Now that the weather is warming and drying up, you probably can’t wait to spend more time outside. But the summer sun is a classic double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it feels amazing and helps your body produce essential vitamin D. “Plus, everyone feels better on sunny days — and we need that effect,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, M.D., medical director of Vital Plan. “But the sun also emits powerful types of damaging radiation.” And that can do a number on your skin, including cause harmful changes to cells’ DNA and other damage that can lead to cancer, premature aging, and other issues.
“For those reasons, it’s important to find balance when it comes to the sun,” says Dr. Rawls. That means making sure you’re protecting your skin, preventing overexposure, and minimizing the potential damage while also taking advantage of all the sun has to offer. Step one is not downplaying how dangerous the sun’s rays can be — a mistake too many people make. Keep reading to find out how to have a healthy respect for and relationship with the sun.
How the Sun Damages Skin
Ultraviolet rays have the power to penetrate skin, which triggers the production of free radicals and other damage that can wreak all sorts of havoc. One of the most concerning effects: How the sun alters skin cells’ DNA and contributes to three different types of skin cancer: basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas (BCCs and SCCs), which are the most common — in fact, they’re the most common of all cancers in the U.S. — and melanoma.
BCCs and SCCs are localized to the skin and, although rarely fatal, can be severely damaging and even disfiguring. “These cancers don’t typically metastasize, but they will keep growing until you do something about them,” Dr. Rawls explains. More than 4.3 million cases of BCCs and 1 million cases of SCCs are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, 90% of which can be directly attributed to sun exposure, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Melanoma, however, can metastasize and be fatal. And although it may not be as prevalent as other types of skin cancer, it’s still very much a threat. Melanoma is the third most common type of cancer in women under age 49, behind breast and thyroid cancers, and accounts for 7% and 5% of all new cancer diagnoses in men and women, respectively. Your risk of melanoma also doubles if you’ve had more than five sunburns in your lifetime, and now a recent study in Cell Stem Cell has shed some light on the link.
When skin is exposed to sun, specialized pigment-producing cells called melanocytes produce melanin to help protect it. That’s what a suntan is. However, the researchers found that sun exposure damages the DNA of these cells, so when you then get subsequent high levels of sun exposure — enough to burn you — the damaged cells may produce melanoma instead of protective melanin.
Sun-damaged melanocytes are also what cause sunspots as you age, because they begin producing abnormal amounts of melanin. But there’s an additional, major way the UV rays contribute to aging: The free radicals they generate attack and weaken skin’s collagen.
“Collagen is skin’s protein support structure, and UV radiation crunches collagen down — I call it a collagen cruncher,” Dr. Rawls says. That leads to skin wrinkling and other changes. In fact, researchers suspect that up to 90% of visible skin aging is sun-related.
Natural, Non-Toxic Sun Protection
Those effects sound scary, but the dark side of the sun shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the outdoors this summer. Rather, let it motivate you to better protect yourself, especially given that there are now multiple ways to safely block the sun’s damaging UV rays, counter damaging free radicals, and keep your skin (and yourself) healthy.
1. Load Up On Skin-Smart Nutrients
“One of the best ways to protect yourself is from the inside out, which starts with eating a lot of brightly colored vegetables and fruits,” Dr. Rawls says. Does that mean you can eat a salad and go out in the sun for three hours and be okay? “No,” he says. “But antioxidants in produce do build up in the skin and provide a certain layer of protection that may help prevent cancer from forming.”
Those antioxidants include immune-boosters and other nutrients that protect cells, like lutein and zeaxanthin, two important carotenoids with antioxidant powers, as well as vitamins C, E, and A, zinc, selenium, beta-carotene, lycopene, and polyphenols. You’ll find these in produce like leafy greens, carrots, squash, red peppers, broccoli, and strawberries, as well as tea.
These foods may also help protect against UV-induced skin aging. For example, one study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) found that women who ate foods high in vitamin C showed less skin wrinkling.
Another benefit of loading your plate with fresh produce: There’s less room for junk. The same AJCN study found that a diet high in carbohydrates was linked to more skin wrinkling, while other research found a link between diets high in meat and fat and squamous cell carcinoma.
Beyond fruits and vegetables, there’s one herb in particular that’s a smart supplement for skin: French Maritime pine bark. Found off the southwest coast of France, pine bark’s many antioxidant properties promote the health of your skin, as well as your heart, joints, and ligaments.
2. Go Greek
Mediterranean cuisine relies heavily on olive oil and fish rather than meat and processed grains, which feed you a variety of antioxidants as well as key anti-inflammatory compounds like omega-3 fatty acids. That’s good news since chronic inflammation — which your diet can exacerbate — may contribute to both skin cancer and skin aging.
Some researchers believe these characteristics of a Mediterranean diet may be one reason skin cancer rates in the region are so low despite the warm climate and lots of sun, according to a paper in the journal Nutrition Reviews. Other studies focusing solely on omega-3s also suggest there could be a protective effect from omega-3s, which many call “vitamin F.” Along with eating fatty fish like wild salmon and sardines, you can also get your omega-3s from supplementing with krill oil, which is also a great source of skin-protecting lutein and zeaxanthin.
3. Apply Mineral-Based Sunscreen
Natural, chemical-free sunscreens contain the minerals zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or a combination of the two — and they should be the only “active ingredients” listed on the label. Called physical blockers, they sit on top of skin and form an actual physical barrier that blocks the sun’s UV rays from penetrating your skin. Because of that, and the fact that minerals are inert, they don’t irritate skin and are considered the mildest and most natural option among topical SPFs.
Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, must be absorbed into the top layer of skin to do their job of filtering out UV rays. These synthetic ingredients are known to sting or irritate some with sensitive skin and could potentially cause other problems.
“Through my process of dealing with chronic illness, I came to realize that synthetic sunscreen ingredients would light me up; I’d put them on and feel terrible,” Dr. Rawls says. “I finally got that it was because I was absorbing these chemicals and they were causing a reaction.” Now, a recent small study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirms that chemical sunscreen ingredients do indeed make their way into the bloodstream at higher levels than previously known.
Researchers had a group of people apply spray, lotion, or cream chemical sunscreen products at recommended amounts four times a day for four days — similar to what you might apply during a typical long weekend at the beach — and then examined their blood. FDA guidelines waive the need for toxicology tests for blood concentrations less than 0.5 nanograms per milliliter, however this study revealed blood plasma contained up to eight times that amount. While the study doesn’t say what, if any, harm the chemicals may cause at such levels, it does call for additional investigation.
Luckily, mineral-based physical blockers offer a nice alternative. In the past, the sunscreens got a bad rap for being thick, sticky, and opaque — giving skin and white, ghostly appearance. No more. “The products have come a long way in the last five years,” Dr. Rawls says. Not only do the lotions feel lighter and have more staying power, even in water, the minerals are also finer and so look transparent after you apply, but still thoroughly block out UV rays.
That’s good news considering that regular, daily use of at least an SPF 15 cuts your risk of melanoma by half, reports a study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. Dr. Rawls recommends the brand Alba Botanica, which makes a variety of mineral-based lotions and sprays, including the fragrance-free Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30, which is extra mild on skin while providing strong protection. For more recommendations on safe and effective sunscreens, check out the Environmental Working Group’s guide.
Choosing the right product is only part of the equation, though. You must also use it properly. Here are some smart guidelines to follow:
- Be sure to apply a thick coat or two thinner layers — you need a teaspoon for your face and an ounce to cover your whole body — making sure to get every exposed area. People often miss or forget about ears, hands, and feet, as well as the sides and back of their necks.
- Don’t forget to apply SPF lip balm. Skin cancer on the lip is common, especially on men since women tend to wear lipstick or balm.
- Be sure to reapply every hour to two hours or after you towel off post- swimming or sweating. (“Water-resistant” sunscreens only protect you while you’re in the water.) Even super-high SPFs will start to degrade or wear away within two hours.
- Speaking of super-high SPFs, always choose at least an SPF 30, but go higher if you can. Every little bit helps, especially considering that research shows most people tend to not put on the full amount needed to reach a product’s labeled SPF.
4. Think Beyond SPF
While sunscreens have improved significantly over the years, they aren’t foolproof. It’s easy to miss spots and forget to reapply when you’re out playing sports or on the hiking trail, for example. So Dr. Rawls suggests also wearing protective clothing.
Starting at the top, choose hats with a wide brim and tight weave, which protects your ears, neck, and vulnerable scalp skin, all areas people tend to miss or simply skip over when applying sunscreen. And wear sunglasses with UV protection to shield your eyes.
As for clothing, you can find plenty of swimsuits, athletic wear, and hiking gear with UPF, which stands for universal protection factor. UPF is like an SPF rating for fabric. Most UPF clothes are rated 50, which signals excellent protection. For comparison, a white cotton t-shirt gives you the equivalent of about a UPF 5, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
5. Mind Your Gut’s Microbes
Nurturing and maintaining a balance of good microbes in your gut could also help your immune system fend off UV-linked skin cancer. It makes sense considering 70% of your immune system resides in your gut, Dr. Rawls says.
While studies exploring the role between your gut’s microbes and skin cancer are in the early stages, the research is promising. One study, for example, found that melanoma patients who ate a high-fiber diet had a more diverse (i.e. healthy) gut microbiome and were five times more likely to respond positively to immunotherapy, a type of treatment that uses the body’s own immune system to attack cancer. Other research published in the journal Nature Communications took a different angle to assessing gut health. It found that a mix of 11 different beneficial gut bacteria seemed to activate the immune systems of mice to slow the growth of melanoma.
Findings like these suggest one of the best things you can do is use proven ways to maintain a healthy gut and diverse mix of microbes, Dr. Rawls says. That means eating plenty of fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, cutting out processed carbs and reducing your intake of meat, Dr. Rawls says. Also, get enough sleep and physical activity, keep stress in check, and look to supplements containing herbs such as andrographis and berberine and other balancing and bitter herbs. These are well known for helping balance gut bacteria and supporting healthy digestion and immunity.
Taking these preventative steps not only helps protect you from the sun, but also supports your health in other ways. And that can make your time outdoors even more relaxing and enjoyable.
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