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Sunshine, Sunscreen and Vitamin D

aiden_profile_cropBy Deirdre Imus 6/20/17
Summer is stirring, and with every emerging season comes new challenges, and also new adventures.  In an ideal scenario, we’d spend our days soaking up the sun, communing with nature, or tending to a blossoming garden.  In reality, any and all of these activities put you and your loved ones at risk of a dangerous sunburn.

But often the chemicals that protect us from the sun are as risky as the rays themselves, as is avoiding the sun altogether. Fortunately, there are options for those of us who wish to avoid toxic exposures at every turn, while also reaping the rewards of a dose of sunshine.

Finding a natural sunscreen free of harmful chemicals is no easy task; many of the substances that help keep the sun’s harmful rays at bay are toxic in other ways. Nearly 75 percent of sunscreens analyzed in the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual Guide to Sunscreens offer inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin. What’s more, these ingredients can penetrate the skin and get into the bloodstream. 

Mineral sunscreen, by comparison, is made using zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, usually in the form of nanoparticles, which don’t penetrate the skin. Happily, EWG’s report found that availability of these products has doubled over the last ten years, which means the market is responding to consumer demand for safer, chemical-free sunscreens.

When selecting a sunscreen, EWG cautions against using sprays, which can be tempting given children’s tendency to wiggle and inability to stand still for lotion application. However, aerosolized sprays pose serious inhalation risks, especially to people with existing respiratory conditions like asthma.

Another trap to avoid with sunscreen is buying one with a high sun protection factor (SPF), which may actually give people a false sense of security, causing them to spend more time in the sun. SPF refers only to protection from UVB rays, which cause burns, but it does little to guard against harmful UVA rays, which penetrate the skin and can cause skin cancer. What’s more, a higher SPF product requires higher concentration of the risky sun-filtering chemicals I mentioned earlier. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends aiming to use a sunscreen with SPF above 30, but below 50.For more information on the healthiest lotions check out their website: http://www.ewg.org/sunsafety

Another oft-unmentioned consequence of using sunscreen is that around one-third of the U.S. population is vitamin D deficient, or at risk of becoming so. Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because it is produced in the body primarily due to sun exposure. Using too much sunscreen prevents this process from happening, and our obsession with sun protection is taking a toll: a study released in May of this year named inadequate sun exposure as one of the main reasons nearly ONE BILLION people worldwide have insufficient vitamin D.

Vitamin D plays a crucial role in a wide range of bodily functions. According to the online health news website Medical News Today, it helps maintain bone and teeth health; supports the immune, brain and nervous systems; regulates insulin levels; and influences the expression of genes involved in cancer development, to name just a few important jobs vitamin D does.

So how can you obtain the vitamin D you need and avoid the sun damage you don’t? The nonprofit Vitamin D Council recommends exposing your unprotected sun to the skin – but only for about half the time it takes for your skin to begin to burn (for fair skinned people this might be about 15 minutes, for darker-skinned people it could be longer). Another effective method of getting vitamin D into your body is to take a vitamin D3 supplement of anywhere from 2,000 IUs daily for infants to 10,000 IUs daily for some adults. Consult with your physician before starting any supplement regimen, and for more information check out www.vitaminDcouncil.org

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