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"I hope you put lots of sunscreen on him!" said my neighbor as she saw my fair-skinned son playing in the backyard on a sunny summer morning

"I hope you put lots of sunscreen on him!" said my neighbor as she saw my fair-skinned son playing in the backyard on a sunny summer morning.

We don't use sunscreen products in our family, however. Rather, we eat a natural foods diet that promotes skin health. And we use common sense. We enjoy the sun in the early morning and late afternoon and avoid it at midday, when it's most intense.

Commercial chemical sunscreens are promoted as the best protection against sun damage, next to complete sunlight avoidance. The rising incidence of skin cancer has fanned fears that greater intensity of sunlight, prompted by ozone depletion, is the chief culprit. We are told to lather on sunscreen lotions with a high sun protection factor (SPF) whenever we venture outdoors.

This shouldn't be your only protection, however. If prolonged sun exposure is unavoidable, use a physical sunscreen which contains inert minerals such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or talc. In contrast to chemical sunscreens, which absorb ultraviolet B rays, physical sunscreens reflect both types of ultraviolet rays away from the skin. Check the labels carefully! A growing number of scientists is concerned that sunscreens promote a false sense of security because they protect against sunburn but not skin cancer. In fact, sunscreen use has been linked to higher skin cancer rates!

Most sunscreens work by blocking out UVB rays, which cause reddening of sun-exposed skin and ultimately sunburn. Yet sunburn is the body's built-in alarm system it tells us when we've had too much sun. When we turn off the alarm with a chemical sunscreen, our skin doesn't burn, but it still receives the longer UVA rays, which are even more dangerous. These rays are absorbed in the deep layers of the skin by melanocytes, which are involved in melanoma formation. They also depress the immune system and contribute to premature aging of skin.

UVB rays, on the other hand, perform an important function in the body: they help the skin make vitamin D, an essential nutrient for the absorption of calcium and other minerals from the diet. Vitamin D produced in the skin is functionally superior to commercial vitamin D, such as that added to milk and other fortified foods.

Research has shown that residents of northern latitudes frequently suffer from vitamin D deficiency, especially in the winter. Applying sunscreen further curtails the body's UVB supply and vitamin D production. The elderly are at especially high risk. An article in the April 28, 1998 issue of Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter warns: "People over 50 should not apply sunscreen as soon as they go outside but wait 10 to 15 minutes," in addition to taking supplemental vitamin D.

Low blood levels of vitamin D have also been associated with higher risk of breast and colon cancer and may accelerate the growth of melanoma.

Preventing the skin from receiving ultraviolet rays by applying sunscreen may suppress other healthy processes in the body. The many health benefits of ultraviolet light include lowering of blood pressure, increased heart efficiency, reduced serum cholesterol levels and improved thyroid function.

Sunny Suggestions

  1. Eat a natural whole foods diet high in vegetables and fruits and pay close attention to your intake of essential fatty acids. Dr Johanna Budwig, a German scientist whose research has focussed on the role of essen tial fatty acids and protein in the cure of cancer, observed that the types of fats we eat determine how the body reacts to sun shine. Her findings indicate that a diet emphasizing oils rich in essential fatty acids, such as evening primrose and flax seed oils, protects skin against sun damage.
  2. Restrict direct sunlight exposure to the early morning and late afternoon hours. Avoid spending time in the sun between 10 am and 3 pm.
  3. Wear light-colored clothing made from natural fibre. This will reflect sunlight and help you stay cool.
  4. A wide-brimmed hat to protect the eyes and face from direct sunlight is preferable to sunglasses. Optimal functioning of the endocrine system depends on the absorption of sunlight (including ultraviolet) through the eyes. Sunglasses disrupt this important physiological process and should only be worn when absolutely necessary, such as when driving a car or boat.
  5. Build up a moderate suntan gradually by spending time outdoors in the early morning and late afternoon regularly. A natural suntan offers effective skin protection and ensures optimal vitamin D levels.

Natural Help for Sunburn

Mother nature's medicine chest has a number of effective first-aid remedies if you've inadvertently stayed in the sun too long and developed a sunburn. (Important: seek medical help if sunburn is severe and sunstroke might be involved.)

  • Aloe vera gel cools and soothes the skin and promotes healing.
  • Plain yogurt cools skin and helps to reestablish its natural acid mantle.
  • Essential oil of lavender, applied undiluted or in a poultice, promotes rapid healing without scarring.
  • Once blisters are dry and partially healed, apply vitamin E oil to speed up the healing process.
  • Drink plenty of distilled water and supplement with vitamins A, C and E, as well as essential fatty acids in the form of evening primrose or flax seed oil. This will help keep the skin
    properly hydrated and promote healing from the inside out.
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