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To avoid the sun or not — that is the question

by Doris Penner

Summer sunlight is anticipated year-round, but brings with it a dilemma: should one be outdoors as much as possible, soaking up the sun after a winter of deprivation, or shield one's self from the sun's rays in order to lower the risk of developing wrinkled skin or more seriously, skin cancer? While a golden tan is what many people are after when they lie long hours on the beach, a more significant outcome of summer sunlight on skin is the replenishment of vitamin D—a nutrient which plays important roles, among them maintaining bone health. So does one stay indoors on glorious sunny days of summer or take the risks of sun exposure if indeed there are risks? Fortunately, there is a third option, one which allows us to enjoy the sunlight as well as ensure safety for adults and children.

It must be noted that getting an overdose of sunlight in June, July and August has never been good news. Do you remember how you felt as a child after a long day at the beach? Your body seemed hot through and through, and in fact, was sore to the touch. This was a case of sunburn which mitigated after a few days, leaving you with peeling skin. A longer-term effect of over-exposure to the sun is premature aging of the skin which may include development of wrinkles, liver spots and actinic keratoses (rough skin patches).

Exposure to rays

These types of consequences pale in comparison to the increased risk of skin cancer. In fact research scientists tell us that most skin cancers are a direct result of exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun, particularly UVB rays. The most common types of skin cancer form in the basal and squamous cells found at the base of the outer layer of skin, usually on exposed areas of the skin such as face, ear, neck or lips. These types of cancers can be cured if found and treated early.

The more serious type of skin cancer is melanoma that begins in the melanocytes, the cells that produce skin pigment or melanin. Although it accounts for only a small percentage of skin cancer, it is far more aggressive than other skin cancers and causes most skin cancer deaths. While the link to sun exposure isn't quite as direct as for other skin cancer, studies point strongly in that direction. Be aware that signs of sun damage such as liver spots or rough or discoloured blotches may be precancerous and should be monitored.

So does one avoid the sun, shunning the beach, daytime picnics, hiking and all the summertime activities that provide fun, fresh air and exercise? The answer is a resounding no—but it is important to practice sun safety.  Knowing what you do about the damage the sun can do to the skin, seek the shade when possible, and wear protective clothing when feasible—loose-fitting long-sleeved shirts and long pants of tightly woven fabric offer the best protection. If playing volleyball or walking on the beach or the like, wear a T-shirt or cover-up. A hat with a brim will go a long way to shading your face, ears and the back of the neck.

Most importantly get into the habit of wearing sunscreen if you plan to be outdoors for more than 15 or 20 minutes—whether the day is sunny or cloudy. Do not skimp and reapply every two hours—more often if you go swimming. By the way, 15 minutes a day in the sun without sunscreen will give you an adequate dose of vitamin D.

Penetrating the skin

Sunscreen is designed to absorb UV rays to prevent them from penetrating the skin. Make sure the sunscreen you use offers protection against both UVA rays (those responsible for the “aging” of the skin) and UVB rays (most likely to cause skin cancer), labeled as “broad spectrum.” Sunscreens are rated by the strength of their sun protection factor (SPF)—the number referring to the product's ability to screen or block out UVB rays. Take note that sunscreens with higher SPF ratings block out more UVB rays but none offer 100 percent protection. The best advice is to use a sunscreen with a rating of SPF 15 (which blocks out 93 percent of UVB rays) or SPF 30 (which blocks out 97 percent of UVB rays).

One area of concern for some people is whether commercial sunscreens themselves might be a source of harm to the body. It is true sunscreens are composed of a variety of chemicals that have, however, been approved by Health Canada or they would not be on the market. It is also true that some of the chemicals in the formulations have been shown to interfere with the endocrine system or the normal functioning of hormones such as estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. This could have implications for development of growing children, and may raise the risk for some cancers. At the top of the list of ingredients to avoid is oxybenzone, added as a stabilizer and marketed as Helioplex.

If you are concerned about harm common sunscreens may inflict, you might wish to seek out those based on non-chemical ingredients such as natural oils and botanicals. These tend to nourish the skin while protecting it from the sun—and are safe for young children.