Sunshine, Vitamin D & skin aging
Posted on 12th August 2023 at 16:46
Advice on skin aging due to sun exposure is confliciting, so what is the healthy option? Should you avoid the sun or avoid the sunscreen?
Back in 2018 BBC1 aired a programme titled the Truth About Looking Good which was presented by the very personable and engaging Cherry Healy. The 'Truth About...' programmes are all the rage at the moment but like all shows of this ilk, you do need to learn to read between the lines rather than taking everything at face value (no pun intended). For instance mentions were made both verbally and in the closing credits to research conducted by a company that sells (guess what?) skincare products, and in the context it was presented, that hardly constitutes independent, unbiased advice.
So here is what I want to question. Cherry Healy was 36 years old when the programme aired and in her own words a ‘self-confessed beauty product addict not averse to using fake tan’. In the programme her skin was tested to evaluate its condition in relation to her age and the outcome was that her skin was not aging well. The advice given was that sun exposure, in particular UVA rays, are the major cause of skin damage and premature skin aging and that a chemical sunscreen should be applied every time we set foot outdoors even during the winter. But is this really the case? In simple terms, UVA rays cause aging and UVB rays cause burning there is no doubt about that but does this mean that we should throw the baby out with the bath water and avoid sun exposure all together?
I don’t believe so and that is certainly not the advice of all scientists. There is plenty of evidence to support the physical and mental health benefits of regular, moderate sun exposure and for those of you who like to see the research you may want to check out this independent article from the NCBI.
Whilst taking into account the commonsense advice that sunburn should be avoided at all costs, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that sunlight is our main source of Vitamin D, a powerful natural antioxidant that aids in DNA repair. Vitamin D is not easily obtainable through our diets although some foods such as liver, oily fish, egg yolk, cheese and butter can provide modest amounts, so moderate sun exposure is the recognised way that we absorb this fat-soluble vitamin and store it in our cells for use during the winter months when our sun exposure is limited. Vitamin D is important for good overall health and strong and healthy bones as well as for making sure our muscles, heart, lungs and brain work efficiently and our immune systems remain strong. If we always cover up with sunscreen then we lose those vital benefits.
Chemical skincare products and sunscreens cause a free radical (FR) reaction in the body in the same way that excess sun exposure does, resulting in disease and cellular aging. We do not know how these chemicals react with each other and the long term effects repeated use of them will have on our health. We can however easily moderate our sun exposure. Applying topical, chemical products to our skin on a daily basis increases the toxic load in the body causing increasing free radical damage. I see this in my practice frequently when treating eczema – topical products often cause flare-ups and sunscreens and fake tan are the biggest culprits. It is very possible therefore that Cherry Healy’s advanced skin aging is due more to her overuse of products that it is to actual sun exposure.
So what to do? UVA and UVB rays in excess do promote free radical damage contributing to disease and premature aging, but so do chemical skincare products, and moderate sun exposure is vital to our good health. With all this in mind, this is the advice I give to my clients and follow personally:
• The best antidote to free radical damage which is implicated in both skin cancer and skin aging is antioxidants. These are absorbed by eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables throughout the year. Regular intake strengthens the skin and makes it less prone to sun damage.
• Be guided by your natural skin colouring when deciding how long you can spend safely out in the sun. It is unlikely you will burn when your shadow is longer than you are tall. Spending time outside in the height of the midday summer sun is almost asking to be burned especially in foreign climes hotter than our own.
• Have a walk outside during daylight hours throughout the winter months. You will not absorb huge amounts of vitamin D this way but you will top up your levels (vitamin D is fat soluble which means it is absorbed during times of high sun exposure, normally during the summer months, and released into the body at times when absorption is low, usually during the winter months). Vitamin D is vital to good health.
• Moisturise with a facial serum or balm. High quality, organic vegetable oils have a very low natural SPF – usually 4 at tops. They are also rich in antioxidants so will naturally negate free radicals and promote cellular repair.
• If you are going to spend a long time out in strong sunlight (skiing and sailing are good examples of this, where the sun’s effects are magnified by reflecting off the snow or water) use a high quality, natural sunscreen.
• Activities that promote free radical production, such as intense exercise – think Ironman, marathon running, long distance cycling etc; or drinking excess alcohol will enhance the negative effects of excess sun exposure.
• Staying well hydrated helps increase antioxidant production and cellular repair – drink plenty of water and consume pure natural sea salt (especially Celtic sea salt), not table salt that dehydrates the body and promotes free radical damage.
• Cover up with a cotton shirt and a wide brimmed hat if there is any chance you will get sunburned, especially if you are fair skinned.
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