In recent years, the sun has been portrayed as a villain. Any exposure is considered unhealthy and we should do everything we can to protect ourselves from this cancer causing enemy.
In reality, when you look at both current clinical studies and traditional forms of healing, the sun is beneficial to our health in many ways. The sun’s production of vitamin D in our skin is the major source of this important vitamin in our bodies. The sun also prevents depression and benefits many skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and acne. But, unfortunately, too much of a good thing can have a negative effect. Sunburns and overexposure to the sun have been shown to cause skin cancer and speed up the effects of aging of our skin.
Like most health topics, the use of sunscreen to prevent skin cancer is not as simple as the sun screen manufacturers would like us to believe. Advertisements everywhere are designed to make us believe that preventing skin cancer is as easy as lathering on sunscreen every time we go into the sun. Unfortunately sunscreen has some drawbacks.
Sunscreen blocks the production of Vitamin D in our bodies. Healthy vitamin D levels are actually protective against many forms of cancer, including some skin cancers. The only way our bodies can get appreciable levels of vitamin D (aside from supplements) is from the sun.
The sun emits two different types of ultraviolet radiation which are known to impact our health – UVA & UVB. Most sunscreens only block UVB and offer little protection against UVA. UVB is the type of sun rays that cause burning. Sunburn can be considered our bodies’ natural way of telling us we have had a little too much sun. Sunscreen overrides this protective mechanism and ends up increasing our exposure to UVA. UVA is considered by many to be the more dangerous form of ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Sunscreen manufacturers have not yet developed a reliable way to measure the level of UVA protection in sunscreen so the label ‘broad spectrum protection’ is not very reliable yet.
Sunscreen should not be our first line of defense against skin cancer and the negative effects of the sun on our skin. Sensible sun exposure includes exposing yourself to the sun, but not getting a sun burn. The time it takes to burn varies and includes factors such as time of day, location (reflection off water and sand will cause you to burn quicker) and skin color (lighter skin burns more quicker). When you feel you have had enough sun and burning may be imminent, cover up. Use hats, shirts, long skirts, pants or shade.
When necessary, use sunscreen to prevent a sunburn but realize that according to the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org/skindeep/) many of the ingredients in sunscreens may contribute to skin cancer. For example, retinyl palmitate, a derivative of vitamin A and a common ingredient in sunscreens, may speed up the development of skin cancer on sun- exposed skin. Every year the EWG produces a Sunscreen Guide with details on the best (and worst) sunscreens of the year. Go to their website and type in your favorite sunscreen to see where it stands.
A good brand of sunscreen that I use is Badger. Most of their products get the best rating possible from the Environmental Working Group. Instead of using a chemical to block the sun, these sunscreens use zinc which acts as a physical barrier to the sun.
Bottom line – appreciate that the sun is beneficial and essential to our health and well-being. Enjoy moderate amounts of sunshine on exposed skin for its health promoting qualities. But respect the sun’s power and its potential to harm if overdone. Use caution when spending time in the sun, avoid burning and use sunscreen when absolutely necessary but realize that it may not be protecting you as much as you think!
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