Nobody wants to look like a pallid piece of brie cheese. But we’ll say this straight up: tanning is never good for you. A little color may make you look healthier or sportier, but do you really know the price you’re paying for sunbathing?
Don’t get us wrong – we’re not asking you to swing from serial sunbather to cloistered hermit. Sun exposure is a good thing, if it is done in moderation. Our skin actually needs to see the light of day in order to produce vitamin D, which is vital for calcium absorption. A lack of this underrated vitamin has been associated with a greater risk of developing osteoporosis, diabetes, and heart disease. So, how much sun is enough?
If you’re burnt, you’re toast.
Research has shown that intermittent sun exposure and sunburn are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer, while routine sun exposure reduced its incidence. The clear takeaway here, then, is that it’s a good thing to get in the sun regularly, but not so much that you burn. If you’re usually not in the sun and decide to get some color for a high school reunion, going out for a long sunbath suddenly exposes your skin to too many UV rays, which leads to sunburn and ups your risk of skin cancers.
This is good news to most of us out there who have little time to lounge at the beach on a sunny afternoon. If you’re walking in the sun for just fifteen to twenty minutes a day without sunscreen, perhaps from your home to work, and from work to lunch and back, you’re getting almost all the vitamin D you need, while keeping your skin healthy.
Wait, without sunscreen?
No, you didn’t read wrongly. Most of us do not actually need sunscreen, which effectively starves our body of vitamin D by blocking out the UVA and UVB rays needed for its genesis. If you’re not exposed to the sun for extended lengths of time, sunscreen is actually counter-productive for your health. On top of that, many sunscreens contain carcinogenic substances – ironic, isn’t it?
Common ingredients in sunscreen like parabens and 4-methyl-benzylidenecamphor have proven to accelerate breast cancer development. Zinc and titanium oxide absorb UV rays, but these nano-particles increased skin cancer risk in animals by altering their DNA. When exposed to sunlight, they also release free radicals – agents known to cause cancer – which are then absorbed by the body.
Before you start throwing out your bevy of anti-sun emollients, they do have their value – especially when you’re out in the sun a lot. Remember though, higher SPF does not mean better protection, but almost necessarily equates to a greater concentration of chemicals. SPF, which stands for “sun protection factor”, measures the effectiveness of your sunscreen to prevent skin damage caused by UVB rays.
Funny thing is, a sunscreen with SPF30 isn’t twice more effective than SPF15. In fact, the former blocks out 97% of UVB rays, while the latter 93%. SPF50? 98%. SPF100? 99%. Unless you have a history of skin cancer or have clinically high photosensitivity, there’s no need to chalk up all those chemicals for minuscule benefits. SPF30 is more than enough, and you shouldn’t go further than SPF50. In fact, health administrations around the Western world have banned sunscreen companies from using SPF labels greater than 50 to prevent consumers from being misled. So, SPF100 and SPF250 would both be labeled as SPF50+.
What about UVA rays?
Well, they’re more prevalent than UVB, and worse for your skin – they penetrate our skin more deeply and are responsible for wrinkling and ageing. Another nugget of useful information: many sunscreens do not protect you from UVA rays. That’s where the “broad spectrum” part comes in. On Asian-branded sunscreens, especially those from Japan, this would be represented by + signs. The more + signs, the better the UVA coverage.
If you have no choice but to sun out for long periods at a time, use a low SPF, sensitive-skin sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection. If you’re playing sports or in the water, get one that’s water-resistant. Use 30 minutes before exposure and reapply according to the instructions on your tube, or the activity you’re engaged in. Remember: the correct application of sunscreen is way more important than SPF values. Australian Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, Blue Lizard, USD18.
One more thing: don’t get tempted by sunscreens that tout anti-aging substances like retinol or vitamin A derivatives. Look out for chemicals like retinyl palmitate, retinoic acid, or retinyl acetate. These substances appear in about 20% of all sunscreens, and may cause skin cancer when exposed to the sun.
Spooked by the research about sunscreen?
There are some other natural options to protect yourself from sunburn. For one, put on some clothes. It’s a natural SPF5. If you’re a swimmer or a rower, consider wearing a skin suit. Also, supplementing your body with vitamin D will help your skin defend itself from UV rays – 1500 IU per day is good enough.
Fruits, vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids all help your body deal with sun damage, so load up on these power foods as much as you can. The anti-oxidants in them can also help reverse the ageing effects UV rays have on your skin. If you have to be topless in the sun, consider applying coconut oil mixed with non-nano zinc oxide powder to your skin before exposure, which extends the time you have in the sun before burning. Non-Nano Uncoated Cosmetic Grade Zinc Oxide Powder, La Lune Naturals, USD25.
Any prolonged exposure to the sun is no good – not only are you raising your risk of developing skin cancer, UV rays can reach deep under the skin’s surface and cause wrinkles. What can we do to get that bronzed tan, you ask? We’ve got that covered here.