Sun and Sunscreen

  • Written by Alex Kraft, ND, L.Ac
We’ve all seen it at least once or twice. That mysterious yellow glowing orb in the sky. We are so seemingly sun deprived that a daytime temperature of 65 can prompt wearing shorts and a tee shirt. And if the weather report says tomorrow is going to be 70 degrees? Yay, summer! Although few days have required sunscreen or even sunglasses so far around here, it’s time to get back in the habit of preventing both the immediate discomfort of sunburn as well as the long term consequences of excessive sun exposure.

Why is that?

As you can tell from the recent population explosions at local parks, beaches and even sidewalks, sunshine is one of nature’s happy pills. Not only does it give us more freedom to spend time outdoors and throw open the windows, but sunshine also stimulates the production of the "happy" brain chemical Serotonin. And if we’re discussing the health benefits of sunshine, who can forget the media star Vitamin D. As most everyone at this point in time is aware, vitamin D is a wonder vitamin in many regards including preventing osteoporosis, reducing wintertime depression and even boosting our immune system. With all these benefits of sunshine, why would we want to squelch that by applying sunscreen?

That’s because for all its health promoting and outdoor activity encouraging effects, sunlight also contains two forms of not so skin-healthy ultraviolet (UV) radiation: UVA and UVB. While both forms of ultraviolet sunlight can contribute to skin cancer, UVB is much more damaging to the skin and is the principle cause of sunburn and skin wrinkles. This is why sunscreen manufacturers have primarily focused on blocking UVB with their products. Skin cancer isn’t the most deadly of cancers, but it is more common than both breast and prostate cancer. By many estimates, several million people in the US will develop skin cancer this year.

While no one who has spent any time in the northwest would advise staying indoors on the infrequent sunny days (when we see that this is one of the most beautiful places on earth), there are several steps you can take to get outside and yet lessen your chances of developing skin cancer.

Ultraviolet light is most intense between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., so limiting direct-sun during this time is ideal. And if you’re going to go out, the National Weather service updates the UV index (amount of UV radiation in a particular area) on their website daily. Most sun exposure occurs on the head and neck, so long sleeved shirts and full brimmed hats are also protective, as is plain old shade. And if you still need to get out there in the sunshine and play, make sure to apply sunscreen frequently.

There are several different brands of sunscreen as well as many different UV blocking ingredients. Recent research has shown that over half of all sunscreens don’t provide UVA protection. Since UVA makes up a greater percentage of the ultraviolet light we are exposed to and still contributes to skin cancer risk, make sure the sunscreen you use provides protection for both UVA and UVB. The best forms of sunscreen on the market, both in terms of UVA and UVB protection and without harmful health effects are mineral sunscreens such as titanium or zinc oxide, or a few non-absorbed chemicals such as Avobenzone at 3 percent or Meroxyl.

Also, try to find a brand whose ingredient list is at least somewhat recognizable and not a major chemical soup. The issue of absorption is important too because some of the active ingredients in more chemical heavy sunscreens are know endocrine disruptors (chemicals which negatively impact hormones) or contain the form of vitamin A known as retinyl palmitate which is currently being studied regarding its possible contribution to skin cancer risk.

And lastly, since a complete review of sunscreens and the benefits/risks are beyond the scope of this article, a great resource for researching which sunscreen to purchase or evaluate the one you currently use is the website for the Environmental Working Group. They rate all the sunscreens in terms of effectiveness and toxicity levels, and there’s even a EWG app!

If your concerns are greater than just sunscreen, please contact your healthcare provider or a practitioner at Health Moves for further assistance.

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