Summer sun and skincare can be a polarizing topic in the health world. There are extreme opinions on all sides – Never walk out of the house without your sunscreen! Never wear sunscreen!
The world of skincare and smart sun exposure can be confusing to navigate. Too much and too little sun exposure both pose risks. My hope is to provide you with balanced, approachable, and practical information which you can use to make an informed decision on what’s best for you and your family.
Let’s start with learning a little more about the types of sun rays as well as the benefits and drawbacks of each.
The sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) rays, which ultimately facilitate both positive and negative chain reactions.
UVA rays have a longer wavelength and penetrate deeply into the skin. UVA rays are responsible for most of the serious negative effects we associate with sun exposure – skin aging, damage to cell DNA, and even cancer.
UVB rays are shorter in wavelength and therefore do not penetrate as deeply. They are responsible for skin reddening and burning. UVB rays are also the most effective at facilitating the production of Vitamin D in the body.
It’s important to know that even if you do not get sunburn, you can still suffer sun damage – even at the DNA level – due to the sun. Also, note that many sunscreens are protective from only or mostly UVB rays but not from the more dangerous UVA rays.
Sun exposure risks:
Sun exposure benefits:
It’s important to understand the relationship between skin cancer and the sun as well as differentiate between types of skin cancers.
Nonmelanoma skin cancers including basal and squamous cell carcinomas are often due to UV radiation damage via long-term sun exposure and/or tanning beds. These types of skin cancers are usually not life-threatening, especially if caught early. Squamous cell carcinomas can grow deeper into the skin and spread to other parts of the body if left untreated.
Melanoma is the third most common skin cancer and the most difficult to treat. It is actually more associated with hormonal imbalance than sun exposure. It is linked with high estrogen levels, and it’s often found on non-sun-exposed parts of the body.
When it comes to best practices for safe sun exposure, I like to stay away from absolutes such as “never wear sunscreen” or “always wear sunscreen.”
Instead, I encourage clients to take it on a case-by-case basis. Consider how long you’ll be in the sun, what time of day, genetic predispositions, tone of skin, whether or not you’ve been in the sun leading up to that point, etc.
I believe firmly in increasing your skin’s resilience to the sun. This can be done interiorly through the foods you eat (or don’t eat!) as well as topically via sunscreen or clothing, etc.
Here are a few ways I encourage clients to increase sun tolerance and resilience:
I am a big fan of non-toxic sunscreen, just not all the time. Sunscreen blocks the UVB rays that are responsible for stimulating Vitamin D production. Constant use of sunscreen can lead to not enough Vitamin D in the body.
My other main concern with sunscreen is that most formulations are filled with toxic chemicals, carcinogens, fragrances, endocrine disruptors, and more. In fact, the aluminum in many sunscreens may even lead to oxidative damage in the skin, which can actually increase the risk of cancer.
Additionally as mentioned above, many sunscreens are highly protective of UVB rays (which cause sunburns) but not of the UVA rays, which are the more dangerous cancer-causing sun rays! This is why I am against sunscreen that has unbalanced UVB/UVA protection. Pro tip, always go for a broad spectrum mineral sunscreen.
Here is what I stay away from when it comes to sunscreen:
Here is what I look for:
Here are a few favorite brands:
While you cannot eat your way to complete sun protection, you can certainly strengthen your skin’s resilience to the sun and improve your tolerance.
Safe sun exposure is a nuanced topic. The relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer risk is not purely cause and effect. There are so many other factors including genes, skin type, diet, “dose” and timing of sun exposure, and more. I hope the information above gives you a solid footing when making decisions for yourself and your family on how to approach sun exposure safety from one situation to the next.
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