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Could Our Extreme Sun Protection Habits Be Doing Us More Harm than Good?
When was the last time you were at the beach and didn't slather on a pint of sunscreen? Sure, you need to protect yourself from the sun "at times," but do you ever sit outside without a shirt, hat, and sunglasses to receive the healing rays of the sun? That's right, healing rays, not the cancer-inducing beams of galactic radiation we're constantly reminded to fear.
If you're a Gen Xer or a Millennial, you grew up in the transition years of sun protection. We went from covering ourselves in baby oil and using a foil reflector to wearing SPF 50 in our cars. UV rays can penetrate car windows, don't you know! Wear SPF clothing because a regular shirt just isn't enough protection!
We're warned constantly about the need to protect ourselves from that giant ball of fire in the sky. The sun shines on our planet every day as it has for billions of years, and some Swiss guy invented sunscreen in 1938. How did this precursor of life on earth suddenly turn into the death star?
The Sales Pitch
The sales pitch that we so often hear is that exposure to the sun is harmful. Protecting yourself from the sun is vital to your health, and you should wear sunscreen or take cover. To help keep you safe, companies put sunscreen in almost every cream and lotion applied to your skin. Also, let's not forget SPF shirts, pants, and hats.
Sunscreen and sun care products are big business. The global market for sun creams exceeded $8.5 billion in 2019, and experts predict that figure to double within the next decade. The United States is the number one consumer of sun care products by far. Is it any wonder why we now believe the sun is bad for us?
According to skincancer.org, the annual estimated cost of treating skin cancer in the U.S is $8.1 billion. The diagnosis and treatment of nonmelanoma skin cancers (the non-deadly kind) in the U.S. increased 77% between 1994 and 2014. Interestingly enough, among the scary facts and figures on the site, they recommend the daily use of an SPF 15 or higher sunscreen. Hmm? We'll let you go down that rabbit hole if you choose but leave it at that in this forum.
So, how did we get here without becoming extinct from millennia of sun exposure? There are a couple of theories outside of big business that make sense.
Over the last fifty years, especially for Americans, we transitioned from an outdoor workforce to an indoor one. Most of us work in the cool fluorescent light of cubicles instead of sun-soaked fields or construction sites. Even today's farmers work the land in the air-conditioned comfort of a million-dollar, GPS-controlled combine while listening to satellite radio.
We've lost our tolerance for the sun because we're rarely in it.
Another aspect of life that has a massive impact on every cell in our bodies is the Standard American Diet. Your skin is no exception. The cells that make up your skin consist of protein, fat, and nutrients from food. The condition of your skin directly correlates to the quality of your food. You are what you eat!
Is it possible that our overconsumption of processed foods and sugar may be partly responsible for our sun sensitivity over the past decades? The jury is still out, but we know that the rise in all forms of cancer corresponds with the changes in our dietary habits dating back to the 70s.
What happened in the 70s? It's when we replaced the fat in our diets with sugar. Look it up! Maybe fat protects our skin from burning like the olive oil we put on a steak before grilling?
"O, sunlight! The most precious gold to be found on earth." - Roman Payne
Sunlight is Medicine
Every living thing on earth uses the sun for energy. Your body metabolizes sunlight for the creation of vitamin D, among other nutrients. What are the health benefits of sun exposure?
- Improved sleep - Sunshine regulates your circadian rhythms telling your body when it's time to produce the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
- Stronger bones - Vitamin D helps your body maintain calcium and strengthen your bones. Sunlight is our best source of vitamin D.
- Boosted immune system - Sunlight helps suppress an overactive immune system and increases your white blood cell production to ward off disease and infection.
- Reduced stress - When it's sunny outside, the brain produces higher levels of serotonin. Serotonin is a natural antidepressant chemical produced in your brain.
Shine Away From Cancer
Do you know that getting an extra dose of vitamin D each day can lessen your chances of developing any form of cancer by as much as 60%!? It's not a coincidence that our fear of the sun created a vitamin D deficient population over the last 40 years. Guess what resulted from that deficiency; the cancer boom.
In Australia, an anti-skin cancer campaign began in the 80s. The people listened and protected themselves from the sun. What do you think happened when they looked at the numbers thirty years later? The incidence of skin cancer decreased, but the percentage of deaths from melanoma increased.
Several studies over the last twenty years conclude that the reward of the sun is greater than the risk. Light to moderate sun exposure actually protects you from dying of cancer.
What's the Answer?
Before stripping down and breaking out the baby oil again, we need you to understand a couple of things.
This article isn't permission to get crispy or become a golden god. Sunburn is bad for you on several levels. It damages the structure of your skin cells and will cause you to look old before your time. Unfortunately, getting a bronze tan isn't much better on both accounts.
Here's the naked truth.
The sun is healthy. A sunburn is harmful. There's no need to fear the sun, but it deserves respect. Expose your skin to the sun responsibly.
The ideal time for sun exposure is early/mid-morning or late afternoon. Try to get around 30 to 45 minutes of direct sunlight on your skin every day. Experts recommend limiting your sun exposure when its rays are strongest between 11 am and 4 pm.
The best way to protect your skin is by wearing a hat and loose-fitting clothing. Chemical sunscreens can be toxic and are known endocrine disruptors, according to the FDA.
Now that you understand the good, the bad, and the ugly of your sun protection habits. Get out there and have some fun this summer.