Summer is finally here and with it the risk of sunburn. Moderate sun exposure is safe and healthy but sunburn should be avoided. What should we look for in a sunscreen that is both safe and effective in protecting our skin from burning?
There are two types of ultraviolet radiation – UVA and UVB. UVB radiation has longer wavelengths (closer to the blue color spectrum) and is necessary for the production of Vitamin D in our skin. UVA has much shorter wavelengths (closer to microwaves) and is responsible for sunburn and skin cancer. UVA radiation occurs throughout the daylight hours, even through cloud cover, while UVB occurs mainly at midday.
When choosing a sunscreen, read the ingredient labels. Sunscreens in Canada are regulated as over the counter drugs and all ingredients must meet the GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective) conditions. Most of the chemical ingredients, however, block only the UVB not the UVA rays. Since Vitamin D’s role in preventing cancers is becoming well established, the UVB blockers may do more harm than good! And many of the chemical ingredients like OMC and butyl methoxydibenzolmethane were found to be toxic in animal studies, while oxybenzone and dioxybenzone are powerful free radical generators.
The two safest and most effective ingredients for blocking the harmful UVA are zinc oxide and titanium oxide.
What else can you do to take advantage of the health giving properties of the sun while avoid its dangers? First cover up during the morning and evening UVA-only hours when you can’t produce vitamin D anyway but can still burn. Get some exposure during the UVB peak hours in early afternoon, but be careful to avoid sunburn as this is a known risk factor for melanoma. Start slowly and gradually increase the length of your exposure to the sun. After your skin starts to feel warm or turn slightly pink, it’s time to cover up with protective clothing or a safe effective sunscreen.
UVB radiation has also been implicated in skin cancers, and both UVA and UVB are at highest concentrations in early afternoon, so caution is required in obtaining your daily dose of Vitamin D. Environmental Working Group, an independent organization, tests and reports on the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens. Check the rating of yours here http://www.ewg.org/skindeep and click on “Sun”.
What you eat can also help protect your skin from too much sun. Omega 3 & 6 essential fatty acids (from food or supplements) are essential for healthy skin. Eat plenty of raw vegetables for their protective antioxidant properties. Astaxanthin is especially protective from UV radiation damage (see column #115 May 24, 2011).
Summer has finally arrived and with it the sun. Enjoy it safely.
This article is intended for educational purposes only; for medical advice consult your licensed health practitioner. This column is updated from #017 June 22, 2009.