Boost your body’s natural UV defence
The sun has finally arrived in Nova Scotia and it’s just what the doctor ordered! I have noticed an increase in energy in a lot of my patients, moods are starting to improve, and skin complaints (such as eczema, acne, and psoriasis) are reduced. There are many wonderful things about the sun, but of course, we still must be careful.
As I sit down to write this, I am reminded that May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. According to Health Canada, skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in this country. With one in six Canadians diagnosed with skin cancer every year, and more than 85,000 cases seen annually by healthcare providers, I thought it was worth talking about.
I remember when I was a kid growing up in Australia in the 80s, sun protection was always part of our day: we weren’t allowed to play outside at lunchtime unless we were wearing a hat that had a flap on the back that covered our necks, and we would all run around with brightly coloured strips of zinc oxide painted on our noses so we wouldn’t get a sunburn.
We thought we were being proactive and protecting ourselves from the sun by buying a bottle of sunscreen. However, a lot of research is coming out warning us that, with certain products, we may be doing more harm than good.
Fortunately, the EWG (Environmental Working Group) has launched a “Sun Safety” campaign in partnership with dermatologists and sunscreen companies. The campaign aims “to make sun safety as essential as seat belts.” The EWG states, “Much blame falls on poor-quality sunscreens and misleading sunscreen advertising that leads people to believe, wrongly, that their products protect their skin from too much sun.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but we should avoid sunscreens with a high SPF.
SPF, short for “sun protection factor,” only offers protection against UVB radiation which burns the skin. The EWG reports that SPF does not protect your skin from the sun’s UVA rays. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin, suppress the immune system, accelerate skin aging, and may increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Products with extremely high SPFs may protect against sunburn but can leave skin exposed to damaging UVA rays. The EWG recommends that consumers avoid products labelled with anything higher than SPF 50 and reapply sunscreen often, regardless of SPF.
When buying a sunscreen, avoid the ingredients, oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and homosalate. These are chemicals that help absorb UV rays and are contained in more than half of sunscreens on the market. These chemicals have been shown to be toxic when absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream. They have also been linked to hormone disruption in women.
While we are all familiar with the importance of sunscreen, wearing hats, and avoiding the sun during the hottest time of the day, here are few other tips I recommend to not only protect your skin in the summer but to support your health all year round.
Support your skin’s natural barrier, aka the epidermal barrier. The outermost layer of our skin, the epidermis, is our first line of defence to the external environment and, therefore, is crucial for skin health. Our bodies in their innate wisdom, are constantly maturing and shedding this outer layer of skin cells. Once, this outer layer was just thought to be dead skin cells serving no biological function. We now know that these cells are, in fact, live tissue that performs protective and adaptive physiological functions. These cells are critical in preventing aging, infection, acne, protecting our skin from the sun, and dehydration.
Unfortunately, this outer layer of skin cells has been blamed for wrinkles, uneven skin tone, acne, and dull, lifeless skin. This is the reason exfoliating with scrubs and acids/chemical peels and dermabrasion are so popular. However, over-exfoliating can leave your skin more vulnerable to UV damage from the sun. To support your skin’s natural cycle of shedding, exfoliating should occur no more than once every three to four weeks.
Rather than frequent exfoliating, it would be a wiser plan to support skin health from within. A diet rich in omega essential fatty acids (found in fish, raw nuts, and seeds) and antioxidants (dark leafy greens and other brightly coloured fruits and veggies) have been shown to increase the body’s “natural UV protection.” A study published last year in the Journal of Natural Health Product Research showed that ingesting photoprotective natural compounds through diet or supplementation (i.e., fish oil and other potent antioxidants) showed a reduction in UV-induced cell death by increasing cellular antioxidant capacity and reducing the inflammatory response (aka, an increase in the skin’s UV-resistance).
We need to have fun in the sun. We also need to be informed about how to have that fun without causing ourselves harm. This summer, be mindful of the power of sunlight, be grateful for all the benefits the sun brings while remaining ever mindful of its effects on your skin.