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Block the sun out

Breathe a sigh of relief that the sun is now hiding behind clouds most of the time. For direct exposure to harmful UV rays is not good for the skin

The US celebrates July 5 as ‘Stay Out of The Sun’ Day. Yet our doctors, especially orthopaedic specialists, advise city folks to get at least half an hour of sun exposure every day so that the skin can absorb Vitamin D from the sun, essential for the bones to absorb calcium. So is the sun an enemy or a friend?

It’s a complicated issue, which is why I asked Dr Kiran Lohia, celebrity dermatologist and wellness expert Dr Kiran Sethi Lohia of Isya Aesthetics, who has practised in New York, what she thinks. She says categorically, “The fact is there is no prescribed amount of sun for Asians/Indians that has been proven to increase your Vitamin D levels. The whole ‘go out and get more sun’ concept is a bit wishy-washy, and reality doesn’t pan out. If it did, then labourers wouldn’t have Vitamin D deficiency, right?”
Her advice is: Keep it simple, take a daily Vitamin D supplement of 1,000-1,500 IU. You can get the benefits of Vitamin D without the tanning and ageing effects of the sun.

Another dermatologist, Dr Sonali Kohli, is also clear about the harmful effect of the sun in India, as we are close to the equator. She practises at Harkishandas Reliance Hospital, Mumbai. Use black umbrellas and wear black clothing, she says, give protection from harmful radiation (UV rays).

“Protect all your skin, not just the face and neck with sunscreen,” she says. “At 9 am to 12 noon, when the sun is at the Earth’s axis, the entire spectrum of harmful radiation is at its maximum,” and that’s the time we should avoid direct exposure.

She explains that sunscreen protects you from harmful UV rays, not from tanning, and the SPF (sun protection factor) indictor which you see on the tube or bottle is just an indication of the number of minutes it will be effective. In addition, look for the plus signs (+ or ++), a US gradation that tells you the PPD protection given by the sunscreen.

UV radiation is of two kinds. The longwave variety (UVA) penetrates deep into the skin layers and causes ageing, whereas shortwave (UVB) affects the more surface layers of the skin, causing redness and sunburn. Light-complexioned persons have less melanin, that absorbs ultraviolet radiation and limits its penetration into tissues.

That is why people in the West are more susceptible to skin. If your skin is dark, your melanin will protect you, but you need to expose your body to the sun for a longer time to make Vitamin D. To understand your skin type and choose from the wide variety of products available in the market, you would have to consult a dermatologist.

These days, with everyone wanting to be fairer, staying out of direct sunlight or applying sunscreen lotion has become quite a habit. And it’s a good habit, as the sun also depletes the skin’s supply of lubricating oils, giving you wrinkles!

From Dr Lohia, I learnt another interesting fact — that there are ‘oral’ sunscreen tablets containing certain antioxidants that help protect us from the sun — or you can opt for a diet heavy in antioxidants. “I feel we get enough sun exposure with the strength of our UV rays simply going from our homes to our cars and back. Simple living is enough for sun exposure, you don’t need to go out and get more.”

As for sunscreens, they come in the shape of lotions, creams, gels and sprays (though these days there are cautions against sprays due to inhalation risks). It is best to use sunscreens based on minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These form a protective layer that deflects sunrays. They are non-toxic, just the opposite of chemical sunscreens which contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate and retinyl palmitate that penetrate the skin, and may irritate it.

All said and done, we have to be wary of the sun. Personally, I always wear a hat and sunglasses to protect my face and eyes. Because I have vitiligo, there is less melanin to protect me. I avoid going out around noon, especially to the beach or skiing. I use sunscreens which are zinc oxide based. A number of products are available which are non-toxic, natural, organic and hypoallergenic. Be careful if you have sensitive skin!

Dr Reshma is an advocate of wellness, prevention and holistic health. Instagram handle: dr.reshmakhattarbhagat