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Think You're a Sun Protection Pro? Think Again.

Every day, around 10,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer, making it the most common cancer in the United States. We all know that skin cancer is caused by ultraviolet rays from the sun, tanning beds, or sunlamps. Moreover, we all know that sunscreen and staying in the shade can prevent skin cancer.


Yet, despite this widespread understanding of how to prevent skin cancer, millions a year are still diagnosed with the cancer. This is likely because Americans aren’t as good at sun protection as they may think.


Most people think they’re better at sun protection than they are:


A new survey released by the American Academy of Dermatology revealed some interesting new insights about how good we are at protecting ourselves from the sun. The AAD interviewed 1,000 American adults about their habits in the sun.


While most people indicated that sun protection is more important to them than it was 5 years ago, there were still some common sun misconceptions held among participants:

  • 63% said they had gotten a tan and believed it to be safe → Unfortunately, a safe tan does not exist. Anytime you tan or burn, you’re also damaging the DNA in your skin.

  • 67% of people who took the survey believe that SPF 30 sunscreen gives double the protection of SPF 15 → Actually, the sun protection factor (SPF) is not linear. Rather, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UV rays, while SPF 15 blocks 94%. There is really only a 4% difference between the two.

  • 43% of participants did not know that shade can block UV rays → Yes, shade, hats, and most clothing can protect you from UV rays.

  • 65% of people who took the survey undervalued the importance of reapplying sunscreen → You should be reapplying sunscreen every hour or two, more frequently if you’re sweating or getting wet.

This survey revealed that despite thinking we’re all great at protecting against the sun's rays, most of us still have some work to do.


Common sun myths debunked:


1. Tanning is necessary for getting Vitamin D.


Vitamin D is incredibly important. Moreover, 42% of Americans aren’t getting enough of it. But, you don’t actually have to get all of your vitamin D from the sun.


Because vitamin D is not technically a vitamin, it breaks many of the rules for vitamins because it requires conversion within the body. Vitamin D is also absent from all natural foods except egg yolks and fish. In order to use the vitamin D obtained from food, your body must first transform it.


Your body can also absorb vitamin D from UV-B rays from the sun. When you walk into a sunny patch, the sun’s energy transforms a chemical in your skin into vitamin D, which is then carried to your liver and kidneys to convert it into a usable form of the vitamin. BUT you only need around 10 minutes to absorb vitamin D. You DO NOT need to see the effects of a tan or burn.


Here are some ways to get more vitamin D:

  • Take a vitamin D supplement- There are many different kinds of vitamin D supplements on the market, but it’s critical that you obtain your supplement through a medical professional. Only medical professionals can prescribe medical-grade supplements that guarantee you are receiving 100% vitamin D and no fillers or additives. It is also important to note that vitamin A is necessary to sensitize the vitamin D receptor to promote proper absorption. Therefore, it is best to take vitamin D with vitamin A and K.

  • Eat a diet high in vitamin D- While vitamin D is more effectively absorbed directly in the sun, there are still several types of food you should add to your diet to ensure sufficient levels of the vitamin. Such foods include:

    • Cod liver oil

    • Egg yolk

    • Salmon

    • Swordfish

    • Tuna fish

    • Sardines

    • Beef liver

  • Spend a few minutes outside without sunscreen- We only approve of going sunscreen-free when in pursuit of vitamin D absorption. Some sunscreens can completely block your vitamin D production. Most research on vitamin D absorption has suggested that only 8-15 minutes of sunscreen-free sunshine time in midday sun can provide between 1000-2000 IU of vitamin D. However, for those who are older, darker-skinned, or live further from the equator, more time may be necessary.


2. Darker-skinned people don’t need sunscreen.


This is absolutely not true, skin cancer can inflict on people of all colors. Although people of color are less likely to get skin cancer, they are more likely to die from it due to a delay in detection or presentation. Skin cancer in people of color is more likely to be caught at a later stage, which makes treatment more difficult.


While melanin does offer some protection from the sun for people of color, it also causes it to be much more difficult to absorb Vitamin D from the sun. 69.2% of Hispanic Americans have Vitamin D deficiencies. And a shocking 82.1% of African-Americans suffered from low levels of Vitamin D. Moreover, not only are Vitamin D levels in Black Americans deficient, but they are also significantly lower than that of white Americans.


This is likely due to evolution. The “Vitamin D Hypothesis” posits that the skin color of the world’s indigenous peoples trails a latitude distribution: populations with the darkest skin color inhabit the equatorial and tropical regions: while the most fair-skinned populations inhabit northern countries. While this evolutionary practice made sense before technology and globalization, it has now caused a health crisis for dark-skinned people today.


3. Only UVB rays are harmful.


Unfortunately, both UVB (ultraviolet B) and UVA (ultraviolet A) rays are harmful to the body. UVB rays typically get a worse reputation, likely because they are the type linked to skin cancer and sunburn. But UVA rays actually go deeper into the skin and cause harmful effects like wrinkling and aging.


UVB rays are more harmful because they have slightly more energy than UVA rays. More energy means they are more easily able to cause direct damage to a cell’s DNA. UVA rays, while they have less energy, can still cause skin cells to age, damages collagen and elastin in skin cells, and can cause indirect damage to the DNA of cells. UVA rays can also generate free radicals.


UVA rays are also much more common than UVB rays- 95% of the UV rays from the sun are UVA, while the remaining 5% are UVB. UVB rays are at their highest intensity between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. But UVA rays are shining down with fervor any time the sun is out.


4. It’s safe to get a “pre-tan” from a tanning bed.


Nope. Using a tanning bed is never safe. Tanning beds have been considered to be a Class 1 human carcinogen by the World Health Organization. Class 1 is the highest risk category and includes carcinogens like asbestos and benzene.


Using a tanning bed 10 or more times increases your risk of melanoma by 34%. Moreover, people under 35 who use a tanning bed increase their risk by 75%. Even one tanning session can increase your risk of developing skin cancers:

  • squamous cell carcinoma by 67%,

  • basal cell carcinoma by 29%

  • and melanoma by 20%.

Tanning beds mostly emit UVA light, which as we know, is equally harmful to your skin. Moreover, you won’t even get Vitamin D from tanning beds, as your body needs UVB rays to make the essential nutrient.


Further, you don’t even need a pre-tan before going into the sun. Tanning does not protect you against further damage from the sun.


5. Organic sunscreen doesn’t offer as much protection as regular sunscreen.


Not only does regular sunscreen offer the same protection as organic sunscreen, but it also comes with a slew of health risks due to the chemicals it contains.


Chemical sunscreens typically contain fragrance, parabens, phthalates, and several ethoxylated ingredients. While the harmful effects of parabens and phthalates are widely known, chemical sunscreens also contain several chemicals you should be aware of.

  • Oxybenzone and octinoxate are estrogenic and allergenic. These chemicals can mimic estrogen in your body and disrupt our natural hormones.

  • Methylisothiazolinone is a preservative used in sunscreen and is highly allergenic.

  • Retinyl palmitate can slow the aging of the skin, but also accelerates the development of some skin cancers if it comes into contact with UV light.

  • Para-aminobenzoic acid is not as commonly used in sunscreen today, but can cause allergic contact dermatitis.

When you use chemical sunscreen, your skin will take in all of the ingredients. Some researchers believe nanoparticles in sunscreens and other skin care products can be absorbed by skin cells. When the nanoparticles heat up, they will accelerate sun damage. Further, beyond many of these chemicals being harmful to your body, chemicals in sunscreen have greatly damaged coral reefs and harm marine life.


Unfortunately, despite being a much better alternative for our bodies and environment, organic sunscreen can be difficult to use. They are often chalky, thick, and zinc-y. One easy fix to this problem is to add organic oils to your organic sunscreen. Safflower, argan, rosehip, prickly pear, and pumpkin seed oils are all great to soften the texture and make it much easier to apply.


Click here to see Dr. Johnson’s favorite organic sunscreens.


How to best protect from the sun:


There are several steps you can take to protect your skin from prematurely aging or developing skin cancer:

  • Use broad-spectrum sunscreen* → This sunscreen has the ability to block both UVA and UVB rays.

  • Use sunscreen* with a high SPF → The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends 30+ SPF.

  • Frequently reapply sunscreen* → every 2 hours. More often if you’re swimming, sweating, or exercising.

  • Limit your direct sunlight exposure → Stay in the shade if outside, especially in peak UV ray time, between 10 am- 3 pm.

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head, face, ears, and neck on a sunny day.

  • Wear clothes! Clothing will protect the more sensitive skin on your body. UPF 50 clothing can actually block 98% of the sun’s rays.

  • Regularly go to a dermatologist to screen your skin for moles.

* We recommend using an organic sunscreen with zinc oxide- which will physically block the sun’s rays and shield your skin from UV damage. As opposed to chemical sunscreens that absorb the sun’s rays once they come into contact with your skin. Chemical sunscreens contain toxic chemicals which have been found to enter your bloodstream.


There are also several supplements you can take to prevent damage from the sun and repair sun damage:


Heliocare Heliocare is a powerful formula of antioxidants. Its active mechanism is derived from the Polypodium leucotomos fern. Polypodium leucotomos extract (PLE) has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples to treat skin-related conditions and promote skin resilience. PLE provides protection against free radicals.


Free radicals can damage the skin in their attempt to steal electrons from other molecules which cause direct damage to our skin’s DNA. Damage to our DNA results in accelerated skin aging. Heliocare prevents this damage by replacing the missing electron in free radicals.


Heliocare and PLE have many, many great benefits for the health of your skin:

  • PLE has been proven to act as a photoprotective agent- decreasing UVB damage to the skin.

  • Heliocare has been demonstrated to reduce the rates of new nonmelanoma skin cancers.

  • PLE has been demonstrated to improve cell membrane integrity and elastin expression- which decrease the aging of the skin.

  • Heliocare and PLE have demonstrated the ability to protect tissue from sun damage and limit the inflammatory response that follows.

  • Heliocare has the potential for application in the treatment and management of skin disorders such as vitiligo, melasma, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis.

  • The anti-inflammatory and immunomodulatory effects of PLE have also been shown to decrease the likelihood of immunosuppression in athletes following strenuous exercise

Astaxanthin → Similar to Heliocare, Astaxanthin is a very strong antioxidant. Astaxanthin is a carotenoid, a type of antioxidant that gives an orange hue to foods like salmon, tomatoes, and carrots. The best source of astaxanthin is Pacific salmon, and it is what gives the fish its strong pinkish color. Again, like Heliocare, astaxanthin provides your body with protection from free radicals and oxidative stress. Astaxanthin is especially powerful in fighting against free radicals, one study found it had the highest antioxidant activity among other carotenoids. Due to these powerful antioxidant properties, some studies are currently exploring astaxanthin’s potential capability as a treatment for some types of cancer.


What is proven is that astaxanthin has some major benefits for your skin, especially in the summer months:

  • Astaxanthin protects again UV rays. Whether applied topically or ingested, astaxanthin has been found to naturally block UV rays.

  • Astaxanthin repairs DNA damage: In protecting against UV damage, astaxanthin is also benefiting DNA, as sun damage = DNA damage. One study also found that astaxanthin improved DNA repair capabilities following UV damage.

  • The immune system is bolstered by astaxanthin: A 2018 review found that astaxanthin enhances the body’s stores of immunoglobulin, which is used by the immune system to fight off viruses and melanoma.

  • Prevent wrinkles: Astaxanthin prevents free radical damage, which results in less skin inflammation and improved fine lines and wrinkles in aging skin.

  • Astaxanthin can help moisturize dry skin: Whether taken orally or topically, some studies have found that astaxanthin can help preserve young-looking skin.

  • Astaxanthin fights free radicals: Due to astaxanthin’s antioxidant properties, it assists the skin in responding to oxidative damage from the sun and prohibits the formation of free radicals in the body.


Several studies have gone so far as to suggest that Heliocare and Astaxanthin are nearly as effective as other photoprotective agents like sunscreen, clothing, and seeking shade. These supplements are also a more accessible form of photoprotection, as you do not need to worry about reapplication or missing a spot- as is the case with sunscreen.


If you’re interested in ordering Heliocare or Astaxanthin, click here to contact us!


The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach / Norfolk locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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