Ask Eartha: How to Soak up the Sunshine Without Getting Burned

 In Ask Eartha

Dear Eartha,

With summer finally kicking off in the High Country, what should I know about sunblock and sunscreen? I feel like there’s a lot of information and opinions out there, and I’m really just confused.

Peggy, Breckenridge

Use sunscreen in our high alpine environment in Summit CountyThis is a great question that has come up in recent discussions at the Conservation Center. Our skin is the largest organ of our body, and in thinking of the human body as a system, it is our first barrier and layer of defense. Our skin takes a beating, especially up here in the high country. It comes in contact with airborne pollutants, a variety of chemicals and oils, and most importantly, the sun.

At high altitudes, the sun’s potency changes due to the thinning of the atmosphere. According to the EPA, at 5000 feet solar radiation is 30% stronger than at sea level. At 10,000 feet, the sun’s intensity increases by 60%. Based on these numbers, and my pink back after last weekend’s clear sunny skies, It’s imperative to protect your skin in our high altitude environment.

The harmful rays from the sun come primarily in two forms, ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. According to the American Melanoma foundation, UVA penetrates deeper into our skin and is responsible for premature aging, skin wrinkling, and a decrease in cellular regeneration. UVB however, is arguably even more damaging. UVB is the burning radiation responsible for sunburn and skin cancer. Of course we would like to protect against both!

Sunset in the mountainsA major topic of discussion is the debate over the differences between sunblocks and sunscreens. To set the record straight, there is indeed a difference. The proper terms used to describe the way in which these two products perform are chemical (sunscreens) and physical (sunblocks). Chemical sunscreens contain filters that reduce the amount of radiation that reaches skin cells. Most often, sunscreens fail to address both forms of radiation and focus solely on reducing our UVB exposure. Physical Sunblocks provide broad spectrum protection by blocking both UVA and UVB radiation. Sunblocks often contain heavy metals like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to literally ‘block’ the radiation before it reaches our skin.

As far as cosmetic differences go, sunblocks are oftentimes harder to rub into skin and remain visible, which to some, may be unacceptable. Perhaps the more important characteristic of these products to discuss however is their health implications. Both sunblocks and sunscreens may contain ingredients that are toxic to the human body. For example, the heavy metals often found in sunblocks are actually toxic to our blood. Additionally, the historic use of these metals in our sunblocks is in the form of nanoparticles, or particles so small they can leech into our bloodstream and negatively impact our health. For this very reason, I personally utilize a sunblock with non-nanoparticle, uncoated zinc oxide. I can feel safe knowing this eliminates the risk of the toxin leaching into my bloodstream.

The sun protection factor (SPF) of both sunblocks and sunscreens mean the same thing. This factor simply determines how long you can stay out in the sun before getting burned. For example, a product with an SPF of 30 means you can stay out in the sun 30 times longer than in you had nothing on. SPF does not increase the radiation blocking capabilities of a product incrementally. For example, a product with an SPF of 2 will effectively block/absorb 50% of radiation while SPF 15 will block 93% and SPF 30 will block 96%. For this reason, the performance of an SPF 30 product is only slightly better than a 15 with regards to actual radiation reduction. For this reason, many dermatologists will either recommend an SPF 15 sunblock, or an SPF 30, the difference solely being the time between re-applying the product. I personally use SPF 30 to reduce the amount of product I use and the times I have to stop what I’m doing to re-apply.

Some key things to keep in mind when shopping for products are:

• Look for products containing natural or certified organic ingredients. I personally like Badger products because they are both natural, organic, and biodegradable.
• Waterproof (lasts for 80 minutes in water) is better than water resistant (lasts for 40 minutes in water).
• If you’ll be swimming in the ocean, look for a product that is reef safe. Alba Botanica offers several products that cater to these demands.
• Look for broad spectrum products that protect against both UVA and UVB radiation.
• Avoid products containing any parabens (toxic preservatives), phthalates, or sulfates as these are the primary causes of skin ailments resulting from sunscreen use.
• Avoid products that have undergone animal testing.
Whole Foods in Frisco and Vitamin Cottage in Dillon carry a great selection of healthy sun protection products.

Use clothes with ultraviolet protection in addition to sunscreen and sunblockRemember, the ultimate way to protect your skin under harsh high altitude solar conditions is to reduce exposure altogether. Wear long-sleeve, lightweight linen shirts when possible. Many high-end clothing brands are now including Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) in the marketing of their garments. Simply enjoying your summer in the high country will yield you plenty of vitamin D, so don’t be afraid to cover up. We can always supplement our vitamin D intake by consuming foods such as fish, fish oil, and eggs.

Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center. Submit questions to Eartha at eartha@highcountryconservation.org.

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