Now that the warmer weather seems to have hit for good, many runners are trying to do the responsible thing by reaching for their sunscreens. But each year the warnings from the natural health community proclaiming the evils of sunscreen seem to be getting louder. Who’s right?
The biggest fear behind sun exposure is skin cancer. Our ozone isn’t what it used to be, and we aren’t as protected from the sun’s rays. We also worry about wrinkles, freckles, discolorations, and burns.
On the flip side, sun exposure is required for our production of vitamin D. In this process the sun’s rays are absorbed through our skin and converted by our bodies into different forms of this essential vitamin.
Vitamin D is especially important for runners because it helps regulate calcium metabolism and normal calcification of the bones in our body, which means it supports our joints. Even if our calcium intake is adequate, a vitamin D deficiency will lead to poor bone calcification.
For a runner to perform at maximum capacity and injury free, bones must be supported by a combination of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D. Vitamin D also plays a role in maintaining the nervous system and heart function.
Skin is made up of 7 layers. The first five, we can see through. They make up what is known as our epidermis. Our epidermis is avascular, which means there is no direct blood supply to those layers. This is why we sometimes get superficial cuts and scratches without feeling or noticing them.
The dermis is made up of two deeper layers. One of them contains light touch receptors and the other contains our blood vessels, sweat glands, and oil glands.
1. Get a tan.
Tanning is something our body will do naturally to protect us from the sun. This pigmentation occurs in the epidermis layers of our skin and it is actually a form of adaptation to shield the deeper layers of skin where vitamin D is synthesized. Darker skin tones are more suited for sunlight exposure than lighter tones, so in many ways a natural, healthy tan is the best protection.
A general rule of thumb is to develop a good base tan before increasing sun exposure. This is usually accomplished by spending brief periods in the sun when it is less intense (before 11 am and after 3 pm) for no more than 20-30 minutes, three to four times per week (not every day). Fair-skinned individuals may want to limit exposure to 10-15 minutes. Even with a base tan, it is wise to try to limit exposure to 30-45 minutes during peak hours.
You know your own skin colour (fair or dark), how easily you burn, and how long you feel comfortable staying in the sun. Your body will often tell you through discomfort or burning when it has had enough. Listen to it.
2. Step away from the sunscreen.
High SPF sunscreens are great at preventing sunburns, but sometimes that’s part of the problem. Sunscreen will often give us a false sense of security, causing us to be out in the sun more than we should. A minor sunburn or discomfort is the body’s way of telling us, “Ok… that’s enough.”
Also, while mainstream sunscreens are great at protecting us against UVB rays (which cause sunburns), they don’t do much to protect us from UVA rays (which cause cancer). As a result, spending more time in the sun with a false sense of security actually increases our UVA ray exposure, and our chances of developing skin cancer.
3. Boost your immune system.
A strong, healthy immune system is one of our most important sources of protection from the potentially harmful effects of sunlight. We can boost our immune strength by consuming antioxidants rich in vitamins A, C, E, Zinc, and Selenium, as well as flavonoids like blueberries.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A SUNSCREEN
If you do decide to use sunscreen, try to look for the following:
- A lotion of no higher than 16 SPF. These offer some UVA ray (cancer) protection, and they don’t interfere as much with vitamin D production.
- Herbs and vitamins. Ingredients like vitamins A, C, E and aloe vera gel will help protect and heal the skin. Read the ingredients the way you would a food label. Your skin is absorbing all of them, and they will ultimately end up in your blood stream.
In Canada, we only get some good sun two or three months out of the year. So although I have the occasional sweaty run, I plan to really live it up this summer and soak up the sun as much as I possibly can in a healthy, responsible, and natural way.