NOTHING like the SUN
When it comes to the sun and sun protection, it seems there are more or less two camps. There are those that no matter the season, religiously apply an SPF year-round. According to this group, if the sun is up then so are it’s harmful assortment of rays. A good sunscreen is therefore all important and will ensure that we are protected from that accidental exposure (think the walk from the car to the office) that can take a cumulative toll on the dermis. Then there are those on the opposite spectrum that argue that unless you are living two degrees or so from the equator, a daily sunscreen is overkill. If you spend most of your time working indoors and reside in the Northern Hemisphere then you are more or less safe from the sun’s rays. Unless we are outside for an extended period of time, a slathering of an opaque white film on exposed skin seems quite alarmist.
Our relationship with the sun seems a love/hate one that is difficult to reconcile. We love it for the benefits that it confers- foremost the health promoting production of vitamin D, that essential hormone that switches on our immune system and elevates our mood. Add to this the glow that we get after a little sun exposure (glutathione production, check) it seems in one sense indisputable that if we are built to make vitamin D with our skin then that is part of our very design and proof that we are meant to go in the sun- at least a little- and that is what we should do.
And yet many of us are wary of it and rightly so. These days it seems the sun’s rays are stronger than ever and clocking in too many hours not only gives us an unhealthy dose of radiation but is ultra damaging to our precious outer layer of skin in ways that is difficult to reverse. Yes, we have all partaken in the folly of spending that extra 20 minutes when we could feel the time to seek shade was long overdue. Or the time when on an island holiday we thought that a thin layer of white summery fabric would be a sufficient barrier between ourselves and the sun gods. Or how about when you went swimming and mistakenly thought '.... it's a cloudy day so I should be ok..."?
Perhaps it is wise to be somewhere in the middle: open to being a recipient of the sun’s happy and healthy vibes but knowing that there are common sense guidelines we should observe while doing it. Just as it is not in best our interest to fear the sun is also unadvisable to recklessly overdo it. There is a way to sun and a way not to sun and how to best protect yourself and in the case where we have overdone it, taking specific steps to reverse the damage.
Ray of light
If there isn’t yet a consensus about the need to go in the sun there seems to be some sort of agreement on the simple fact that Vitamin D is good for us and we need more of it. The benefits are without question with some even arguing that it may be one of the simplest solutions to a wide range of chronic health problems plaguing the west. Of the 30,000 or so genes in the human body, Vitamin D is estimated to affect at least 3,000 of them. Auto-immune disease nagging at you? Vitamin D. Susceptible to the flu or infections (read Covid)? Vitamin D. Want to maintain bone and muscle health? Vitamin D. Is your hair growth stubbornly anemic and your length stuck at the same place for months? Vitamin D. Some even claim that those that get regular doses of sunshine have better collagen and thicker skin compared to those who don’t. While taking it in pill form is good and fine and absolutely necessary in the bleak winter months, the ideal is always to make it through direct contact with the skin. In pill form, hormone D is fat soluble and in many ways inferior to that version made naturally with sun and skin. When our skin comes into contact with the sun (sans sunscreen) the D we make is water soluble and stays in circulation two to three times longer than pill form.
But the benefits of regular sun exposure are not at all limited to Vitamin D. When human skin is exposed to sunlight it produces several hormones and peptides that contribute to overall systemic health and wellness, which may be the reason why it just feels so good to be in the sun. Without getting too technical, substances made from chemical reactions with sunlight are called photoproducts. While vitamin D is the most universally recognized health benefit humans receive from sun exposure, it is really just one of many important photoproducts.
Some of the healthy photoproducts all made with the same ultraviolet B (UVB) wavelength range include:
Vitamin D3- Widespread impact on hard and soft tissues in the body. Impacts musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, neurological, and immune system
Calcitonin Gene Related Peptide (CGRP)- Reduces hypertension, reduces inflammation and regulates the immune system
Neuropeptide Substance P (SP)- Promotes proper blood flow and regulates immune system
Adrenocorticotropic Hormone (ACTH)- Reduces inflammation and regulates immune system
Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone (MSH)- Reduces inflammation and increases libido
Calcitriol- Regulates cellular function and is involved in all major systems of the body
Beta Endorphin (BE)- Increases relaxation, acts as a natural painkiller and promotes feeling of well-being
How exactly is Vitamin D made? Vitamin D production naturally occurs in the body when ultraviolet B (UVB) light hits the skin and converts a specialized cholesterol to pre-vitamin D3. Pre-vitamin D3 is then converted to vitamin D3 in the skin and transferred to the blood stream over the course of several days. After arriving in the liver, vitamin D requires two metabolic conversions to become calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D. Calcitriol binds to vitamin D receptors in almost every cell throughout the body. This process is regulated by the body and bioavailability is managed by several internal control mechanisms. So when vitamin D levels are low the body will naturally know to boost levels and conversely when levels are high, it will reduce them to prevent toxicity.
What must be stressed here is that cholesterol does play a large role in Vitamin D production through the skin. If you are lacking cholesterol it may be the case that you don't have the building blocks to make Vitamin D, even if you do go out in the sun. Long demonized in the media as something to be avoided, reduced and controlled we now know that cholesterol is the healer in the body and we need more of it. Think eggs, cheese, butter and organ meats such as liver.
But when is the best time to catch some rays? The dominant narrative in the media used to be (and perhaps still is) that is not in our interest to venture out in the sun’s peak hours. While the summer sun is definitely strongest between the hours of 11 and 2 it is important to note that unless the sun is at the right angle relative to the horizon (above 50 degrees) then the possibility of producing vitamin D is very unlikely. The sun needs to be at a certain height in the sky in order for UVB rays to be present- those being the rays needed to make D. A late day or setting sun may still feel nice (due no doubt to healing infrared waves) but will also expose you to the harmful UVA rays which may still result in a tan but also radically increases your risk of skin cancer and unwanted photo-aging. The solution: go out into the sun at peak times and get your dose of D but do so mindfully:
- watch the time closely (10-15 minutes is all that is needed on exposed skin)
- avoid tanning the delicate skin on your face (think large hat or sunscreen)
- avoid sunscreen on areas that you are exposing to the sun to produce Vitamin D, as this will block production
- avoid washing exposed areas with soap for 24 hours as this can eliminate some of the vitamin D
- go out gently at the beginning of the season in order to acclimatize your skin to the sun
- avoid ‘tanning’ through windows as this filters out most of the UVB while UVA rays are still present
- understand that through the months of September to March in the western hemisphere it is not possible to make Vitamin D, so supplementation with D3 (not D2) is essential
Most of us have had to endure the pain and possibly embarrassment of a day in the sun gone wrong. Not only is sun-damaged skin painfully difficult to treat and reverse, it can also potentially lead to other more serious health issues. A burn is something to be avoided at all costs, but when it does happen we should take some solace in the fact that our skin is always in repair mode and cells are constantly turning over. Having said that, there are some actionable steps that we can take to mitigate the damage. For nasty sunburns of the variety sustained on idyllic island getaways the go-to treatment is always some form of aloe vera (preferably directly from the leaf). The sticky and gooey gel is loaded with precious antioxidants and polyphenols and kept chilled in the fridge can provide immediate relief. Perhaps less known is the use of clays for sunburned skin. Due to the high mineral content of clays and its natural ability to draw out toxins (they are also amazingly cooling and grounding) a liquid clay is a very useful weapon in our skincare arsenal in any situation. Not only does it immediately reduce the pain of a sunburn but its mineral content works to repair the skin and reduce redness. As long as you don’t mind temporarily looking like you’ve took a roll in a pile of chalk dust, clay is a clear sunburn superstar. Look for a liquid bentonite, green clay powder (just add water to make a paste) or even silica rich pyrophyllite … but almost any variety will work. For lesser sun mishaps, there is the topical use of caffeine (in the form of a tea or coffee extract) that used over time is very effective at diminishing any visible signs of photo-aging.
So avoid all of this and just slather on the sunscreen, right? If you know you will be outside for a long period of time with nowhere to hide then yes, sunscreen. But read your labels and look for more natural sunscreens with ingredients such as zinc or titanium. Also beware of ingredients such as benzene a hazardous carcinogenic, DNA altering chemical most commonly found in cigarette smoke and gas fumes. In one recent investigation, benzene was present in 78 of the 294 batches of products from over 60 brands. Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena line was among the products found to have elevated levels of benzene.
It is also important to mention that a fantastically effective way to avoid sunburn in the first place is to not only dress for the occasion but also to consider the internal aspect. Besides the beauty of a large sun hat, long sleeves and a good naturally formulated sunscreen, there do exist some specific supplements that can assist with protecting you from sun damage and sunburn but from the inside. Supplementing with antioxidant rich krill oil (which is an important source of clean omegas that we love anyway) will provide you with the very critical carotenoid pigment astaxanthin. This gives krill its red-orange pigment, that being the magic that supports healthy vision and promotes brain and heart health just to name a few. Taken 30 minutes or an hour before sun exposure dramatically reduces incidence of sunburn and sun-damage in its many forms and since its antioxidant value is so strong (6,000 times higher than vitamin C) its ability to protect us from the sun is a little known beauty secret.