The Best Sun Protection May Be the Sun
For many years I completely avoided the sun. Following the advice of doctors, dermatologists and the media I hid under umbrellas, floppy hats and long dresses and begrudgingly applied gobs of sunscreen. I read the research and saw the statistics and knew that UV damage was real, and not to be messed with.
But as I was following this advice, I always wondered if we had it right. After all, the sun has been the source of our human energy and reverence forever. Our ancestors have successfully navigated sun exposure since the beginning of time, and only in the past 25 years have we seen dramatic increases in skin cancer rates.
In fact, the incidence of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas increased 300% between 1994 and 2010, and the incidences continue to rise. And all the while we continue to avoid the sun and apply more and more sunscreen.
And so, I decided to investigate.
Is the sun our friend or foe?
On one hand, the sun is the most life-giving force out there. Our bodies cannot be healthy or happy without it. The sun not only produces vitamin D, which affects nearly every tissue and organ in our body, but it also produces nitric oxide, serotonin, ATP, and fights invasive microbes.
This means that by being exposed to the sun we reduce our risk of almost every chronic condition under the sun. We also reduce our risk of hypertension, increase our feelings of happiness and well-being, and increase our energy. The sun is critical to our well-being. Simply put, we are designed to thrive with solar energy.
On the other hand, ultraviolet radiation from the sun poses real risks. The research cannot be debated. Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are on the rise. Melanoma rates continue to increase. Wrinkled skin and hyper-pigmentation are exacerbated with sun exposure. There are solid reasons why we have been told to cover up and apply sunscreen.
But has the sun always been so dangerous? How did our ancestors manage to get by without the rates of skin cancer that we experience? They certainly didn’t have sunscreen and they often spent far more time outdoors.
Is Vitamin D the missing link?
As I dove into the research I found a paradox that stopped me in my tracks. For decades we have been avoiding the sun and slathering on sunscreen to prevent premature aging and skin cancer, which has led to a pandemic vitamin D deficiency in our society. We have also been collecting research that informs us that a vitamin D deficiency is implicated in all types of cancer, including skin cancer.
When UVB sun rays interact with cholesterol in the skin, a water-soluable vitamin D3 sulphate is formed which is able to flow freely through the body. When the skin is exposed to UV radiation from the sun, natural Vitamin D3 Sulfate oxidizes and becomes a powerful anti-oxidant that protects us from the sun’s rays. In other words, vitamin D3 protects our body from harmful effects of the sun.
So can we just take a supplement to help protect us from the sun’s UV radiation? Probably not. It turns out that researchers are unclear whether or not supplemental vitamin D3, which is fat-soluable, is available in the skin to perform this function. Remember, the vitamin D3 that occurs naturally in the skin is water-soluable and moves freely through the body. Fat-soluable vitamin D3 is not as mobile.
Bottom line: vitamin D that is naturally made by the sun may offer us protection against UV radiation.
What about anti-oxidant protection?
For years we have been taught that the best way to protect our skin from damaging UV rays is to use a topical sunscreen to block the rays. But another critical way to protect ourselves has been overlooked.
When we consume a diet that is high in anti-oxidants, we provide our body with an amazing tool to fight the free radicals that are formed when we are exposed to UV radiation. Anti-oxidants are abundant in a whole foods diet consisting of lots of fruits and vegetables. In fact, research has revealed that lycopene, an anti-oxidant found in tomatoes, has the ability to protect and repair the skin from UV damage.
Considering that many people currently consume a Standard American Diet, which is deficient in fruits and vegetables, it is likely that they do not have inner anti-oxidant protection from the sun’s radiation. This could be a factor that is contributing to the rapid rise of certain skin cancers.
Has sunscreen been our friend?
For years most sunscreens only blocked UVB rays from entering the skin. These are the rays that cause our skin to burn. These sunscreens did not, however, block UVA rays – which are the rays that can cause cellular and DNA damage.
So we were not getting burns but we were damaging our cells. And because we were not getting the sunburns that usually signal when cellular damage is occurring, we were damaging our cells at a higher than normal rate. This has likely been a huge contributor to the dramatic increase in skin cancer that we have been witnessing.
For the last few years ‘broad spectrum’ sunscreens containing oxybenzone claim to now block both UVB and UVA rays. However, according to the Environmental Working Group, oxybenzone contributes to cancer formation when exposed to sunlight (not to mention that it is killing ocean coral at an alarming rate).
And to put the nail in the coffin, research published in 2016 in the Cochrane Review and 2018 in the British Journal of Dermatology both denounced sunscreen as an effective skin cancer prevention mechanism.
For long-term sun exposure, the only safe sunscreen option appears to be non-nano broad spectrum zinc oxide, which completely blocks UV radiation from entering the skin.
Nature knows best.
Considering how strong UV radiation can be, it seems highly unlikely that humans evolved on this earth without some type of natural UV protection. In addition to vitamin D3 and dietary anti-oxidants there is one other player that cannot be ignored. Melanin.
Melanin is the brown pigment that develops in the epidermal layer of our skin to protect us from inflammation and radiation. It is otherwise known as a ‘tan’.
When looking at the incidence of melanoma skin cancer, studies have found that people who are exposed to the sun for long periods of time, such as farmers, have lower incidences of melanoma that people that are exposed to the sun for intense, brief periods. This is likely due to the gradual formation of melanin during long-term exposure, which acts as protection against the damaging rays of the sun.
How to love the sun.
With all this information in mind I have radically changed my approach to the sun. I no longer shy away from its life-giving rays. Instead, I practice responsible sun exposure by following my 6 steps on how to love the sun – and let the sun love you.
1. Sunbathe responsibly so that you can make natural vitamin D. Start for a few minutes each day in the early spring and gradually increase the amount of time you spend in the sun each day. There is an app, called D-Minder, that will help you to safely calculate how much sunbathing is required to make the necessary amount of vitamin D. The best time is in the morning until solar noon. This practice will also gradually increase melanin production in your skin, which acts as a natural sun protector (who doesn’t love a light tan?).
2. Under no circumstances do you want to burn your skin.
3. Consume a diet consisting of 80% fruits and vegetables to maximize the amount of anti-oxidants that are available to fight free radicals generated by UV radiation and increase your internal sun protection factor. Eat a rainbow of color!
4. Eliminate inflammation in the body. Research has shown that chronic inflammation in the body can increase the likelihood of skin cancer development. Heal the gut. Include lots of Omega-3 fatty acids in the diet and eliminate inflammatory oils. Support the liver and detoxify the body.
5. While sunbathing to produce your vitamin D (remember to use the D-Minder app!) use botanical oils to mitigate UV damage and nourish the skin. Coconut oil, jojoba oil, sea buckthorn oil and red raspberry seed oil naturally protect the skin from radiation damage.
6. For prolonged exposure to the sun use a natural zinc oxide sunscreen or cover up. Organic full-spectrum zinc oxide sunscreen blocks and reflects the UV radiation instead of absorbing the sun’s rays.
7. Use a mineral-based pressed powder on your face to act as natural sun protection at all times. When considering how to minimize the effects of aging, protecting the face from the effects of the sun is a good idea.