In ancient times the Sun was the most revered natural object of worship. In Roman, Greek, Celtic and many other “pagan” religions the sun was seen as the most powerful god, giving light, heat and life to the crops and all life in general. It was a deity to be revered and feared.
Today we still revere and fear the sun, but for different reasons. After a long winter I know my body aches to be kissed by the sun, to feel that warm glow bathe my body and take away all of the cold, dismal grey feelings from the dark winter months. But with the increase in skin cancer rates, the sun has become an object of fear for many of us who used to once bask in its rays of warmth and life.
First of all, we have all heard of the risks of sun exposure and increased rates of skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. The lesions of this cancer most generally arise in sun-exposed skin. According to the Merck Manual, each year in the United States there are approximately 4.3 million cases of Basal Cell Carcinoma, 850,000 cases of Squamous Cell Carcinoma and 200,000 cases of Malignant Melanoma. This is up almost 10 times in the last 15 years! The UV index has become as regular a part of the weather report as the humidex and windchill factor. We cover up, slather on the sunblock or refuse to step out of the house at all. But is there a danger in going overboard with these precautions?
I was told the other day of a person who is Vitamin D deficient because of her excessive avoidance of the sun. Vitamin D is the “sunshine vitamin” and one of the reasons our body feels so good when we go outside. Vitamin D (cholecalciferol) is produced in your skin upon its exposure to sunlight. According to Naturopathic Doctor, Russell Marz, ND, it is estimated that the recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of vitamin D can be achieved with exposure of 30% of a person’s skin surface for only 30 minutes at moderate latitudes. Vitamin D produced by the skin is then converted to 25-hydroxycholecalciferol by the liver, which is converted to the most active form, 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol by the kidneys. Vitamin D also plays a vital role in bone health. 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol increases the levels of calcium in the blood by increasing absorption of calcium by the intestines and by releasing calcium from the bones.
There are also dietary sources of Vitamin D. Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) is obtained from plant sources, the richest non-fortified of these being mushrooms. Vitamin D3 is cholecalciferol derived from animal products. The food sources highest in vitamin D are fish and fish oils. I guess Mom knew what she was doing forcing the cod liver oil down our throats in the winter!
So what is one to do? Revere the sun or fear it? A healthy respect appears to be in order. Sun exposure is still necessary, but in minimal doses. Research shows exposing only the face and arms for 20 minutes a day produces 200 IU of Vitamin D, which is the RDA. Initial summer midday sun exposure should be kept to less than 30 minutes, even in people with dark skin. In general, sun exposure is less hazardous before 10 am and after 3 pm due to the increased angle of the sun through the atmosphere, which filters out more UV rays. Even though sunscreens greater than SPF 8 will block formation of vitamin D, the general use of sunscreen is still very important. Use sunscreen, but be aware of what you are putting on your body.
There are two basic types of sunscreens, chemical sunscreens and physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s UV radiation into the lotion and trapping them there. Physical sunscreens are often opaque, which creates a physical barrier on the skin that reflects and scatters UV radiation. No matter which sunscreen you choose to use, proper application is important. The standard public health message is that people are still not putting enough sunscreen on before going outside.
However, sunscreens are not without their risks as well. The most common side effect of sunscreen use is photoallergic contact dermatitis, in other words, an allergic rash to the sunscreen lotion in combination with the sun. It has been documented that allergy to chemical sunscreens is almost 2% (1 in 50) in the general population. Also, with chemical sunscreens, the trapped radiation forms free radicals, which can also damage cells. Therefore the addition of antioxidants, topical or systemic, has been suggested to further enhance the protective effects of sunscreens. Antioxidants are found in high amounts in fresh fruits and veggies, especially in berries. The risks of physical sunscreens are not as well documented or investigated. However, as they are opaque (not see through) and have a physical blocking action, physical sunscreens, such as zinc oxide, are less absorbable through the skin and therefore less likely to cause systemic effects. As well, physical sunscreens block both UVA and UVB radiation, where there is variation amongst chemical sunscreens in terms of the spectrum of sun protection. Read labels carefully to ensure protection against all of the suns harmful rays.
Above all, don’t forget basic steps you can take to protect yourself, such as clothing, sunglasses, shade, and most importantly your hat, to protect the most sensitive part of your body, the face.
The gods were known for their vengeful natures, and the sun god was no exception. So if you love the sun as much as I do, show it a healthy respect and you will reap its blessings without incurring its curses.
Written by Dr. Erika Buckley-Strobel, ND