1000 IU of Vitamin D3 everyday will ensure you are getting what you need. Ask your doctor to check a vitamin D level when you go for your next bloodwork.
Speaking of sunscreen, I want to suggest to you that not all sunscreens are created equal, at least not as far as safety goes. Sun protection falls into one of two categories- sunscreens and sunblocks. Sunscreens absorb and deflect the sun’s UVA and UVB rays through the use of chemical reactions. They typically contain one or more chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone (Parsol 1789), octisalate, and Padimate O. Physical sunblocks create a physical barrier against the sun’s rays, reflecting and scattering both UVA and UVB rays. These blocks include minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—think of the old-fashioned “nose kote”. Newer varieties of these blocks have done away with the whitish goo, and these minerals are also less likely to sting the eyes and cause allergic reactions. There are safety concerns with some of the chemicals in sunscreens including oxybenzone, which in lab testing has been shown to behave like estrogen, making cancer cells grow more rapidly. For this reason, (and for future possible reasons!), I recommend avoiding chemical sunscreens in favor of the more natural sunblocks, especially for children.
There are several companies that make chemical-free sunblocks such as Jason and Alba Organics. Some of them still leave a chalky residue on the skin which I personally do not care for. I have found a product made by DDF (Doctor’s Dermatologic Formula) called Organic Sun Protection SPF 30 which is a light cream that leaves no stickiness or residue. It can be found at http://www.ddfskincare.com . Another company that is recommended by Dr. Joel Furhman, MD is a German company called Lavera. They can be found at http://www.lavera.com .
As with many things in life, moderation is key. We are not meant to live in darkness, but rather need a bit of sun to feel good, look alive and manufacture vitamin D. And when enough is enough, slather on the chemical-free sunscreen and don your wide-brimmed hat!
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