Spring is finally in the air! With temperatures becoming more mild, we are all excited to get outside and soak up some of that warm fuzzy sunshine. Not only does the warmth of the sun feel amazing, but it’s exactly what we need! Vitamin D is an essential vitamin that is synthesized from cholesterol when we are exposed to UV-B rays from the sun. Vitamin D isn’t found in abundance in many foods, therefore sun exposure is one of the best places to get it.
Living in New England, many people report feelings of depression during the winter months, which can be correlated to the lack of sun exposure creating a deficiency in vitamin D. Vitamin D has many roles in the body, acting more as a hormone than it does a vitamin. Some of its many roles include cell growth and modulation, neuromuscular and immune function, reducing inflammation and promoting calcium absorption. The amount we need varies greatly on factors such as fairness of skin, ancestry and diet. We can gauge how much is appropriate by paying attention to the time it takes our skin to turn pink. When we notice this happening, it’s time to seek some shade or cover up.
When it comes to sunscreen and choosing how to best protect ourselves from the risk of developing skin cancer, there are many things to take into consideration. Some important things to note about sun exposure are that there are different kinds of UltraViolet rays. UV-A rays do not make us burn, but increase our risk for skin cancer, creating oxidative damage. Conversely UV-B rays are responsible for turning our skin pink (and then burning if we stay in the song past our limits) but are also the type of rays required for the creation of Vitamin D. UV-B rays tell our bodies to make melanin, which is a powerful antioxidant that also generates the darkening of our skin (affectionately known as a tan). Some people will be happy to hear that a “tan” is actually one of the best forms of sunscreen.
Studies have shown that moderate exposure to sunlight has no correlation to an increased risk of skin cancer. This means that being diligent about removing ourselves from the sun before our skin starts to turn pink (by seeking shade or covering up), therefore generating a base tan slowly over time, is the MOST effective skin protectant. Problems start to occur when we ignore the signals that it’s time to get out of the sun, and instead apply sunscreens that prevent us from burning and allow us to bake in the sun longer. Most typical sunscreens also block UV-B rays (that provide us with Vitamin D), and allow the harmful UV-A rays to penetrate our skin, increasing our risk of oxidative damage.
In addition to blocking the good rays and allowing harmful rays through, many sunscreens contain chemicals and carcinogens (cancer causing agents). Knowing that our skin is a porous organ that absorbs anything we put on it, it’s important that we are feeding our skin and our bodies properly. There are simple ways in which we can help protect our skin from overexposure to sunlight.
First would be through a diet rich in essential fatty acids, that are the building blocks for good cholesterol, and antioxidants like astaxanthin (from salmon), which mitigate oxidative damage. Second would be creating or choosing a brand of sunscreen that does not contain harmful ingredients. There is an app called “Think Dirty. Shop Clean.” that can be used to scan the labels of sunscreens and any skincare product, providing us with a rating based on the number of harmful substances in the product. You can find the link for that app here. Last, and most important, is learning our own personal tolerance for the sun and making sure to remove ourselves before we burn.
Overall, sun exposure is not something to be feared! Without the sun, we wouldn’t be here today. It’s necessary to the life of every plant on our planet, which provide us with the nutrients we need to survive. Enjoy the sunshine for all of it’s health enhancing benefits, but start slow and listen to the signs and signals that it’s had enough for today.