Dazed and Confused About Sun Protection?

This recent comment from a reader raised some excellent questions about one of the most vital aspects of a healthy seasonal skincare routine:What about wearing sunscreen in the winter? I saw an article that said wearing it this time of year could lead to a vitamin D deficiency. Is that true? Also one of my friends insists that skin cancer rates have actually gone up since people started wearing sun protection—and that sunscreen is full of "poisons." There seems to be a lot of disagreement and confusion surrounding this whole issue. I'd really appreciate a professional opinion! sunscreen controversy A Balanced Perspective on Sun Protection For today's skincare consumers, the search for definitive answers to these questions can get pretty frustrating. New and contradictory opinions about the risks and benefits of sunscreens seem to pop up in the media almost daily. One of my goals as a skincare educator is help you make informed decisions about this growing multitude of competing and conflicting claims about your health and beauty practices and the personal care products you use.  Let's start by looking beyond the hype and the headlines to what the scientific evidence is really saying… Should sunscreen be worn in the winter? The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) and the National Institutes of Health (DIH) continue to recommend wearing sunscreen all year-round. Substantial evidence supports the wisdom of this advice. Repeated studies by leading research institutions confirm that incremental cell damage occurs with each exposure to solar radiation. That means even the low doses we absorb in the winter and on cloudy and rainy days can increase our risk of cancer and accelerate the development of wrinkles, brown spots, and other visible signs of aging. wintertime sunscreen use Does that mean our skin should never be exposed to sunlight? Not according to current scientific opinion. Unless you're literally allergic to sunlight, a mole-like existence isn't really a healthy alternative. Sunshine plays an important role in helping our bodies synthesize vitamin D, a vital nutrient that helps not only maintain strong bones, but also regulate cellular, neuromuscular, and immune functioning. Do I need to risk bone disease and other serious health problems to save my skin? Not at all. The amount of sun exposure our bodies need to manufacture adequate levels of vitamin D is relatively small. According to the National Institute of Health's (NIH's) most recent fact sheet on this subject, most people require approximately 5–30 minutes of sun exposure of an area of your body such as your arms, legs, or back at least twice a week without sunscreen. To estimate a reasonable amount of exposure for yourself, consider the amount of melanin (the brown pigment that reduces UV absorption) in your skin, the time of day, weather conditions, and other factors that affect the sun's intensity. While I advise always wearing sun block on your face to keep visible sun damage at bay, that doesn't mean being wrapped up in hats and scarves during a long, hard winter will put you at serious risk of a vitamin D deficiency. According to the NIH, "ample opportunities exist to form vitamin D (and store it in the liver and fat) from exposure to sunlight during the spring, summer, and fall months even in the far north latitudes.” The inclusion of a variety of whole food sources of vitamin D (see the top 15) in our diet can also help ensure out blood levels of this nutrient remain optimal all year long. The NIH fact sheet also makes another important point. Scientists have yet to reach a consensus about how much vitamin D we need to stay healthy. Likewise, the issue of which factors play the dominant role in determining the vitamin D levels in our bloodstream remains open to debate. (I'll say more about vitamin D and sun exposure in a future post.) Do sunscreens provide safe, effective sun protection? The weight of scientific evidence supports the inclusion of sunscreen in your total defense system against UVR-induced skin damage. But while sunscreen may be a useful adjunct to your sun safety practices, it's not meant to serve as a replacement for reliable commonsense measures, including wearing a hat and protective clothing, staying in the shade, and avoiding exposure during the hottest part of the day. Is there any truth to recent media reports claiming that using sunscreen actually does more harm than good? The real story behind the sensational headlines not only raises a variety of complex questions but also points to some potential answers that may surprise you. In my next blog spot, you'll learn why viewing the sunscreen issues in terms of black and white can lead to risky health decisions. Find out more about the safety and efficacy of sunscreen in my next post.