by Dr. Cheryl Cooper, ND
We’re told that we should wear sunscreen to protect us from the sun’s harmful rays, which may ultimately cause skin cancer. On the other hand, we’re also told that 90% of Canadians are Vitamin D deficient1 and the best way for our bodies to get Vitamin D is to get exposure to the sun without sunscreen2.
Then, of course, there is the ongoing debate over whether sunscreens, with all of their chemical ingredients, are even safe to be applying continuously to our skin whenever we are in the sun3? But which is worse: sun exposure, vitamin D deficiency or slathering ourselves with harmful chemicals.
Confused? That’s no surprise.
So, how do we sort through all of this confusion about the risks of sun exposure, vitamin D deficiency and using chemical sunscreen? Same as I address any problems with my patients, let’s take one at a time.
Let’s start with what we know.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the number one cause of skin cancer4, and UV light from tanning beds is just as harmful. Exposure to sunlight during the winter months puts you at the same risk as exposure during the summertime.
Vitamin D is essential for the human body to function properly. It regulates over 200 genes, in cells all over the body – including the brain, heart, kidney, bone, intestine, skin, gonads, prostate, breast, parathyroid gland, and immune system5.
Vitamin D is critical for bone health because it regulates calcium and phosphorus levels in the blood. It can suppress the immune system, to fight against conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis, or, can activate the immune system, to fight cancer and infections like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and the flu, and decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Vitamin D helps to prevent diabetes by modifying the release and response to insulin.
In order to ensure no Vitamin-D deficiency, supplement a Vitamin D3 product every day or spend 10-15 minutes in the sun with as much skin exposed as possible. For those with highly sensitive skin or who don’t get out much into the sun a Vitamin D supplement is essential especially in the winter. A simple blood test can tell you what your levels are. If you are low, you should be retested until your levels are in the recommended range.
We know that sunscreen can protect us from getting burnt and ultimately protect us from developing skin cancer, but, while we’re so busy not getting burnt, we’re slathering our skin with conventional sunscreen that contains known toxins like benzophenones, PABA and PABA esters, cinnamates, and parabens to name a few. (Go to http://www.skinbiology.com/toxicsunscreens.html for more detailed information on the toxins in sunscreen.) As a porous organ system, we know that everything we put on our skin is absorbed, at least to some degree, through our skin and then into our bodies. There is evidence that demonstrates that many of the chemicals in sunscreen are known to produce free radicals in the body, which, in turn, can lead to an assortment of other illnesses including cancer.
In contrast to the toxins that are found in many sunscreens, there are a few nutrients that have a protective effect on the skin: CoQ10 and Collagen. CoQ10 is a powerful anti-oxidant that plays a vital role in the production of energy in all the cells of our body. As we age the level of CoQ10 in our body declines and this can impact the health of our skin by affecting the skin cells directly. Lower levels of CoQ10 mean lower energy to repair damage to the skin and photo-aging (aging caused by sun exposure) is one of the worst culprits when it comes to aging skin. The potent anti-oxidant activity of CoQ10 also helps to protect the skin from oxidative damage caused by UV rays, pollution, toxins, and stress. Finally, CoQ10 stimulates collagen production, and as collagen production decreases with age, it helps to keep the skin supple and reduces the appearance of wrinkles.
As the most abundant protein in the body, collagen plays a crucial role in the production of all tissues of the body particularly the bones, muscles, tendons and skin. It is known that collagen production, like CoQ10, declines with age and is reduced by exposure to UV light and environmental factors like pollution and toxins. As a large protein molecule, collagen is difficult to absorb through the skin. The best way to directly impact collagen levels in the body is to take a grass-fed hydrolyzed collagen supplement that is hormone and anti-biotic free.
Now that we’ve clarified some of the more salient issues about the sun and sunscreen and various nutrients that are beneficial to the skin, here are some guidelines for gaining the benefits from the sun without increasing your risk of skin problems:
1 Always protect your face from the sun. Wear a hat or put sunscreen of at least SPF 15 on your face. Your face has fragile skin and is very susceptible to sun damage of all kinds. Nothing will age your face faster than having it exposed to the sun. So cover up to keep your face safe and young.
2 Shorten length of exposure. During the day, expose your arms or legs to the sun during a walk or anytime you are outside for about 10-15 minutes. This short amount of time is enough to get your daily dose of vitamin D. If you can’t spend this time every day or in the winter months, you should be taking a supplement of Vitamin D3.
3 Use non-toxic sunscreen. For any amount of time greater than 15 minutes, cover your skin up with clothing or non-toxic sunscreen of at least SPF 15 that contains CoQ10. Even if there is a light haze in the sky, cover up – the sun’s rays can penetrate through and cause damage.
4 Protect your eyes. Protect your eyes by wearing good quality sunglasses and a hat! The ultraviolet rays of the sun can damage your eyes as well.
5 Replenish your skin. Restore lost collagen to help keep skin’s elasticity and cellular growth rate by supplementing collagen into your diet, like taking a hydrolyzed grass-fed collagen supplement.
6 No burns. Never allow your skin to get burned!
Dr. Cheryl Cooper is a Naturopathic Doctor and the owner and CEO of Vitallife Integrative Medicine based in Ottawa. She has 20 years of experience in the health and wellness industry, specializing in hormone balancing, women’s health, detoxification, stress management and sleep issues. Dr. Cooper uses a holistic approach to helping patients, involving educating and empowering patients to take control of their health. Recently moved to her hometown of Canmore, Alberta, she now practices out of Inner Balance Spa in Calgary.