Reading one of the books for my yoga teacher training course, written by a very wise modern-day Swami, I was struck by these lines: ‘The rays of the sun give life to all living beings; the heat of the sun is energising. It removes all kinds of ailments. When the rays of the sun are absorbed in the right measure, the right amount, they have healing power.’ It got me thinking about my attitude to the sun and how it has changed over the years. As a child I’d be outside all the time without a care in the world. I couldn’t wait for the days to get longer so I could play in the back garden all the time – usually from the Easter holidays onwards. When the sun was hot, or when we were on holiday, my mum would slather us in a thick white sun cream called Uvistat. Her fair skin had been burned as a child, and she wanted to protect us. This was the 70s and I realise now she was ahead of the curve in terms of using sunscreens at a time when many were slathering on baby oil to increase their tan.
As a teenager, I’d long to be tanned, and although my dad had olive skin and went brown easily, deep down I knew that my English rose complexion just wasn’t capable of it. So, I began to consciously stay out of the sun and followed my mum’s lead on wearing sunscreen. When I began working as a beauty journalist, I was so thankful that I had done. All the dermatologists and world renowned skin experts I met agreed that UV is the major cause of premature wrinkles and uneven pigmentation, and at worst, skin cancer. It spurred me on to be even more vigilant, especially as sunscreens were becoming less white and chalky, more light and transparent. I would always make sure I had SPF even in my daily moisturiser. From an anti-ageing point of view this is definitely the right way to go. The epitome being Madonna on the beach going for a dip practically fully clothed, plus baseball cap to protect her (expensively preserved) alabaster skin, not only making pale seem more interesting, but highlighting that any pigmentation spots are a sign of – well frankly – getting older.
The thing is lately, I’ve been craving the heat of the sun on my skin, which is why that paragraph in the yoga book resonated so much. Whenever there’s a glimmer of even weak winter sun, I want to be out in it as I did as a child. One sunny February morning, I lay on my yoga mat in front of the French windows in my lounge to soak up the rays. Surprising even to myself as I know UV can still potentially cause damage through glass. It’s not that I’ve turned into a dedicated sun bather – I’ll never be one of those beach bunnies laid out on a lounger, comparing tan lines over sundown cocktails. Burning skin is always a no-no – it’s a sign that the DNA in cells has been permanently damaged and I don’t want to look old before my time nor do I want to take risks in terms of skin cancer.
Now I do indulge in a little basking, it’s not in pursuit of a tan – which seems to be what gets us into trouble. We could blame Coco Chanel who made it uber-fashionable to be brown so it became a symbol of luxury and wealth. It’s something we still can’t seem to shake off it seems, as skin cancer rates are on the rise (Cancer Research recently announced that rates are five times that of the 70s). This seems to reflect our habit of ‘sun bingeing’ – the fact that we spend most of our time indoors starved of light, then zoom off to sunny climes for two weeks and simply over dose.
I think my current craving for sun is about a need for Vitamin D – and it’s probably not just me. I found out not long ago that I was deficient in the ‘sunshine vitamin’ as are over 50% of the UK population. It’s thought our indoor lifestyle and the use of sunscreen contribute to this, as well as the fact that production levels go down with age. It’s a delicate balance between what we can absorb from food (oily fish, eggs, meat, cheese and fortified dairy or their non-dairy counterparts); supplements, and what our bodies synthesise through UV absorption in the skin. I was surprised to learn that Vitamin D was only discovered in the 1920s through research scientists are continually discovering more out about what it does in the body. There’s the bone building role, but it is also involved in protecting from heart disease, some cancers, and multiple sclerosis, as well as infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis.
So as the yoga book says, light is life, and we all instinctively know this. We feel better when the longer days arrive; the mood and energy around us instantly lifts when we get a glimpse of those rays. And that’s the dilemma – on the one hand we need sun on the other, it’s all too easy to have too much of a good thing. The truth is, we need to find a balance. My new, re-found love of light and sunshine means I’ll allow myself a little SPF free soaking in moderation. But I’ll always wear the best sunscreen I can find when I’m in strong sunlight, and will stay in the shade and cover up or go indoors in the heat of the day. It’s about finding the right amount for our individual skin tone to enjoy being in the sunshine and get the goodness we need. Just think of the tan as an optional extra.