Sunshine, Suncreen & Vitamin D

Though I grew up in southern California, I was never a sun-worshipper. I was more of a “sun-ignorer.” I didn’t give much thought to the sun. I usually avoided it, preferring the shade of the trees in our backyard.

I’m sorry to report, however, that I suffered from countless sunburns as a child. Every spring and summer, we would go swimming at our grandfather’s condo in Palm Springs, and though my mother was obsessive about slathering sunscreen on her blond babies, we’d refuse to get out of the pool for reapplications. (Back in the early 80′s few were aware of the need for reapplying sunscreen.) I can even remember lying on Grandpa’s couch one night, unable to sleep from the pain of the sunburn that even hourly applications of aloe vera couldn’t relieve. I wish I could take back those hours in the sun and the damage it may cause in the future, but sadly, I can’t.

The always fashionable Samantha Jones keeps her skin safe under this uber-hat.

However, my past experience doesn’t mean that I cover myself head-to-toe in sunscreen whenever I go out. I feel that our relationship with the sun has become as dysfunctional as our relationships with other parts of the natural world. Some of us guiltily sneak in a few hours here and there to get some color in our skin. And some of us avoid the sun completely, using sunscreens (some of which have questionable ingredients) and covering ourselves with hats and tunics.

I started avoiding sunscreens about two years ago, because of their questionable ingredients. Since then, I’ve read a lot about sun exposure and how we’ve become a nation full of people with serious Vitamin D deficiencies!

Why is Vitamin D important? According to Dr. Frank Lipman:

Although called a vitamin, it is not. Vitamin D is in a class by itself, behaving more like a hormone. It is made in the skin, gets into your bloodstream and then goes into the liver and the kidney where it becomes activated as a key steroid hormone called Calcitriol. It then goes to the intestines, bones and other tissues, effecting metabolic pathways and the expression of myriad genes. Vitamin D’s active form can interact with almost every cell in the body directly or indirectly, targeting up to two thousand genes, or about six percent of the human genome. It is necessary for numerous cellular functions, and when the body does not have what it needs to function optimally, it follows that we experience a decline in health and put ourselves at risk of disease.

If you think you are producing enough Vitamin D, you may want to get tested to be sure. According to a 2009 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, “70% of Caucasians, 90% of Hispanics and 97% of African Americans in the US have insufficient blood levels of Vitamin D.”

Our fears of getting melanoma have pushed us too far to the other extreme. Is it possible to interact with the sun in a more healthy way?

The quotations above were taken from a wonderful article about sun exposure and Vitamin D deficiency over at Gwyneth Paltrow’s website, GOOP. It suggests that, yes, we can – and should – have a more balanced relationship with the sun. The articles makes a suggestion that is almost completely contrary to the current trends: Go out in the sun without any sunscreen on! Now of course, the key to getting healthy sun exposure (and Vitamin D) is MODERATION. The article gives very specific time frames for people that will keep them safe.

One of the key points of the article is that sun exposure is really the best way to get your Vitamin D. It is very difficult to get enough Vitamin D from food sources (even enriched beverages), and using supplements can be dangerous, as too much synthetic Vitamin D is toxic to the body. You can’t OD on Vitamin D from the sun, however. As always, Mother Nature knows best.

Since you won’t be spending much unprotected time in the sun (hopefully), you are going to need some protection at some point. If you choose to use sunscreen, you need to be sure that you are using one that is safe for you and your family. You can check out the Environmental Working Group’s wonderful information on safe sunscreen here (this is the updated 2011 report which includes links to articles about current sunscreen studies). You can also read a fantastic post on sunscreen at EcoYogini by clicking here.

As for me, I hate sunscreen in general. I don’t like the feel of it, don’t like those chemicals on my skin, and most of all, I don’t like paying $30 for a half ounce of organic, non-toxic sunscreen (yes, I’m exaggerating on the price). I am not out in the sun very often, but when I am, I try to use sunscreen as a last resort (though I have no objections to slathering it on when necessary – I’d rather be Vitamin D deficient than battle skin cancer!).

Hiking in 2009 with MY uber-hat.

My natural sunscreen tips:

::Use an umbrella. Yep, it’s perfectly fashionable, and more importantly, gives your skin some extra protection.

::Wear long-sleeved shirts or wide shawls to protect your arms when you’re out. When it is super hot, this isn’t always practical, but I find this works for me when it’s below 85 degrees outside. Also remember that clothing is not completely effective at blocking the UV rays. If this is your only protection, you might not want to stay out for too long.

::Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Baseball caps and visors are cute and great for keeping the sun out of your eyes, but you want to protect your neck and especially your ears. Believe me, I have seen what skin cancer can do to your delicate ears. Protect them with a huge hat! (Obviously, if you are bicycling a lot and wearing a helmet, your skin will be much more exposed to sun, so sunscreen is a good idea!)

::Eat well. Your diet actually helps you stay safe in the sun for short periods of time. So make sure to eat those veggies!

::Stick to the shade whenever you can.

As Dr. Lipman says, “Have a healthy respect for the sun. It is powerful medicine with potentially dangerous side effects on your skin. Treat it like medication, using the lowest dose necessary, but don’t avoid it completely.” The sun gives us so much life – don’t be afraid of it. Just respect its power and be wise when you’re outdoors.

As always, a disclaimer: Please remember that I am not a medical professional, and that it is best to talk to your health care provider about these issues, do your own research, and make your own decisions about what is right for you and your family. Be cautious, above all.