Sunburned Eyeballs and Other Cautionary Tales


You don’t have to have a weather app to know it’s been a warm spring and that summer is leering right around the corner. As Earth transits the annual circle of the Sun, our axial tilt leans the Northern Hemisphere more directly into the radiant glow. More than in winter, sunlight comes intensely to us through less atmospheric filtering. Based on what the Mad Men say, Americans will be rushing to slather on sunscreen and spending billions of bucks on ways to block the sunlight.

Here Comes the Sun. Sunlight is good for us, indeed, essential. We are beings of light. Millions of bodily processes happen because of sunlight. Yet, despite our dependence on the sun, modern man views exposure to sunlight as a health risk and overexposure is believed implicated as a major cause of skin cancer. The fact is, without sunlight and exposure to sunlight, we would die. Some debate whether normal sun exposure even causes cancer at all.

No one doubts the logic that baking your body in direct sunlight and singeing your skin might be unwise. But the benefits of moderate sunlight exposure appear to outweigh the risks if for one simple reason: Sunlight triggers the production of the all-important vitamin D3.

Sunscreen may be the culprit Years ago, researchers at the University of San Diego proposed that sunscreen may actually contribute to causing cancer by a unique relationship with the solar light spectrum and the skin cells that can turn cancerous. The researchers reported that familiar sunscreens like PABA and homomenthyl salicylate block ultraviolet-b, a type of solar radiation that largely affects the upper layers of the skin and causes sunburn. But that leaves carcinogen suspect ultraviolet-a unaffected.

“When you block out ultraviolet-b light, you stop the skin from burning, which means that you can stay out in the sun for many hours or many days,” one of the researchers, Dr. Frank C. Garland, said in an interview reported in The New York Times. “So what happens is you end up getting an unnaturally high dose of ultraviolet-a. Sunscreens give you a false sense of security.”

Dr. Garland is also one of a growing number of scientists that believe the benefit of sunlight trumps the idea that it is harmful. Sunscreens prevent the skin from producing vitamin D3, which in laboratory tests has been shown to help prevent damaged melanocytes from turning cancerous. Garland bases the theory largely on a meta-analysis of general epidemiological data on melanoma and on recent experiments examining the role of vitamin D3 in cancer prevention.

Other researchers have even shown statistically that more lives would be saved by the increased vitamin D3 production of healthy exposure to sunlight than are saved by blocking the sun with sunscreens.

Norwegian researchers at the Institute for Cancer Research in Oslo found that doubling sunlight exposure would result in 300 more cases of skin cancer in Norway. On the other hand, the improved vitamin D3 intake would prevent 3000 cases of other cancers. As a society, that is a tenfold benefit if we just get off the sunscreen/sun ban bandwagon. Environmental Working Group Senior Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan called most of the best-selling sunscreens in the U.S. “the equivalent of modern-day snake oil.”

Researchers Johan Moan, Alina Carmen Porojnicu, Arne Dahlback, and Richard B. Setlow published their work in 2008.

Shady business. Sunlight is healthful for the eyes. Prominent and renowned ophthalmologist William Bates, M.D. was an early advocate of the benefit of outdoor sunlight on eye health. Still, too much of a good thing is sometimes bad. Protecting the eyes from sunlight is a good idea. The body has a natural way to do that: eyebrows, eyelids and irises.

Eskimos carved slits in whalebone and fashioned the pieces to fit over the eyes. The resulting filtration of light was amazingly effective. I imagine it may also have filtered out some of the longer wavelengths and those may be more damaging.

Modern man has replaced the whalebone version with tinted lenses crafted from plastic or glass with various pigments to block part of the sunlight. And what a success story the marketing of shades has been. Is there anyone who doesn’t own at least one pair of shades? We clutch them like a lifeline during the summer months. But shades may not be a good thing.

Blinded by the Light. The latest mainstream memos say that shades are good protection for the eyes with important caveats: Sunglasses that do not filter out ultraviolet rays cause more harm than good. Their logic is that tinted lenses shade the eyes and that bypasses our natural, bodily defense against bright light, the contraction of the pupils. We step out into sunlight and the natural thing is that our pupils contract and we squint. But sunglasses override that. Our pupils remain wide-open, allowing more damaging light to enter the eye. Mainstream says that the damaging waves are UV-A, UV-B and UV-C. So if your shades do not specifically block those out, the bad light may be entering fully open irises more easily.

In my opinion, going without shades (except in extreme cases) may be healthier in any case. See if you can follow this logic.

Years ago, we didn’t know that UV-A, -B or –C were the culprits. Because we didn’t even know they existed. So now, because we have learned they exist, we are able to evaluate them as such. But what other radiations have we not yet discovered? What about those and the damage they cause? We think we know it all. We don’t. Until then, light clothing, broad-brimmed hats and rational exposure may be the safest summer sunlight tips. Keep those chemicals off my skin.

Be well.

Heartland Healing examines various alternative forms of healing. It is provided as information, not as medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Access past columns at www.HeartlandHealing.com


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