I’ve gotten into my fair share of friendly discussions with friends and family members about sun exposure. Aside from the many myths and falsities surrounding which foods are and aren’t healthy to consume, this seems to be one of the most widely misunderstood and debated topics out there.
The sun has garnered a pretty a bad wrap in the last decade or so. We are taught to avoid it at all costs. And if we really must venture out into the sun’s dangerous rays of death, we are taught to slather sunscreen all over ourselves so that no patch of skin remains exposed — or risk the possibility of developing skin cancer.
The media has demonized and scrutinized the sun more than Miley Cyrus, turning us into a bunch of overly cautious solar-phobes.
But with sun protection awareness and sunscreen use at an all-time high, one would think that skin cancer rates have declined. Nope. Not even close. On the contrary, skin cancer rates have skyrocketed in recent years, despite people spending more and more time indoors.
So what gives? Where are the gaps in the conventional “wisdom” that we’ve been fed surrounding sun exposure?
Top 5 Sun Exposure Misconceptions
- #1: You don’t need sun exposure to be healthy. Baloney! Getting adequate amounts of sunlight (for your skin type) is a vital piece of achieving an optimal level of health. And one of the most important benefits it offers is Vitamin D — proven to positively affect everything from happiness level to blood pressure. Low levels of Vitamin D were linked to a higher likelihood of dying from cancer and heart disease in two major recent studies.
Because exposure to sunlight accounts for 90% of most individuals’ Vitamin D intake, it’s no wonder that 41.6% of adults in the U.S. are deficient in this important vitamin — we aren’t getting anywhere near the amount of sun that we need!
In addition to providing us with cancer-fighting Vitamin D, the sun’s UVB rays also produce melanin. Melanin acts as an antioxidant and protects us from sun damage by scattering solar radiation across the surface of our skin.
But there’s a catch. We’re only able to produce certain amounts of melanin (that vary from person to person) at a time — if time spent in the sun exceeds melanin’s ability to protect us, sun damage or sunburn will occur. The upside? It’s possible to take in all of the sun’s natural health benefits without incurring any sort of damage. Individuals with darker skin require greater amounts of sun exposure to get enough Vitamin D, while fair-skinned individuals often times only need a few minutes of sunlight at a time to get adequate levels!
- #2: Sunscreen will protect you from sun damage. This might be the worst (and most harmful) myth of them all. Yes — sunscreen is great at blocking the UVB rays that cause us to burn (and produce cancer-fighting Vitamin D). But it does almost nothing to protect against the UVA rays that penetrate much deeper than UVB rays, damaging skin cell membranes and the DNA inside. And sunscreens that claim to protect against both UVB and UVA rays simply can’t be trusted. According to Liz Wolfe in her book Eat the Yolks,
So-called broad-spectrum sunscreens, which claim to protect against both UVB and UVA rays, attempt to combine SPF-based UVB protection with chemicals meant to absorb or disperse UVA rays. However, the Environmental Working Group cautions that broad-spectrum sunscreens sold in the United States are protected according to FDA criteria that are “the weakest in the modern world.” In Europe, broad spectrum sunscreens must provide UVA protection at least one-third as potent as its UVB protection. In the United States, not a single broad-spectrum sunscreen meets even this minimally effective criterion.
Sunscreen provides us with a false sense of protection by blocking UVB rays (sparing us the temporary discomfort of sunburns) while letting UVA rays penetrate deep into our skin to do the more serious, lasting damage. Sunburns aren’t necessarily the enemy here. Our bodies are equipped with mechanisms to alert us when enough is enough of any given thing. In this case, our skin’s ability to burn is a warning signal for us to get out of the sun.
And sunscreen gets in the way of that.
Yet, we’ve been told over and over that using it is the healthy and smart thing to do. So without giving it much thought, we spray ourselves and our children down in misty clouds of chemicals before spending hours upon hours in the sun (and reapplying every 60 minutes, of course). When instead, we should be practicing responsible sun exposure by covering up or retreating to the shade/indoors when our bodies have had enough (more on that later).
- #3: Sunscreen is 100% safe to use. A few years ago, Banana Boat recalled a number of their popular spray-on sunscreens due to, “the potential risk of product igniting on the skin if contact is made with a source of ignition before the product is completely dry.” In other words, people were literally catching on fire when they used it.
This is an extreme example. But it does point to the fact that many of the chemicals used in conventional sunscreen are harsh and dangerous. Retinyl Palmitate (a chemical known to cause reproductive toxicity and increase the growth rate of skin tumors) is practically a staple in most sunscreens. Oxybenzone (another common ingredient in sunscreen) is equally destructive, causing hormone disruption and allergic reactions. These harmful ingredients play no part in offering any sort of real sun protection to the user.
- #4: What you eat does not affect how your body reacts to the sun. Rates of skin cancer (as well as other cancers and diseases) have risen dramatically in the past few decades, “coincidentally” coinciding with the SAD (Standard American Diet) evolving to include more processed foods, an increased use of chemical additives, and a higher consumption of Omega-6 fats like vegetable oil.
Since taking up a paleo/primal type of diet 3 years ago, sunburns have become a rare occurrence for me (and it wasn’t always that way). Real, natural, and unprocessed foods can do wonders in terms of allowing the skin to burn less and tan better. The following three basic tips can also help to improve the way our bodies respond to the sun:
1) Consume more Omega-3 and less Omega-6: Healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil are essential to our skin’s tissue regeneration abilities. When these healthy Omega-3 fat sources are not available in our bodies, highly processed Omega-6 fats (canola oil, soybean oil, etc.) will be used instead — potentially leading to cancerous mutations.
2) Stay away from grains: Grains cause more inflammation in the body than just about anything. Inflammation is known to contribute to the development of cancer. ‘Nuff said.
3) Eat more antioxidants: Antioxidant-rich foods (like berries and dark chocolate) reduce inflammation in the body. Individuals who don’t consume grains and chemical-laden processed foods on a regular basis will have less inflammation to fight off in the first place, but can still benefit from a diet rich in nutrient-dense antioxidants that help to fight against and prevent cancer-causing free radicals.
- #5: BUT WHAT ABOUT THE TRUCKER!?
It always comes back to the trucker. The picture above shows the face of a man who spent many years driving a delivery truck. The sun-facing side of his face clearly shows an abundance of wrinkles, while the other side appears to be in much better shape. This image has been widely used (and often abused) by dermatologists and sunscreen enthusiasts alike as ammo to encourage society to “wear sunscreen constantly,” as suggested by this article in the Huffington Post.
But here’s the thing. We’ve already established that overexposure to UVA rays can cause serious skin damage at the DNA level (while UVB rays cause temporary sunburns but also offer many health benefits). There’s no denying that. But similar to how most sunscreens only protect against UVB rays, the same is true for car windows.
This driver’s car windows were more than likely blocking the UVB rays that would have triggered a sunburn. Without ever getting a sunburn to clue him in, this driver probably had no idea that any sort of UVA-induced sun damage was taking place. Had his windows let UVB rays in as well as UVA rays, he would have also reaped the benefits of Vitamin D and Melanin. It’s a harrowing picture, but the facts behind it present more of a case for responsible sun exposure than anything.
A Smarter Approach to Sun Exposure
I am in no way suggesting that we should practice any sort of wreckless sun worshiping. I am, however, against living in fear of something that offers so many health benefits (and makes us happy). So instead of erring on either extreme, let’s try to be responsible about this whole thing.
Our bodies are much smarter than we give them credit for. It’s time we started listening to them! When we see or feel ourselves starting to burn (and hopefully before that happens), it’s probably a good idea to get out of the sun. Go inside, retreat to the shade, or cover up with a hat or some other article of clothing. For those who have fair skin or aren’t used to getting much sun, take it slow. There’s no need to force an overexposure that could potentially result in serious damage.
It doesn’t take long to learn how much sun your body will be able to handle at a time. Like I said earlier, it may only be a few minutes. Or it may be a few hours — this varies for everyone.
For days when there’s no getting around spending hours upon hours in the sun (family beach days, long hikes, etc.), choose a sunscreen that doesn’t contain dangerous chemicals. My natural DIY sunscreen recipe contains non-nano Zinc oxide (which protects against UVA rays as well as UVB) and other safe ingredients.
Non-nano (or non-micronized) Zinc oxide is made from particles that are too large to be absorbed into the skin and ultimately into the bloodstream — but still offer excellent broad spectrum protection. The downside? Because of the larger particles, it can leave a white pasty film on the skin — not such a bad price to pay in my opinion! Because Zinc oxide blocks virtually EVERYTHING, it also (unfortunately) blocks the cancer-fighting Vitamin D in UVB rays from penetrating the skin — which is why I only use it when I’m outside for extended periods of time.
What’s your stance on sun exposure? What tips and tricks have/haven’t worked for you? Let me know!