I have always loved sun bathing, I could literally lie in the sun all day long. Luckily I rarely burn, but having Poppy has, once again, made me swot up on my knowledge, in this case with regards to sun exposure and what our safest and healthiest options are.
I already knew that I wouldn’t want to be using a regular high street brand sun cream on Poppy, due to the endless chemicals they were bound to contain. But for those of you who are unfamiliar with these chemicals I urge you to go and check the labels, and make better choices. That is, if you decide to use sun creams at all; I will explain why we will be using very little sun cream during our holiday to Italy and why we have only used it once or twice during the hot English weather we have been so lucky to have had recently.
What is the problem with regular sun creams?
Where do I start? Increasing research is indicating that rather than protect against skin cancers, sun creams can actually increase your chances of getting cancer. There is more than one reason for this.
First of all it is simply the chemicals that are used in sun creams, many of which have been found to form formaldehyde and other cancer causing substances when mixed with other ingredients. I am not going to list ingredients here or reference studies, but there is loads of info out there, so if you don’t believe me go and have a look yourself. Some ingredients in your sun creams may be linked to cancer and others produce free radicals when exposed to sunlight, which I am guessing is highly likely if you are applying SUN cream?! Vitamin A is in many sun creams, look out for retinyl palmitate and retinol, and when exposed to sunlight this speeds up the development of skin tumours and lesions. On top of this, considering the skin absorbs 60% of what is put on it, I don’t like the idea that sun cream contains parabens, which are not only suspected carcinogens but also disrupt hormones, increasing your risk of breast cancer and altering male sperm count. Artificial scents added to sun creams also contain hormone disruptors which can accumulate in breast milk! No thanks! All of the nasty ingredients in sun creams can be absorbed into the blood, as well as potentially causing allergic reactions and skin irritations.
Some creams are worse than others, and the next paragraph may surprise you. Hands up if you use higher SPF’s if you are going to hotter places? Or if you know you will be in the sun for a long period of time? I used to! Research shows that first of all a lot of these high SPF’s didn’t actually live up to their claims during testing, and offered much lower protection than they advertised. But, more interestingly, the SPF number is not a good indication of the UVA protection. To understand what this means you need to understand the science of the sun a bit better.
There are two types of rays which we are interested in; UVA and UVB. Both are capable of causing damage but we know less about the dangers of UVA rays. What we do know is that they penetrate much more deeply than UVB, and as I will talk about in a minute, UVB can actually be incredibly beneficial to us in that it is the best source of Vitamin D we can get. In fact until recently sun creams only offered protection against UVB rays, so we were blocking the good stuff (Vit D) and letting in the bad. Sounds pretty scary to me! So back to these high factor sun creams which we all assume offer higher protection. They actually still allow many UVA rays through, because these are very difficult to block. However, in order to increase the protection against UVB these creams must contain larger amounts of chemicals. So ultimately the increase in chemicals could increase your risk of skin cancer, and seeing as there is absolutely no evidence that high SPF’s reduce your chances of cancer at all compared to lower ones, surely you are better off choosing a lower concentration of chemicals to smother all over your skin, aka lower SPF creams. Better still, opt for a more natural sun cream, or only use one if you absolutely cannot avoid staying out in the sun without covering up. If you can avoid it, there are much better options.
Better protection against harmful rays:
Covering up with loose clothing provides very good protection against the suns harmful rays. We are planning on taking plenty of light clothing that we can cover Poppy up with whilst we are away, for the times that we feel she has either had enough sun or when we know we will be out in it for a long time. Of course there will definitely be a sun hat on that list too. As well as that, the most sensible thing to do is to seek shade when you feel you have had enough sun, which I admit is something I never used to see as an option. I wanted the best possible tan, but was unknowingly putting my health at risk because I felt safe with my high factor sun cream on. In fact, research suggests that people who use sun cream the most are more likely to develop skin cancer, perhaps because of this false sense of security. SPF 50 does NOT provide double the protection of SPF 25. Please don’t be tempted to stay exposed for twice as long, you are only letting more harmful UVA rays through and are more likely to burn because of your trust in the product that just can’t live up to expectation. Even if you don’t burn, do not assume that no damage has been done! You may find that your children will naturally seek shade and allowing your eyes to measure the strength of the sun accurately, i.e. without sunglasses may help you and your family instinctively know when it is time to get under the umbrella or go inside. For the time when we really cannot control sun exposure we do have a more natural sun cream, which we will apply to our faces and anything that cannot be covered up. However, this is the last resort rather than our number one essential. There are plenty of alternatives to sun cream, which I have not had the chance to research properly. Oils that have naturally high SPF’s, for example raspberry seed oil, can be an excellent, 100% safe alternative that I will definitely switch to in the future.
Having said that, there is another method of sun protection that can be very effective in preventing the damaging effects of the sun. A sun tan! So do not lose all hope, you can still come back from your holiday with a healthy, sun kissed glow. A sun tan is our bodies natural mechanism to protect its cells from UV radiation. But the way in which you get this sun tan is key. You must build it up gradually, which we have been doing ever since the sun decided to shine down on us this Spring. As soon as you are exposed to the sun, you produce melanin, the pigment that makes you darker, which collects on the sun-facing side of the cells, acting as efficient little umbrellas and protecting the cells against UV rays; in other words preventing mutations that could cause skin cancer. It makes perfect sense to me. Our bodies are amazing machines, and surely we are able to cope with being out in the sun, we used to be hunters and gatherers! Interestingly, people who work outdoors have a decreased risk of melanoma, compared to those who work inside and are exposed to sun rays through glass, which absorbs UVB and lets most UVA pass through. It is true that once you have a sun tan it is less likely that you will burn, at least that is certainly the case for me. But because we have less exposure to sun these days, it is important that you do not go from no sun at all to an exotic holiday where you stay out in it all day before your body has built up it’s protection. Even with a tan you must still be careful. The sun is stronger than ever and whilst there are many benefits to sun exposure, you must treat it with respect.
Major benefits of sun exposure:
As I have already mentioned, UVB rays are the best form of Vitamin D available to us. Unfortunately many people are severely lacking in Vitamin D, and Vitamin D deficiency is often found in sick children and associated with the worst outcomes. Vitamin D is good for balancing hormones, boosting your immune system, fighting disease and loosing weight. That’s right, loosing weight! Have you even noticed how you just don’t feel as hungry when you have been in the sun, like when you are on holiday? That is because Vitamin D regulates the hormone that is responsible for appetite control. By applying sun cream BEFORE we go out in the sun we are preventing ourselves from getting any of the amazing benefits of Vitamin D that we all so desperately need. In fact, we are making our bodies far less able to fight the very cancers that we are all so wary of getting in the first place. Higher levels of Vitamin D have been linked to better survival chances amongst cancer patients. For this reason, we have decided that we will expose Poppy, and indeed ourselves, to direct sunlight with no protection whatsoever for a certain amount of time at every opportunity. Now, the amount of Vitamin D you are able to produce will vary according to the time of day, where you live and your own body, so I cannot tell you how long you should stay in the sun unprotected. The best thing to do is cover up or seek shade as soon as you notice even the slightest hint of pink on your skin. This could be 5 minutes or it could be 45; everyone is different. After this point your body will not be able to produce any more Vitamin D. It is worth noting though, from what I have read, that it may be unwise to avoid the sun between 11am and 3pm as we are so often told to do, as this may mean you miss the window for optimum Vitamin D production.
Other benefits of sun exposure are probably more familiar to you. A release of endorphins, which may be particularly welcome if you suffer from SAD, an increase in energy and effective treatment of skin diseases (my eczema always clears up on holiday), amongst many other things. It seems backwards to me to believe that something that can make us all feel so healthy on so many levels is going to kill us. So whilst I will be much more careful than I was before, I will never stop worshipping the sun completely!