Last week’s column discussed good skin care, especially moisturization, and the dangers of overexposure to ultraviolet radiation. This week we look at skin color, vitamin D, and measures to reduce and prevent sun damage.
It’s very interesting when you look at skin color, which is merely a reflection of our desire to protect our skin from sun exposure. In fact, over the course of our evolution, the closer one lived to the equator and the greater the ultraviolet radiation/sun exposure, the darker the skin.
The skin uses an old evolutionary molecule called melanin. Melanin is a pigment found throughout nature that is good at blocking and absorbing ultraviolet rays. It’s not perfect, however, so no matter what color skin you have — anywhere from snow white to dark chocolate brown — it’s always important to supplement and use additional sun protection measures. No matter what color skin you have, your skin can be sun damaged and you can develop skin cancer.
One interesting fact about the skin is that the pigment melanin is produced by cells called melanocytes. No matter what color skin you have, everyone has the same number of melanocytes. The difference in skin color is only in the amounts and types of melanin that are produced.
There are two different main types of melanin, eumelanin and pheomelanin. Eumelanin is brown to black, and pheomelanin is red to dark red. These two types blend to produce different skin colors and hair colors.
People often say sun exposure is good for the production of vitamin D, which is essential for good bone health. In addition, a deficiency in vitamin D has been linked to breast, colon and prostate cancers as well as depression, heart disease, and being overweight.
Studies demonstrate that people with higher levels of vitamin D tend to have a lower risk of these maladies. Vitamin D is produced in the skin from UVB exposure. However, the risk of developing skin cancer outweighs the benefits of using sunlight for vitamin D production. Instead, I recommend sun protection and a diet rich in foods that contain vitamin D:
Fatty fish like tuna, mackerel and salmon.
Foods fortified with vitamin D, like some dairy products, orange juice, soy milk, and cereals
Vitamin D supplements or multivitamins
For patients with extensive skin problems, gently correct them using antioxidants, lasers, platelet-rich plasma injections, Botox, fillers and topical retinoids, and medical grade hydrafacials and peels. If you think you are need of skin repair, see a dermatologist.
Skin protection in summary
When discussing being sun smart and protecting your skin in the summer from ultraviolet radiation, here are some basics:
1) Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher that also includes broad-spectrum protection such as UVA block or helioplex. There is really no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen, but some are more water resistant than others. Waterbabies and Coppertone Sport may be helpful if swimming or extreme sports perspiration is a concern.
2) Put the sunscreen on 30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every 1-2 hours to maintain its activity. When applying sunscreen, don’t forget the tops of your ears, the back of your neck, and your lips.
3) The most important thing you can do to protect yourself from the sun is to use sun-protectant clothing. There are many good options available, including a company called Coolibar.com. Sun-protectant clothing has a very tight weave and is ventilated so it feels light and breezy. The nice thing about sun protectant clothing is that it always works and you don’t have to reapply it.
4) If you do a lot of driving, consider a special ultraviolet coating on the windows of your car. This is for people with sun-sensitive skin, and you can receive a prescription for this, so there are no problems driving with a window-tinted car.
5) Finally, don’t neglect your eyes. The same ultraviolet radiation that can damage skin can also damage your eyes. It’s important to use ultraviolet blocking sunglasses whenever possible.
It’s summer and time to have a lot of fun outdoors, but it’s also time to be sun smart. You will be happy the rest of your life that you did. Be sure to teach your children and people around you the how to practice being sun smart and sun safe.
Charles E. Crutchfield III, MD is a board certified dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School. He also has a private practice in Eagan, MN. He received his M.D. and Master’s Degree in Molecular Biology and Genomics from the Mayo Clinic. He has been selected as one of the top 10 dermatologists in the United States by Black Enterprise magazine. Dr. Crutchfield was recognized by Minnesota Medicine as one of the 100 Most Influential Healthcare Leaders in Minnesota. He is the team dermatologist for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Wild and Lynx. Dr. Crutchfield is an active member of both the American and National Medical Associations.