Is sitting in the sun really that dangerous?
Posted on 24th May 2017 at 07:30
With the annual fortnight in the sun beckoning for many people, it’s a good time to put the spotlight on one of the most pervasive summertime health myths. It’s repeated countless times every summer and goes like this:
Sitting in the sun is dangerous; if you don’t use sunscreen your skin will burn and you’ll get skin cancer.
Now if you stop and think about it for a minute, this message doesn’t make any sense at all.
And we all know someone who's ended up looking like this. Or, perhaps, have done it ourselves.....
Anyway, before we digress any further.
To start with being outside in the sun isn’t inherently dangerous. It’s one of the delights of the summer and has a huge number of health benefits. Not only does it make us feel good, but helps reset our body clock and hormones. It allows our skin to manufacture Vitamin D which is essential for healthy teeth, bones, muscle function and immune system function. Ironically, it also helps protect against certain cancers. More about this later.
What can be dangerous is our approach to being in the sun. Of sitting for hours in the full sun in a much hotter climate, expecting skin not exposed to the sun over a long winter to suddenly produce a golden tan. Not building up exposure gradually is one of the main reasons for people getting sunburnt in the first few days of their annual holiday. So is not covering up in the hottest parts of the day. As so often is the case, problems are largely due to a lack of commonsense, rather than the activity itself.
Which takes us on to sunscreens and the false sense of security they provide. This is particularly the case with those offering high protection factors, 50 SPF and above. The message given is that high protection factors mean that you can safely stay out in the sun all day. It sounds so comforting doesn’t it? But, sadly, this message is far too simplistic.
The reason for this is that the sun produces many different types of rays. However, we only need to look at two here, UVA and UVB.
UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis, the thick outer layer of the skin. Without protection this can lead to premature skin ageing, wrinkling and suppression of the immune system. As the damage is deeper, it can take many years for it to become apparent.
By contrast, UVB rays don’t penetrate the skin so deeply. Damage is more superficial – usually seen as a burning on the outer layer of the skin – and appears more quickly. However, the damage caused by skin being burnt – particularly repeatedly over the years – plays a key role in the development of skin cancer. This is the reason why most sunscreens focus on UVB protection.
The often quoted SPF – Sun Protection Factor – most people rely on when buying sunscreen only measures protection from UVB rays. It’s based on the assumption that if it takes 20 minutes for unprotected skin to start turning red and burning, then a SPF of 5 would theoretically allow you to stay in the sun for 5 times longer before any reddening occurs.
However it ignores the fact that by the time redness appears, the damage has already been done. In addition everyone’s skin is different. While the assumptions behind SPF may be true for one person, they may not be true for you.
Just to make matters even more confusing, the amounts of UVA and UVB vary depending on the time of day, season and location; making it virtually impossible to work out how much sun exposure is “safe” for you. It’s little wonder that people can become sunburn so easily despite slathering on a high SPF sunscreen.
Which brings us on to the sunscreen itself.
Out of interest, have you ever actually read the ingredients label for the sunscreen you intend to buy? Done a little research to see exactly what they contain? Probably not.
Most people don’t get any further than the very reassuring tag lines prominently displayed on the front of the bottle. While they may sound good they don’t really tell you anything. “All day protection.” “Blocks all harmful rays.” “Suitable for sensitive skin.”
So, if you haven’t done this before, here’s an example from a babies sunscreen found in a well known chain of high street chemists. Its tag line reads:
“Hypoallergic suncare lotion for babies, 50 SPF, paediatrician approved, water resistant.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Here are the list of ingredients:
Aqua, C12-15 alkyl benzoate, Octocrylene, Butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane, Butylene glycol, Tridecyl salicylate, Methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol, Polyglyceryl-3 methylglucose distearate, Dimethicone, PVP/eicosene copolymer, Bis-ethylhexyloxyphenol methoxyphenyl triazine, Tribehenin, Diethylhexyl butamido triazone, Phenoxyethanol, Decyl glucoside, Ethylhexyl salicylate, Potassium cetyl phosphate, Caprylyl glycol, Methylparaben, Butyrospermum parkii butter, Tocopheryl acetate, Ethylparaben, Ethylhexylglycerin, Vitis vinifera seed oil, Acrylates/vinyl isodecanoate crosspolymer, Glycerin, Tetrasodium EDTA, Potassium hydroxide, Propylene glycol, Aloe barbadensis leaf juice powder, Xanthan gum, Panax ginseng extract, Sodium ascorbyl phosphate.
Now, apart from the first ingredient, aqua – water – how many of the ingredients can you actually pronounce?
Let alone know what they are? Probably none. If you’re anything like us, you’d have to look most of them up – and, if you did, weren’t much the wiser when you had!
It’s quite a cocktail of different chemicals, with the effects of each one being difficult to calculate. Let alone how they react to each other – and together.
And this cocktail is then applied directly to hot skin when the pores are open, so allowing some of them to pass through it and into the cells below.
It’s little wonder that concern has been expressed about the safety of sunscreens themselves. A ground breaking study in 2014 found that more than 66% of conventional sunscreens contained chemicals linked to hormone disruption, allergies, increased ageing and damage to skin cells resulting in lesions, tumours and skin cancers. And this is from a product that’s marketed as helping to prevent skin cancers…
While a number of ingredients have been highlighted over the years including Zinc Oxide and Titanium Oxide; Vitamin A derivatives such as retinyl and retinyl palmitate are now causing particular concern. This is because they are photo carcinogenic, ie, they become toxic when exposed to sunlight. Interestingly, a FDA report found that sunscreens containing Vitamin A caused tumours and lesions to develop and spread 21% faster than sunscreens that didn’t contain them. Sadly, this advice has never been passed on to the public.
Just to make matters worse sunscreens prevent the skin from absorbing sunshine and manufacturing Vitamin D. As mentioned above not only is Vitamin D essential for many body functions but, ironically, protects against certain cancers. These include those of the Pancreas, Lung, Ovaries, Breast, Prostate and Skin.
So, if we now go back to where we started, does following this advice still seem like such a good idea? Probably not.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the sunshine provided a little commonsense is used. Giving your skin time to acclimatise.
Covering up and sitting in the shade during the hottest part of the day. Perhaps even having a siesta. Keeping hydrated (!).
Remembering that holidays are about so much more than coming home with a tan – and one that’ll fade within a few days of getting home. It’s about relaxation and recharging your batteries, away from the stresses and strains of everyday life.
There are now a good range of plant based, natural sunscreens which will protect your skin without all the added chemicals. AND allow you to come home with a tan. So why not use one of these this year?
As always the choice is yours.
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