The solar season is upon us, so get ready for the barrage of advice on how to protect your dermal layer. It's absolutely true that too much sun increases your risk of skin cancer and can depress your immune system, worsening illnesses like herpes and lupus, and also increases your risk of developing cataracts or other eye problems later in life.
The trouble is, for many people too little sun is just as real a concern. Without sun exposure, your body doesn't make vitamin D. Without enough vitamin D, you're at increased risk of prostate, breast and colon cancer as well as juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis and osteomalacia, a bone disease that some experts say masquerades as chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia.
Sunscreen, even at a low SPF, greatly reduces your ability to make vitamin D. If you avoid all unprotected exposure to the sun, you have to take in 1,000 IU vitamin D per day through your diet, which isn't easy unless you're super-dedicated. Don't try to get your vitamin D by taking megadoses of multivitamin supplements. You run the risk of vitamin A poisoning.
The darker your skin, the better protected you are against the sun, and the higher your risk of vitamin D deficiency. That's especially true in more northern climes like Toronto, where even whites have a high risk of developing vitamin D deficiency, especially in winter. For most people. it doesn't take a lot of unprotected exposure to meet their vitamin D requirements - maybe five minutes of noonday sun on the arms and legs twice a week.
What the experts say
"Dermatologists don't have a clue about human nutrition. A little bit of sunlight should be considered a friend, because it provides you with your vitamin D requirement. In the absence of sun, you need at least 1,000 IU a day to satisfy your body's requirements. You'd have to make a major effort to begin to approach that. Wearing a sunscreen of SPF 8 reduces your ability to make vitamin D by 95 per cent. I'm not suggesting you bake outside. Just get some sensible exposure."
MICHAEL F. HOLICK , professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics, Boston University Medical Center, author, The UV Advantage
"There have now been studies showing that vitamins taken by mouth can reduce the skin damage caused by ultraviolet rays. That being said, supplementation does not replace sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses , avoiding midday sun and seeking shade . Eighty per cent of UV penetrates clouds, and every time you get burned you increase your risk of skin cancer. To use the sun as your vitamin D source is harmful. Much safer sources are multivitamins , milk and your diet. Whenever you're getting sun exposure, wear sunscreen. Be really conscientious about protection, especially between 10 am and 4 pm."
PAUL COHEN , dermatologist, Toronto, Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Sciences Centre
"Moderation is key. Exposure to sunlight causes the activation of inflammatory prostaglandins. Fish oils like EPA and DHA can reduce the synthesis of these inflammatory substances. Use vitamin E internally as an antioxidant. Properly hydrating reduces the impact of the sun. I suggest a water-soluble, PABA-free sunblock . No sunblock really effectively absorbs UVC rays (the most carcinogenic), and that's something no one talks about.'
ERIC MARSDEN , naturopath, Toronto
"In Chinese medicine, the sun is the ultimate yang tonic - it boosts yang in the body. Yang is any active functional process, movement or growth. Metabolism is a yang process, as is the synthesis of vitamin D in our skin. Yang tonics are quite potent and not to be abused or overdosed on. Early-morning or late-afternoon sunlight is what you should expose yourself to. Too much heat and sun exposure can agitate the emotions. (To keep cool) drink chrysanthemum flower tea with mint . I prefer clothing and umbrellas to sunblock. Titanium dioxide sunblock is the least harmful."
ADINA STANESCU , traditional Chinese medicine practitioner, founder, TCM Skin Clinic, Toronto
"Most people can tolerate 20 to 30 minutes of being out on a sunny day without fear (of damaging their eyes). The problem comes on a day that's intensely sunny when people are out more than 45 minutes. Sunglasses are important so that any damage can be repaired quickly. The jelly-like mass in the eye can turn liquid when there's too much sun and in the absence of certain nutrients and the presence of too much supplemental vitamin C (more than 1,500 milligrams daily). We need to get adequate zinc and copper to produce SOD (an enzyme that helps repair eye damage)."
BENJAMIN LANE , nutritional optometrist, director Nutritional Optometry Institute, NYC