Sun Safety: How To Minimize Skin Damage, Preserve Skin Health and Still Have Fun In the Sun

Sun Safety: How To Minimize Skin Damage, Preserve Skin Health and Still Have Fun In the Sun

By George Gillson, MD, PhD

Most of us love to be out in the sun and here’s why:

  1. You get Vitamin D for free.
  2. Sunlight feels good on your skin and that warming near-infrared radiation (the light that lurks close to/below the red end of the visible spectrum) has many health benefits. I’m only listing a few here but they definitely fall under the umbrella of anti-aging: faster wound healing, increased energy, increased flexibility, improved circulation and decreased joint and muscle pain.
  3. You usually get exercise: beersbee, sailing, body surfing, tubing, waterskiing, windsurfing, volleyball, spikeball, bocci, running, etc. Did I forget to mention Beersbee?

However, we all know that excessive sun exposure comes with a price: accelerated skin aging (wrinkles, sagging, blotches) and skin cancer. No one wants to wind up looking like this:

And make no mistake, skin cancer in the wrong location can be very bad news and require serious surgery to remove.

The most obvious thing that we can do to mitigate damage from sun exposure is to stay indoors during the day. That seems counterproductive. And also a tad vampirish. You can wear high-tech UV-blocking clothing but I feel like it kind of sucks the life out of the party if you know what I mean.  Plus you might be mistaken for a beekeeper or something.

high-tech UV-blocking clothing

Appropriate sunscreen, used correctly, accompanied by specific supplemental antioxidant nutrients, in tandem with nutrition to support healthy skin and bolstered by steroid hormone balancing, seems like a rational approach: the downside is that it also makes for a long sentence.

You want a broad spectrum sunscreen, meaning that it will block both UVA and UVB. Whereas the invisible or almost-invisible light you see at the red end of the spectrum is beneficial, the invisible ultraviolet light (the light up past the violet end of the spectrum) is damaging. UVA causes skin aging and UVB causes skin burning.

What about the SPF number? SPF is the Sun Protection Factor and tells you the fraction of UV that is allowed through. An SPF of 30 means that only 1/30th of the UV gets through. The flip side of this is that 29/30ths of the UV is blocked! 29/30ths is 96.7%

It’s left as an exercise to the reader to demonstrate that an SPF of 70 blocks 98.6% of the UV. That’s a difference of 1.9% from SPF 30. If you’re spending a bunch more for SPF 70 vs SPF 30, it’s probably not worth it.

Just so you know, coconut butter has an SPF rating of 5. Good old Vaseline comes in at SPF 50. There are products now available with SPFs of 100 to 200 (99.5% blockage of UV). Dermatologists call this “SPF creep” and say it’s expensive and unnecessary. You might as well root around in your furnace room, find some leftover latex paint and give yourself a good coating. It will eventually wash off.

So what exactly does UV light do to your skin? Good question! Since it is more energetic than visible light, it can knock electrons loose from stable molecules in your skin creating reactive molecules called free radicals. These radicals can then act just like UV, damaging more skin proteins and skin repair enzymes, setting up a chain reaction of electron-stealing havoc. This leads to the aging and cancer-promoting DNA damage.

From a chemistry/physics standpoint, there are two approaches behind smoothing a product on your skin to protect it from UV radiation. One is the chemical approach which is to load up the product with synthetic molecules that are antioxidants. You could think of them as sponges. (More on this in a minute.) The other approach is the physical approach which is to load the product with tiny mineral particles that reflect the UV, bouncing it off the skin or weakening and scattering the UV radiation as it attempts to pinball its way through the layer of product.

There are pros and cons to both approaches and the following link offers a nice discussion of this, along with listing other factors that might help you with your choice: Research is ongoing to come up with formulations that offer the best of both approaches.

If you’re going to use sunscreen, you need to use it correctly! Again, this next link tells you what you need to know: Most people make the mistake of not applying sunscreen often enough and this can actually turn the sunscreen against you, per the following diagram:

not applying sunscreen often enough and this can actually turn the sunscreen against you

AllumierMD is a product favored by practitioners at EvolveWell. It’s moisturizing, broad spectrum, suitable in strength (SPF 40) and very clean, using only natural ingredients (no dyes, parabens, phthalates, synthetic antioxidants or artificial fragrances). It blocks UV by physical means but has a natural tint and can be used as a foundation.

AllumierMD is a moisturizing, broad spectrum, suitable in strength (SPF 40)

Antioxidants. What are they, exactly?

Antioxidants are “tough guy” molecules. They can lose an electron via UV or free radical attack without themselves turning into free radicals and this stops the chain reactions mentioned above. They can be synthesized industrial chemicals or they can be naturally-occurring. Happily, many fruits and vegetables are loaded with antioxidants, especially the deeply-colored foods. There are hundreds of sites listing foods high in antioxidants so I’m not reproducing a list here.

Ideally, just by eating plenty of antioxidant-rich foods, you would gain a lot of protection from the sun. Don’t be afraid to eat butter from grass-fed cows either! This type of butter is rich in antioxidant carotenoids. If you can’t get your hands on high-quality fruits and vegetables along with the high-octane butter then you should supplement. Ask your Integrative/Functional Medine practitioner about good antioxidant-blend supplements.

Also ask about MSM, as it exerts an anti-inflammatory effect and has been studied for its UV-protective ability. I spent quite a bit of time talking about it in the May 2023 post entitled: It’s That Time of Year Again: Seasonal Allergies Part 1. You can get a good MSM summary paper-free-of charge here:

There isn’t much point to my reiterating what I wrote previously about the importance of supplementing with collagen and other nutrients to support skin repair. (See the two-part post from July 2022 entitled: How To Become a Successful Body-Part Model.)

Last but not least, steroid hormones play a significant role in skin health. Some companies have been known to surreptitiously add the hormones estradiol and estriol to expensive over-the-counter anti-aging creams because of the youth-preserving effects of these hormones. All I can say is that when I was a Family Doctor, I would regularly see women in their eighties who had been supplementing with prescribed estrogen and/or progesterone (under the direction of an Integrative/Functional Medicine practitioner).  Their skin was much softer and smoother relative to women their age who were not using hormones.

But it’s not just about estrogens and progesterone. At any age past childhood, testosterone is important for tissue repair and maintenance whereas too much cortisol production may prematurely age the skin through depletion of the structural proteins: collagen and elastin. The steroid pro-hormone DHEA may also promote skin health through its conversion to estrogens and testosterone.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: you need to work with an Integrative/Functional Medicine practitioner to balance your hormones so they can synergize with all the other measures you can take to prevent sun damage to the skin.

In 1897, Francis Pharcellus Church wrote an editorial in the New York Sun in which he said: “Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.” I’ll close this post by paraphrasing that and saying, “Yes Virginia, you CAN close the barn door after the horse has bolted.”

What that means is that if prevention isn’t your strong suit and you haven’t been kind to your skin over the years, you can still do some “renovation and rejuvenation.” In the next post, I’ll talk about technology new to the EvolveWell Clinic, which will do just that: the Venus Viva™ MD skin treatment system.

Meanwhile, go play some Beersbee!

George Gillson MD PhD

Author: George Gillson, MD, PHD, CCFP
EvolveWell Medical Director