Summer skin health: The sun’s hidden agenda

 In Opinion

July brings our village as close as we ever get to our friendly sun and that means two things: summer heat and summer sun. 

The sun’s energy travels a whopping 150 million kilometres to grow our food, power our homes and create our weather, but it doesn’t just bring us rainbows and rhubarb. 

The sun’s rays pack a powerful UV punch that lands on your skin every time you step outside unprotected.

The fact is that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. The good news is that 90 per cent of cases are caused by UV rays from the sun, so skin cancer is also very preventable.

But how much sun is okay?  And what steps should you be taking to protect your skin from the harmful UV rays that are destined to hit you while you’re working in the field, enjoying an afternoon on the golf course, or strolling through the Saturday market?

The key is to create a barrier between the sun and your skin and the easiest, least expensive option is clothing. It’s already in your closet and provides a longer lasting shield than sunscreen.

But wait… Most skin cancers develop on the face and neck, so your barrier plan will fall short unless you remember to wear a hat. Wearing a wide brimmed hat is your best choice to protect this area, but because UV light will also reflect off of many surfaces, it’s still important to apply a layer of sunscreen to your face and neck before you go outside.

Most people understand these rules, but do we all live by them? I often see parents and older adults diligently applying sunscreen to every inch of a child but forgetting to protect their own skin. It is true that a blistering sunburn can increase a child’s risk of developing melanoma later in life (so keep covering up those kids!), but less than 25 per cent of sun damage happens before the age of 18 and each passing decade increases damage done to the skin by 10 per cent. It is never too late to take action and protect your skin. Which brings us to sunscreen…

The sunscreen aisle offers an overwhelming variety of choice, but when we break it down it’s simple. There are really only three things you need to look for: SPF, broad spectrum and active ingredients.

1. Understanding SPF tells you the level of protection that the sunscreen will offer from UV rays. SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93 per cent of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97 per cent, and SPF 50 blocks 98 per cent.

The Canadian Cancer Society recommends a minimum of SPF 30.  What many people don’t know is that a stronger SPF doesn’t mean a longer lasting sunscreen. No matter the level of SPF that you choose, all sunscreen needs to be re-applied two hours after application.

2. Look for the term broad spectrum. It means that the product provides both UVA and UVB protection. 

Until recently, most sunscreens only offered UVA protection. Science has linked UVB to skin damage, so now we must be protected against both. And that’s as simple as choosing a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen.

3. Active ingredients fall into two main categories – chemical filters (typically absorbed into the skin) or mineral filters (sit on top of the skin). The chemical-based sunscreens contain ingredients like retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, and octinoxate.

Unfortunately, studies have linked these chemicals to hormone disrupting and cancer-causing activity on a cellular level, so I typically steer people away from these types of sunscreens. To be on the safe side, consider choosing a mineral filter sunscreen that contains ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

As with all health science, we are still learning new things. You may be surprised to hear that when it comes to protecting our skin, what we put inside our bodies matters too. Research is showing that antioxidants are playing an important role in protecting the skin – both before sun exposure and after.  While it’s too early to recommend an antioxidant supplement instead of your sunscreen, it’s never too early to increase your consumption of antioxidant containing foods. A recent study demonstrated that dark chocolate consumption reduced skin redness after UV exposure.

However you are spending your summer, remember that it’s never too late to protect your skin and reduce your risk of skin cancer.

Maggie Pattillo, ND is a naturopathic doctor living in the Creemore area and practising at StoneTree Clinic in Collingwood. She and colleague Bronwyn Hill, ND, will be contributing to a regular health column.

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