After the strange summer we’ve had (Ireland had the wettest July on record), it’s not surprising that some people have booked last-minute holidays to the sun.
But, if you’re heading to the sun, you definitely need to consider skin safety, particularly with many areas of Europe and further afield experiencing record high temperatures. Anyone living with inflammatory arthritis needs to take extra precautions, due to potential photosensitivity issues that can occur as a result of the condition and the medications taken to treat it. Photosensitivity is an immune response (usually a rash) triggered after exposure to the sun.
Need you ask? Most of us enjoy just that simple feeling of warm sun over our face, and we benefit from the feelgood factor of it warming our bones. Being in the sun has some definite health benefits too. First, sunshine boosts mood by raising levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. It’s also a major source of vitamin D for humans in its production in the skin on exposure to ultraviolet B (UVB) light. However, during winter, in certain latitudes (such as Ireland’s), the strength of UVB light from the sun is too weak to allow for vitamin D to be produced in the skin.
Add to that the fact that very few foods contain vitamin D, and you can see how important a bit of sun exposure can be. Oily fish (salmon, tuna and mackerel) and cod liver oil tablets are good sources, but only very small amounts are found in other foods, like meat, dairy and eggs. Also, for those living with arthritis who are taking steroids on a long-term basis, and in high doses, side-effects such as osteoporosis need to be considered. This means that sufficient calcium and vitamin D levels are particularly important for this group.
Due to Ireland’s northerly latitude, deficiency of vitamin D can be common in the winter months. However, the good news is that just 10 minutes of sun exposure will provide you with sufficient vitamin D levels, so it’s not as much as people think. It can also be obtained easily through fortified milks or a supplement, particularly during the winter months when we don’t tend to get much sunlight in Ireland.
When it comes to psoriasis, or psoriatic arthritis and the sun, you’d be tempted to think that plenty of sun exposure is a good idea. It is true that it can help clear up psoriatic arthritis-related skin lesions but, again, this need to be balanced with the importance of protecting skin. Experts recommend that no more than 30 minutes a day is needed for this effect on skin lesions, plus they warn that burning is a big no-no, since it could trigger a skin flare.
The fact of the matter is that spending time in the sun raises your risk of skin cancer and premature skin ageing. This risk might be slightly higher if you’re taking an anti-TNF biologic, as a result of related photosensitivity issues. This can be common with lupus and may even trigger flares.
You also need to be especially careful if you also have pale skin, or if you have been treated for skin cancer previously (or have a family member who has had skin cancer). Skin cancer is the most common cancer in Ireland, with around 13,000 new cases being diagnosed each year. Also, around 1,000 people in Ireland are diagnosed with melanoma each year - the most dangerous form of skin cancer. Rates of the disease are increasing overall, but they increase further with age (skin cancers are much more prevalent in the over 50s), so be mindful of this and remember, it’s never too late to start protecting your skin.
The reality is that formal ‘tanning’ – when you lie out with the intention of tanning – does more harm than good for most people, and especially for people prone to sun sensitivity. And we hope that it goes without saying (but let’s say it anyway!) that sunbeds are a very bad idea, so please avoid at all costs.
Like with many things, moderation is the key. The sun is a bit like sugar – it feels so good, but too much is bad for our health, so it’s usually best taken in small doses! That means following expert advice on the best sunscreens to buy, how much to apply and how often, as well as covering up and protecting your eyes.
You CAN enjoy the sun this year, but just aim to do it sensibly – read out 10 Sun Safe Tips for more advice on sunscreens and other tips.