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How did we become so afraid of the sun?
Our obsession with sun-blocking products could be doing more harm than good
Exposure to direct sunlight is a vital part of human health. It regulates circadian rhythm, improves sleep quality, stimulates Vitamin D production, boosts your mood, improves bone function, lowers blood pressure, supports metabolism, and can even help to calm stress and inflammatory responses. As far back as 2008, indoor lifestyles and sunshine avoidance were identified as likely contributors to heart disease as well as rising rates of autoimmune disease.
How did we come to fear direct exposure to sunlight as a general rule?
Concern around excessive sun exposure isn’t unique to our time. In fact, traditional cultures took special precautions to avoid overexposure and sunburns. They applied rice bran oil, butter, and extracts from trees, roots, and plants for protection. However, these products didn’t block the UVA rays like most of our modern sunblocks do.
Marketing of SPF (Sun Protectant Factor) products appeared only in the 1950s, at a level of just 5 SPF. Sun protection as a practice blew up in the early 1960s and continued to rise with the increasing concern about possible connections between sun exposure and skin cancers.
But have you ever paused to think about what’s actually in these lotions and sprays? Study after study shows that the active ingredients in these products disrupt the endocrine system and the body’s ability to produce hormones.
As summer came to a close across North America, the Senza coaching team did some digging into the latest research. We were undecided whether to share the results so late in the year, but now as winter approaches, people are wondering about light therapy, seasonal depression, and maybe dreaming of tropical beach vacations.
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Here are some key facts to consider:
The active ingredients in sunscreen, such as oxybenzone and octocrylene, have been found to be absorbed into the body after as little as one use, in levels that exceed the FDA’s stated threshold - and these levels persist within the body for weeks after exposure.
Octocrylene naturally breaks down into benzophenone, a presumed carcinogen that may also cause endocrine and reproductive dysfunction, and is present in many common sunscreens and after-sun products.
Engineered nanoparticles like zinc oxide, often marketed as reef-safe products, come with their own special risks. Because they are so small, they can pass through to any part of the body, and they may be especially harmful to children.
We’re conditioned to think of the sun as a contributor to different types of skin cancer, but that doesn’t give us the whole story. In this analysis of melanoma mortality rates in recent decades, levels skin cancer did not decrease with the introduction of “sun protection” lotions we slather all over ourselves. In fact, the rates have dramatically increased despite the push to stay out of the sun and reapply your SPF every hour.
Non-melanoma skin cancers (NMSC) are believed to be more closely associated with constant or cumulative sun exposure, but other risk factors likely play a role, including a weakened immune system, medications, and chronic inflammation.
What else could be contributing to the rise in skin cancer rates, if it isn’t the sun?
Chronic inflammation affects your body's ability to cope with free radicals, especially in the skin. Some common drivers of always-on inflammation include:
Blood sugar dysregulation
Consumption of vegetable seed oils
Eating ultra-processed foods that are loaded with chemicals but lack real nutrients
High stress levels of everyday work/life
Long-term use of medications
What should a wellness-minded person do about the sun?
Get smart about sun exposure: Don’t avoid it entirely, but recognize extreme situations when you need to protect your skin.
Expose your eyes to direct sunlight first thing in the morning to ensure a good night’s sleep. Skip the sunglasses in bright daylight and wear blue-blockers in the evening.
Focus on foods rich in zinc, active Vitamin A, and Vitamin E - micronutrients that can help to protect the skin.
Cover up with hats and layers rather than slathering on the sunscreen.
Use non-nano zinc oxide to guard against extended/intensive sun exposure. It’s the best option for your body and the planet.
DIY your sun protection, so you know exactly what’s in it and can avoid common endocrine disruptors.
Avoid consuming industrially produced vegetable oils, even in small amounts.
Supplement Vitamin D in fall-winter-spring, when natural sunlight isn’t strong enough to stimulate production in the body.
Consider red light therapy as a way of combating inflammation and stimulating collagen production.
Proceed with caution if you’re curious about UV light therapy lamps that mimic outdoor light - these are mainly used to treat skin disorders vs. providing the same health benefits of natural sunlight.
There are going to be situations where you need protection from overexposure to the sun. This will depend on variables including your location, activity, nutrition, skin tone, and length of time you’ll be outside. For example, if you’re planning a beach vacation and haven’t been exposed to the sun in months, it’s best to exercise caution.
National Library of Medicine: Sunlight and Vitamin D: Necessary for Public Health
Journal of Internal Medicine: Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for all-cause mortality
Yale Medicine: Is My Sunscreen Safe?
Perfect Keto: What Red Light Therapy Can Do for Your Health
Science Direct: Fun fact, sun exposure can even improve libido!