Staying safe in the sun
Updated: May 9, 2019
Sun - a friend and an enemy
Everybody who’s ever had a sunburn, knows that it is a serious matter, as it leaves the skin red, itchy, and painful. The long healing process as damaged layer of skin is peeling off is not fun, either. Even worse, UV radiation from the sun can hurt us even when the damage is not immediately visible. Cumulative sun exposure is the major cause to various types of skin problems, from premature aging to skin cancer. Every time you stay unprotected in the sun too long, ultraviolet light can damage your skin’s connective tissue and cause alteration to skin cell DNA. This damage can in turn affect specific genes controlling the growth and division of skin cells, which may become cancer cells. Sun’s effects vary a lot based on a person’s skin type, sun’s UV level determined by season of the year and time of day at your location, and the time spent in the sun.
An important thing to keep in mind is that our body is producing vitamin D in response to sunlight exposure. We need vitamin D mostly to keep our bones healthy as it helps calcium to absorb and promotes bone growth. Lack of vitamin D has been shown to cause several medical problems. In summertime, a short exposure to sun during mid-morning or late afternoon is enough to produce needed amount of vitamin D. For example, for people with fair skin in Northwest, it may take as little as 10-15 minutes to give a boost to your vitamin D level. However, it is very important to keep in mind that prolonged exposure to sun increases your risk of developing a skin cancer and proper protection from the sun’s UV radiation is needed. Moreover, there are other ways to provide your body with necessary amounts of vitamin D as supplements and foods fortified with vitamin D are readily available.
The safest way to protect yourself from sun’s damaging rays is to avoid mid-day sun altogether. Of course that is not always an option, so covering up is a smart alternative. For the best sun protection choose a hat that provides a shade to your face, head, ears and neck and cover your skin as much as possible with high UPF clothing. It is important to protect yourself from the sun even on cloudy days, as up to 80% of UV radiation can pass through clouds. Also, UV rays are reflected off sand, water and snow, so you can get sunburn even in the shade.
Our eyes are also very susceptible for damage from the sun, and long-time exposure to UV radiation can damage eye’s surface as well as its internal structure. Wearing sunglasses and a wide hat is the best way to protect your eyes. For best protection, choose sunglasses labelled as blocking 99-100% of both UVA and UVB radiation. In addition to blocking out UV-radiation, effective sunglasses should also screen out 75-90% of visible light. Polarized lenses offer extra benefits by cutting reflected glare from smooth surfaces, such as road, water and snow.
Sunscreen lotions and their safety
Sunscreen lotions have become one of the key strategies in protecting the skin from sun. For optimum sun protection it is recommended to use broad-spectrum sunscreen (blocking both UVA and UVB radiation) with SPF of 30 or higher. Spray-on sunscreens do not offer optimal protection as they don’t cover skin very thoroughly and moreover can be inhaled easily.
There are two types of active ingredients used in sunscreens. In physical sunscreens, minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide physically block UV light by reflecting and scattering before it reaches the skin. In chemical sunscreens organic chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene and octisalate absorb the UV radiation and energy is released as heat. While physical sunscreen ingredients are commonly rated to be safe and good choice for even sensitive skin, some have received a lot of attention due to concerns about their safety. Namely, there are studies that have linked oxybenzone to being a possible hormonal disruption as it is absorbed by the body.
According to a Environmental Health Perspectives study by R. Danovaro et. al., published in April 2008, oxybenzone among the other chemicals and preservatives used in sunscreens is found to be harmful to marine life and cause coral bleaching. There are estimates that about 4.000 to 6.000 metric tons of sunscreen is washed off from swimmers into oceans each year, affecting up to 10% of coral reef on our planet. Detailed info on the topic can be read on Marine Safe web site. Although more studies are needed about this issue, use of clothing and hats or natural water-resistant sunscreens is environmentally the most sound way to protect your skin. Applying lotion to only the neck, face, feet and backs of hands while wearing a protective rash-guard, shorts and hat can reduce sunscreen loads into the water by 90%.
Majority of sun damage is accumulated before the age of 20, so it is especially important to make sure children don’t get a sunburn or stay in the sun too long at a time. For their safety, dress them in comfortable protective clothing, offer plenty of shade, and cover the rest of them with water resistant mineral-based sunscreen lotion - just like you would do yourself.