The following essay is part of a 5 part series to help you understand the sun and your interaction with it for optimal health. It is designed to empower you as a critical thinker and inspire you to practice sun smart habits. In this second part we will be learning all about our skin and how it is affected by the sun.
In part 1 – we learned about the UV index and how it works as a guiding tool for our interactions with the sun. In this part of the Sun Smart Series, we continue by learning about our skin and how it interacts with the UV radiation from the sun.
You will acquire a general understanding of your skin and learn about the role of the pigment—melanin, as a natural protection from the sun. After this we will look at the dangers of tanning and burning, and their links to skin cancers. Finally we will also be examining the link between our skin, the sun and vitamin D production.
Get to Know your Skin
Our skin is the largest organ of our body and is part of the system of organs called the integumentary system. First and foremost it acts as a protective cover for our body offering protection against things like microorganisms and harmful substances. Amongst its many other roles, our skin also produces for us the very critical vitamin D.
The skin is made up of 2 layers: the outer and thinner epidermis, and the inner and thicker dermis. New skin cells are made from the inner layer and hence older cells are pushed further out and eventually die and get sloughed off through our normal everyday activities. In healthy individuals, production of new cells is closely balanced with the loss of old, dying cells.
The epidermis itself is composed of five layers. These are from the outer one to the inner one:
i) Stratum corneum
ii) Stratum lucidum
iii) Stratum granulosum
iv) Stratum spinosum
v) Stratum basale
The epidermis also contains special cells called melanocytes that produce the dark pigment we all associate with skin color called melanin. Melanocytes can be found in the deepest layer of our epidermis—the basal layer (Stratum basale), as well as in the deeper dermis. These are the cells that are typically associated with the Melanoma type of skin cancer.
The task of melanin is to absorb the UV radiation from sunlight and prevent it from causing mutations in the DNA of skin cells. There is an increased level of melanin released as our exposure to the sun increases and this is what we came to know as the sun tan.
How does a Sun Tan and Sun Burn Work?
The more time we spend in the sun and the more prolonged each exposure is the more our body adapts to protect us from UV radiation. Hence, increased time in the sun leads to a darker skin—a tan, as more melanin is produced.
Increased time in the sun also thickens our outermost epidermal layer that is first to have contact with the sun. If the tanning is continuous, constant or done over many years it leads to a leathery texture of the skin and wrinkling as skin loses its elasticity. Thinner skin surface areas, such as on our face, are more susceptible to wrinkles and sun damage.
If our sun exposure is extreme, a sun burn may result. This can happen under one or more of the following conditions:
- spending a long time in direct sunlight
- spending a short time outdoors during high UV index conditions
- abrupt sun exposure without giving the skin time to adapt, as can happen for people who vacation down south during their winters, or anyone who spends the majority of their time indoors
- when one has very pale or fair skin and does not regulate their time spent in the sun based on their needs
A sun burn is an inflammatory reaction of the skin after excessive UV exposure. It leaves the skin red, hot, swollen and painful to the touch. The more severe the burn, the more symptoms will typically be experienced by the individual. Associated symptoms may include: fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue, etc. In severe cases proper medical intervention should be sought immediately.
To overcome and heal this stressful situation, after a few days the skin may peel. This is one of the body’s automatic defense reactions to help itself. Skin peeling helps to ensure that the ‘burnt’ cells are lost so that the damage they incurred does not spread and cause further problems.
Depending on the severity of the sun burn, the skin may not heal properly for a few days, weeks, months or in some cases years, leaving permanent damage. Sun burns heavily damage our skin and are definitely best avoided.
How does Skin Cancer Form?
Cancer is a mutation in the DNA of cells that cause them to reproduce at uncontrolled rates. These mutations can be induced by many substances and conditions, one of them being the UV radiation from the sun.
Both sun tans and sun burns can increase the risk of skin cancers. Ultimately any sun exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer, but many variables will govern the scope of this risk such as geographical location, season, time of day, and type of skin. Our medical establishments would like to have us believe that the risk between sun exposure and skin cancer is both high and direct, but in reality it isn’t. To date the studies coming out about sun exposure and the incidence of cancer are conflicting and inconclusive.
For starters there are several different forms of skin cancer, and each one carries a different set of risk factors for different members of the population. Secondly, the research often done, which supposedly shows a link between sun exposure and skin cancer risk is funded either directly or indirectly by the medical establishments and corporations which are heavily invested in either the sunscreen industry or the cancer industry. It therefore makes it hard to trust the information and science when it is so heavily incomplete or biased.
Generally speaking, the lighter a person’s skin color, the more that individual has to be careful with the sun as they have a higher than average risk of burning, which can lead to skin damage and skin cancer (i.e. darker people have more of the protective melanin to begin with than white, fair skinned people).
Also, according to research gathered by science expert Oliver Gillie from the UK, those who work outdoors or have regular sun exposure have a lower risk of melanoma, than those who have sporadic sun exposure.
The risk of skin cancer from sun exposure is much smaller than the public has been led to believe while the risks of vitamin D deficiency or insufficiency, which are seldom mentioned, are now known to be very substantial.
We have to remember that our skin is always exposed to some UV light anytime we are outdoors, and there are always mutations happening. The key is that these occur at a low rate, which can usually be fixed by our bodies. In fact, as we have also come to understand today the higher the quality of our diet and lifestyle choices, the more our body is supported to work with its own natural healing ability. Our body is able to fix, and does fix many mistakes and mutations daily. This isn’t only when it comes to sun damage, but the slew of chemicals, toxins and mutagens that come today in various forms from our food, water, air and particular internal and external environments. It is only when we undergo excessive or continuous mutations, and especially so in the absence of a properly supported body, that the body cannot keep up with all the healing or repairs, and a cancer may result.
Types of Skin Cancers
Skin cancers that originate from epithelial cells are called Cutaneous Carcinoma, and include Basal Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Cutaneous cancers are the most common type of skin cancer. They occur most often in light skinned people in their later years of adulthood (i.e. 50′s) who have undergone many years of exposure to the sun. These cancers are usually the less serious ones as they are localized (noninvasive), slow growing and are usually able to be removed using surgery.
Skin cancers that originate from melanocyte cells are called Cutaneous Melanoma or Malignant Melanoma. This is the more serious type of skin cancer as it can spread and grow faster. People of any age can develop this type of skin cancer and the risk appears to increase from short, intermittent, high intensity sun exposure. Therefore, risk of this type of cancer is higher for people who generally stay indoors and endure sun burns when they do go out.
The common belief and practice is that melanoma can be removed surgically if caught early. Otherwise it spreads deeper and offers a low survival rate to its patients. It has been on the rise worldwide now for the past 30 years. Based on your skin type or lifestyle habits it may be prudent to visit a dermatologist annually for a skin/mole check as early detection can prevent bigger problems. However, opponents of the mainstream medical skin and sun cancer theories have also come forth to suggest that skin cancer is over-diagnosed today and the increased number of cases are simply unjustified. As mentioned above, there are many financial ties that have motives to offer a belligerent bias to the health data, statistics and information shared with the public. Corporations like “Big Pharma”, the “Cancer Industry”, and the “Sunscreen Industry” have a lot invested in this arena and stand to lose a lot if the tables get turned.
What about Vitamin D?
One of our skin’s many functions is to produce the fat soluble vitamin D. This vitamin, also known as a hormone, was mainly known in the past as necessary for proper bone and tooth development. However today the importance and role of vitamin D has exploded with information, where it has been shown to be preventative and healing for a host of acutre and chronic conditions. These include pretty much all cancers, including breast, colon and lung, as well as multiple sclerosis, arthritis, fertility, immune system function and more.
In our body vitamin D is produced from a substance called dehydrocholesterol (provitamin D) that is synthesized by cells in our digestive system. When this compound reaches the skin by means of our blood stream and is exposed to UV light from the sun, it is changed into vitamin D through a series of biochemical reactions. Specifically, it relies on UVB rays from the sun for this reaction to occur successfully. These ironically are the main rays blocked by sunscreen products, and least available in most densely populated areas of the Northern Hemisphere.
When we block or limit our exposure to the sun by constantly covering up our bodies with sunscreen, or avoiding the sun altogether, we are preventing this critical set of reactions from taking place. Worldwide estimates today range from 50 to 90% of the population being deficient in vitamin D (depending on age, sex, skin color and geographical location). Many experts seem to agree that vitamin D supplementation is a must for most in the population, but they do not all agree on specific amounts which would be most healing and preventative. Dietary sources of vitamin D are very limited as we know thus far, with natural forms mainly coming from oily fish. And with the increased serious pollution of our ocean waters, as well as unsustainable practices associated with fishing, fish and fish supplements simply cannot and should not be depended on as a good source of vitamin D. Other foods in the supermarket that show the presence of vitamin D are typically synthetically fortified and this is not our body’s optimal way of ingesting this vitamin either. New research is coming out to share that mushrooms exposed to UV light may be a trusted source of vitamin D, as well as some plant foods, like hemp seeds. I suspect we will learn as time goes on about more whole food, natural plant sources that can add up to some good amounts of vitamin D for us when taken internally.
There are 2 challenges that face the average citizen today:
Not spending enough time out in the sun, or at the right time to get the necessary vitamin D, and
Spending too much time in the sun, or at the wrong time and increase their risk of skin damage or skin cancer
The solution and answer for us when it comes to sun smart habits is found in the middle of these two extremes. There is no doubt that the sun is the source of life and health for us, but it must be respected and approached with balance and harmony. The more we learn about it and our body, the more we will be able to know how to optimize our relationship with the sun for most benefit and least harm.
Continue on to Part 3 – Get to know the Sun.
5 Part Sun Smart Series
Part 2 – Get to know Your Skin