Anyone who has ever had their Vitamin D level measured in Cleveland needs no reminding that a sunny day is one heck of a great thing in our community!
Summer is on its way, the sun is clearly higher in the sky, the days are wonderfully longer, its bright out!!
Every year I am sure I join with everyone else in celebrating the return of the light and warmth, and love getting back outside in the warm glow of our sun.
But sure enough, every year, there are all the doctors and all the medical articles and blogs with the message that all this glorious sunlight, is dangerous.
Is it? Can we enjoy summer, or do we have to worry about even the light?
Sunlight and Biology
The very good news is that sunlight is not only good for your health, it is necessary for life. No sun, no life, easy to prove. Just look at any rock that gets substantially less light than our Earth, they all are dead. We tend to think the fundamental engine of life is DNA, but it isn’t the engine is energy. We now know that before DNA could help life reproduce, life needed energy to do anything. We get our energy from food and oxygen, but our food comes from plants, or animals that eat plants, and all our oxygen comes from plants. There would be no plants without sunshine.
So the first point is that the sun is great for life and health.
Secondly, there is that Vitamin D. It’s curious, this is, as far as I know, the only chemical that needs sunlight to be created. But even if there are others, no sunlight, no Vitamin D.
So add this to the list of health benefits.
Thirdly, sunlight makes us happy. This is no small thing. Unhappiness is a tremendous source of health. Clearly happy people get ill, but deep and sustained depressions and other mental health disorders lead to significant increases in terrible health events, like heart disease and cancer. There is plenty of evidence that a sunny day cheers humanity. Sustained, dark, gloomy days increase the frequency and depth of depressions. Sunlight cannot solve out mental health difficulties, but it clearly helps.
Sunlight and Cancer
Given the above, we should be opening the doors and welcoming the sun to beam on our children. And we should.
But the one caution has to do with skin cancer. There is a clear relationship between the ultraviolet radiation of sunlight and various skin cancers.
There are two main types of skin cancer: melanoma and all the rest. Melanoma stands apart because it is so deadly, whereas all the others are far less so, if at all. The non-melanoma skin cancers, let’s call them NM skin cancers, really do not spread very well and they grow slowly, so they tend to be easily removed and cured. Melanoma, is just the opposite, it grows about as fast as any cancer and spreads better than most too. Miss your window to detect it and you can end up in grave danger.
Now, UV light from the sun clearly is connected to the NM skin cancers. They happen mostly on parts of the body exposed to sun, and not covered areas. They are more common with more total number of hours of sun exposure.
Not so clear with melanoma, there are indications that the more sun the more melanoma, but the case is not as solid as with NM skin cancers. One line of evidence even suggests it is bursts of sun UV exposure, not total number of hours that is tied to melanoma.
But in any case, it seems prudent to protect our children from the sort of UV radiation exposure from the sun that can cause the skin to burn or even redden.
Protecting our Children from the Sun’s UV rays
There are four options to keep the sun’s UV radiation from burning our children:
- Stay inside- an unacceptable option.
Let’s start with the last, chemicals. These are the famous sunscreens. They work by letting you rub various chemicals in skin that absorb UV radiation. Most of us, by the way, make such a chemical, it’s called melanin and it’s the yellow pigment that determines our color and our tan. Sunscreens now offer a wide variety of chemicals to do the trick.
They are rated mainly by how long you can soak the sun’s rays without getting burned, by reference to a Sun Protective Factor, SPF. The market has pushed SPF values up and up and up.
Many agencies state an SPF of 30 is fine, but whatever the SPF, 30 or greater, it should be applied at least 30 minutes before going outdoors, and reapplied every 2 hours.
Now what is meant by paint? The paints are chemicals that simply cover the skin and do not allow the UV radiation to hit the skin. The most famous is zinc oxide, a white pigment familiar to all who use Desitin. Apply zinc oxide and you will be painted white (or whatever color the manufacturer tints it). This option works well, tends to last much longer than sunscreen, and you can literally see if it wears off.
How can clothing help? An exploding number of companies are now making UV opaque swim wear. Wear such a shirt and pants and your skin won’t see any UV radiation. On a recent vacation with our family in Hong Kong, we were on a beach in Asia and only Americans were wearing bathing suits. All the kids and adults wore shirts and pants made to swim in. Add a cool hat, and then you only need to paint face, hands, and feet with paint or chemicals, and your child will be completely safe from the rays.
A Question on Sunscreen Chemicals
Sadly, we must pass along some questions about the chemicals in sunscreens. A recent news report from the great medical journal JAMA, shows that the most common chemicals in sunscreen get absorbed into our bloodstream. Here is the trouble, there are some questions are being raised about whether these chemicals can cause health problems, in the areas of endocrine function, reproduction, development, and cancer. Unfortunately, the companies that make sunscreen chemicals have not found out if they do cause harm, despite requests to do so from the FDA. At this point we simply do not know.
- The sun is great. It gives us life, it makes us happy, it is great to play under. It gives us Vitamin D
- The only problem is skin cancer, certainly all non-melanoma skin cancers, and likely melanoma too.
- We recommend playing outside, swimming, having fun, and blocking UV radiation hitting your kid’s skin.
- Top choice: clothing. Hats, light but UV opaque shirts and pants. At the playground, long sleeves and pants work best, again, find airy clothes that still block UV. At the pool and beach, it’s time to say good bye to the swimsuit culture, and move to UV protected swim wear for arms legs and body.
- For exposed skin after clothing, consider use of zinc oxide as the top choice for sun protection.
- Sunscreen remains a good option, though questions now hover. If you use sunscreen, needs to be placed 30 minutes prior to the sun, and reapplied every 2 hours.
- Short times in the sun, and time before 10AM and after 4PM can lead to less UV exposure and less concern, too.
Here is to enjoying this summer, we hope thinking about UV doesn’t take any of the dazzle of the glorious sun away!!