Navigating claims about sunscreen and vitamin D
To SPF or not to SPF—is this really a question?
After embarking on a Skin Cleanse-inspired hiatus from my normal products, I reevaluated my relationship with sunscreen. Normally, I wear SPF 30. A light layer comes from my moisturizer (this tried-and-true star sunscreen), and another light layer comes from my BB cream/primer/foundation. Also, I only use mineral sunscreens (i.e. physical sunscreens as opposed to chemical/synthetic ones). My strict sunscreen habits aren’t unusual—especially among women of my generation who see something like this and run for shade (and that fourth layer of sunscreen).
When I was on my skin cleanse, I didn’t put anything on my face in the morning. Although I was skeptical about not even moisturizing (ahh!), it turned out to feel amazing. My skin felt weightless and was somehow magically oil-balanced.
That being said, the experiment felt mostly risk-free since I was spending most of my time indoors—and the weather was awfully gloomy that week. When I did go for the occasional run, I put on sunscreen and wore my hat as usual. Of course, there were times that I was outdoors and not wearing SPF. I admit, after years of my self-imposed sunscreen ritual, stepping out to grab the mail or walking between buildings without any sun protection felt a little heretical.
I started to wonder about my psychological dependence on sunscreen. Was it justifiable? Was I a sunscreen junkie? And is such a thing remotely negative? (Spoiler alert: I’ve yet to find the answers to these questions.)
Spend anytime in an alternative wellness community, and there’s a good chance that you’ll hear something about most people wearing too much sunscreen, and it’s reducing their absorption of critical vitamin D. You may also hear that eating “clean,” i.e. mostly plants, a lot of them raw, will reduce your susceptibility to sun damage. (Sounds like a nice idea, but this is one theory I don’t plan on testing.) This conversation has inspired some to completely opt out of wearing sunscreen—even the natural stuff. Why? All for the sake of the sunshine vitamin.
The Deal with Vitamin D
Vitamin D, a fat-soluble hormone, is essential for bone health (it promotes calcium absorption), among other bodily functions. Vitamin D-deficiency has been linked to depression, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. But you probably don’t need convincing that it’s super important.
Unprotected sun exposure prompts the body to create vitamin D, so it’s often mentioned that a small amount (like ten minutes) of sun exposure during non-peak hours may be healthy—and one of the easiest ways to get your D. Some vegan food sources also provide vitamin D—like mushrooms grown in ultraviolet light or fortified fruit juices and nut milks. Finally, vitamin D may be consumed via supplements. D3 capsules are reportedly the most bioavailable form of D. Risk factors for vitamin D-deficiency include wearing sunscreen regularly, living in a northern climate, receiving little to no sun exposure, and having darker skin. It’s estimated that three-quarters of American teens and adults lack sufficient vitamin D. The issue is very real—but so is the risk for skin cancer with roughly 5 million diagnosed cases in the US each year.
Does this mean that we should eat our D-fortified food and pop our supplement and slather on the SPF to our hearts content? I’m honestly not sure—and I’m don’t think that the medical community (alternative or otherwise) is sure, either. The more one reads about it (trust me on this), the more one becomes confused.
There is clearly no one-size-fits-all prescription for getting your vitamin D. The point is, however, that we should each consider personalizing our sun and sunscreen habits. If you feel more comfortable wearing less SPF, and you’re smart about sun exposure, then that’s probably the right choice for you.
Even though I don’t burn very easily, I still plan to wear my sunscreen. And even if I weren’t living in south Texas with its higher UV indexes, I’d still probably maintain my SPF habits. Despite having read a lot about the matter, this decision is mostly intuitive, but I also realize that walking a few blocks while not wearing sunscreen may be just the thing my skin needs.
Also see: Beauty Secrets: Sunless Tanning
Photos: littleskittle via Flick, Mary Hood