Why is it that we now seem to see the Sun as something dangerous? Is it something to be feared and avoided at all costs? Will it age you, give you cancer and cause your immune system to go into free-fall?
A quick look through the blog posts coming out of the northern hemisphere would lead you to thinking that we are waging a war against the Sun. I wanted to find out how something once revered is now vilified. Care to come outside? The Sun is massive. Its diameter is about 218 times larger than the Earth and with temperatures on the surface reaching 6000C; it is hot.
Consisting mainly of hydrogen (73%) and Helium (25%), it is actually a burning ball of gas that is constantly moving, reacting and radiating heat. Charged plasma surrounds the Sun like a massive magnetic force field, occasionally spewing out as solar flares towards the Earth. We see this as the beautiful and spectacular northern and southern lights.
Why Do We Need Sunscreen?
The Earth receives almost all of its energy from the Sun and without it, life would not exist. Out of the 386 billion megawatts of energy that the Sun produces, around 89000 terawatts reach the Earth (a terawatt being one trillion watts) (Universe Today)
Our fear of the sun isn’t totally irrational. Excessive sun exposure can lead to skin cancer. Indeed, 85% of melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinomas cite the sun as a major trigger.
In addition to our health, there are the effects that the Sun has on our looks. A quick look at the ingredient list of any of the top anti-ageing brands confirms that sun protection is an anti-ageing priority.
Skin damaged by the Sun displays more wrinkles, looks thickened or leathery and may also end up with pigmentation problems. Not an attractive proposition in an era when forty is the new twenty, sixty the new thirty and ninety the new sixty!
Third on the “anti-sun” agenda is the sun’s immunosuppressant power. If, like me, you get cold sores as a memento from your day on the beach you would tend to agree that the sun is definitely putting your immune system under stress. But is it?
Immunosuppresing is actually a good thing. If our bodies didn’t turn down our immune reaction when out in the sun, a small sunburn could turn into an anaphylactic shock rather than just a prickly rash. I know what I would rather have!
And the cold sores? Well, for those who harbor this virus in the body, the immunosuppressing action of the Sun leaves the gate open just enough for the cold sore virus to kick in. Unfortunately, that is the pay off.
Things are looking bleak out here and we haven’t even mentioned global warming!
But are we being fair? Is the sun really so bad and are our bodies really so ill equip to deal with our daily dose? And what about Vitamin D? To answer some of these questions we decided to look at plants – after all, I have never seen a cactus reach out for the factor 30. What do they have that we don’t?
When I mention the cactus, I automatically think of those huge, western style plants but the truth is that cactus come in all shapes and sizes. They belong to the succulent family and while some are adapted to the arid deserts of Arizona, others are more at home in more temperate climates. Try planting a mountain dwelling cactus in the desert and it will get sunburn. Take a desert dwelling cactus to the rainforest and it will get foot rot! It seems that people and plants are not so different.
Desert dwelling cacti have evolved to deal with the sun’s full force. They have no leaves to preserve water and use hairs, spines and sometimes wax to protect them from the sun. So, it would seem that plants do indeed wear sunscreen.
The problem that people have is our desire to explore. We invented boats, trains then planes to take us everywhere. While this travelling has proved to be of great benefit to humankind, it has contributed to our sun-hate relationship!
Take me for example. I have a skin type of 1 according to the Fitzpatrick scale – just call me burney! I chose to move to Australia with my family some years ago and while the intensity of the sun did lead me to think “is this wise for someone so melanin deficient?” I, along with my equally white family, decided to come anyway. Now if I were a plant I would have shriveled and died by now without lots of care, but as a person I have managed to live in near perfect harmony with the sun until now. But that comes with strings attached.
My skin is perfectly adapted to the place that I came from. I am not sure exactly where that is as us Europeans had a liking for cross border travel but let us say that I am more Anglo-Saxon than Greek or Roman.
Fair skin is quite useful in dark and gloomy England. There is no need to go to the trouble of making lots of melanin, as there is very little sun to protect against. In addition to sun protection, a study by anthropologist Nina Jablonski showed that skin color is important in vitamin synthesis. For your body to make vitamin D, a vitamin that helps the body to absorb calcium, the skin needs the sun.
Light skin seemed to have been developed to enable the body to synthesize vitamin D even when there is only low levels of UV light. The darker the skin, the more sun is required to make the vitamin D. This is one reason why darker skinned people living in cooler, darker climates can be at risk of having low Vitamin D levels.
Vitamin D is not the only vitamin to have a sun relationship. Jablonski also showed that foliate can be broken down by too much sun. This may be the main reason why people living nearer the equator developed darker skin – especially as it has been found that you can’t overdose on vitamin D! Foliate is required for neural development and UV radiation has been found to reduce foliate levels in the body.
So, finding myself in a hot, dry climate where the Sun’s rays are intense leaves me with a problem. My skin is not adapted to this environment. I need help! It seems that the sun is not the problem. The problem is me. Of course, those of us who are lucky enough to have a passport reserve our right to travel and make our home base wherever we choose. I have no intention from my new homeland and I doubt that I can get my skin to evolve any quicker by frying it. Therefore, I have to be sensible.
People often ask me “what is the best sunscreen on the market” and my gut reaction is to say “your brain”. Our bodies have been designed to work with the sun; we need the sun to keep us healthy both mentally and physically. Anyone who has visited Sweden in the winter will know the problems that Seasonal Affective Disorder brings on. Ultra-Violet light makes us tick.
There really is nothing to fear with going outside and enjoying a safe, healthy dose of sun. How much is enough? Everyone is different. We carry around the best sunscreen on the market every day – our skin. We just need to read the label and apply common sense frequently.
So, does that mean that commercial sunscreens are defunct? Of course not, but nothing is as broad spectrum and as personally prescribed as your own skin. A commercial sunscreen, however good, will still let some sunlight through. This is OK if you are paying attention and listening to your body as you enjoy your day on the beach. We run into problems when we hand over responsibility for our skin’s safety to the sun lotion. The two need to be used together.
A good broad-spectrum sunscreen and some behavior modification will ensure that going outside is not only safe, it is fun and life affirming. As for the immunosuppressant – nothing suppresses the immune system faster than a depressed person who is depriving their bodies of the good things that nature has to offer and that include the sun. Come outside.
This article was written in collaboration with Dr. Gavin Greenoak, Managing and Scientific Director of the Australian Photobiology Testing Facility, at the University of Sydney, Australia.