Being outside has both advantages and risks whether you’re training hard or chilling out by the pool. The sun is one factor that can be beneficial to the athlete as well as detrimental. As summer approaches we are bombarded with information that the sun kills thousands of people each year as it is viewed as a dangerous health problem responsible for many deaths via skin cancer. Interestingly enough, as the incidence of skin cancer has increased, so has the increased use of sunscreen, not lack thereof.
One problem with many sunscreens on the market today is that they do not block UVA rays. Most block UVB rays, which are harmful, but much less than the UVA. Most of our vitamin D we absorb from the sun is through the UVB rays. Vitamin D has perhaps been one of the most studied nutrients over the past several years as findings show its necessity in immune and nervous system function as well as athletic performance. Low vitamin D levels have been linked with poor athletic performance, while increasing those levels can improve speed and strength to various degrees depending on the athlete’s prior deficiency level and overall athletic health. The lack of vitamin D will increase ones risk of skin cancer greatly too. Some studies are now linking the use of sunscreen with an increased, rather than decreased, risk of malignant melanoma (skin cancer). By lathering up in sunscreen, many are blocking the absorption of vitamin D as well as giving themselves a false sense of security as they think they can stay in the sun longer, only to absorb more of the dangerous UVA rays. This double edged sword is killing many. Some sunscreens even contain ingredients such as zinc oxide that repel the sun’s rays in such a way to create free radical damage on the skin. Free radicals are responsible for cellular changes that are linked to certain cancers.
This is definitely not to say that you shouldn’t use sunscreen. If you’re going to be out in the sun for a prolonged time and especially if you burn easily, then you need to use one. But remember that whatever you put on your skin, you are going to absorb. If your sunscreen contains a lot of contaminants, (and many do), as well as hydrogenated oils, (and many do), they will soon be part of you. If you’ve ever done an Ironman then you know that the community sunscreen used probably has a little bit of everybody on it!
Your best protection against the harmful rays of the sun is to get a tan. Don’t burn; that is the worst thing you can do for your skin. Not everyone can tan, but for those who can this is ideal. And for those who can’t, you still need the benefit of the sun so just limit your exposure not to burn. Avoid mid-day sun exposure when the rays are at their brightest, or if you have a problem with exposure any time of the day, then perhaps a vitamin D3 supplement may be your best alternative, (see below for more info). 15 to 30 minutes a day of sun exposure, (without sunscreen), is typically sufficient to obtain the necessary amount of vitamin D.
Eating well is not only necessary for a healthy body, but for healthy skin. A diet rich in Omega 3 fats, (fish, flax seed oil, and most egg yolks), and antioxidants, (fruits, vegetables, herbs), will keep your skin and your health protected. Natural, unrefined wheat germ oil is perhaps the best oil to protect your skin from the sun as well as a great oil to use if you are unfortunate to burn.
Now is a good time to have your vitamin D levels checked (via a blood test) if you haven’t done so recently. Most people lose a substantial amount of vitamin D as they hibernate indoors over the winter and the UVB rays which provide vitamin D are almost non-existent. Vitamin D is needed more than just to metabolize calcium and build strong bones; it’s necessary for a healthy immune and nervous system and peak performance. Optimum serum levels are between 50-80 ng/ml. If your level is very low you may need to supplement with some Vitamin D3 (not D2) as even an adequate diet and sun exposure may not be enough. Typically I see around 5,000-8,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day work best for patients to bring their levels up if they are low. I do not agree with the medical community using high levels of 25,000-50,000 IU of vitamin D2 once a week to achieve adequate levels. Although it does bring the levels up in many, I have always seen some negative side effects in patients using this regime, such as back pain or headaches. As previously mentioned, most sunscreen blocks the absorption of vitamin D and also the more tan you get, or the darker your skin is, the harder it is for your body to absorb vitamin D. Personally, I use sunscreen at the beginning of the year when I am outside a lot and don’t have much of a tan. As soon as my skin darkens and I know there is no chance of me turning even slightly pink, I’m done with the sunscreen for the year. The rule is if you’re not going to burn, then don’t use sunscreen. I’ve been in Hawaii six times for Ironman though, and every time I’ve gotten a little pink somewhere. Some environments like that are tough; I’ve had my race number etched into my skin for several months after a race due to the sun and heat.
Looking for a healthy sunscreen that won’t cause free radical damage and act as an estrogen/hormone mimicker as many do? Soleo and ECO Logical Skin are good products that block UVA, UVB, and UVC rays, are 100% natural, organic, and most importantly, are not photoreactive. Photoreactive ingredients such as uncoated zinc oxide and titanium oxides found in many products are known to produce free radicals and damage DNA. Soleo Organics and ECO seem to be the best non-harmful sunscreens out there and they’re good for the coral reefs too. They contain the proper type of zinc that does not cause photoreactivity on your skin leading to free radical damage and contain no synthetic ingredients or harmful lipids, such as partially hydrogenated oils. Both also contain antioxidants and natural oils that not only protect the skin, but also help with vitamin D absorption. The zinc is coated as to act as physical and chemical sun protector, by deflecting the sun’s rays. Additionally, none of the common cancer-provoking and estrogen mimicking agents typically seen in sunscreens are used, such as the following:
- Octyl Methoxycinnamate
- 4 Methyl-benzylidene camphor
- Parabens (commonly methyl and propyl)
As with anything you put on your skin, (and therefore absorb into your body), it should be good enough for you to eat, and these are (but don’t eat it). I’ve found some Soleo at beach surf shops and sometimes see it at REI, and both you can buy on-line.
If you want to learn more about vitamin D you can check out this informative site: www.vitamindcouncil.org.
For more information on the link between low sun exposure and health problems, visit SUNARC.
To check ingredients of cosmetics, including sunscreens, visit SKIN DEEP. This is a good site to see what effects certain chemicals may have on your body, but unfortunately it rates products containing hydrogenated oils and even aluminum, as safe. So I wouild not recommend that you simply use products that they rate as healthy. Stick with natural products and use the site’s search feature to check suspect ingredients.
- Get a tan if you can
- Don’t burn
- Check your sunscreen’s ingredients
- Eat healthy fats such as nuts, seeds, eggs, avocados, fish and flax oil as well as foods high in antioxidants – organic fruits, veges, and herbs
- Stay away from partially hydrogenated “trans” fats and limit omega 6 fats such as soy, corn, peanut, and safflower oils
- Have your vitamin D level checked – Optimal 25(OH)D levels are 50-80 ng/ml