With 2858 hours of sun per year here in Provence, knowing how to stay safe under the sun became a necessity. Too many times have I observed tourists from countries which have less sun, exposing themselves in the hottest hours of the day, only to come home with a headache and burned skin.
Don't get me wrong, I don't avoid sun at all, on the contrary, sun is my element. But after twelve years of living in this region, where sun shines so bright that you almost become blind, I learned what are the best ways to enjoy sun without doing harm to my skin and the skin of my kids.
Why Sun Is A Must
Vitamin D is an essential hormone for healthy bones, immune function and blood cell formation. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to certain cancers, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, depression or osteoporosis. Our body produces vitamin D every time we step into the sunlight. Sitting in the sun unexposed for about 10 minutes helps your body create roughly 10,000 units of natural vitamin D. According to the World Health Organization, 5-15 minutes a few times a week of unprotected sun exposure is sufficient to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. If you live in a region where sun is scarce, you should definitely supplement with Vitamin D.
Why Sun Can Also Harm You
But the sun can also have some serious damaging effects (Remember the red skin and even blisters after too much sun exposure?). Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) are the two types of sun rays that travel through the earth’s atmosphere and shine down on our skin. UVA rays penetrate the top layer of your skin (and yes, they give you wrinkles and sun spots). UVB rays impact the top layer of your skin. They’re one of the major causes of skin cancer and your worst enemy when it comes to sunburns. UVB rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., especially during the summer months.
Sunglasses, Hat and co.
Oh yes, Provencal hats! Every Provencal market has a selection of those. Hats are the best protection against headache caused by too much sun exposure, as are long sleeves (that is why people in Sahara wear robes) and sunglasses. Also, avoid sun exposure for too long during the hottest hours of the day, which, in Provence will be between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Which Sunscreen To Choose?
When you ask a pharmacist in France which sunscreen to choose, he or she will probably advise you to use a sunscreen from some major French company (which I will not name here), full of nasty chemicals and toxic ingredients. The same would probably happen in the U.S. or any other country. In fact, a review conducted by EWG showed nearly 67 percent of sunscreen products either didn’t work adequate to protect from UV rays or they contained dangerous ingredients. Some of the most worrisome ingredients include oxybenzone, one of the known endocrine disruptors, and retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin and possibly lead to skin tumors.  So we may ask if it is not rather sunscreen that could trigger skin cancer and not the sun exposure itself.
When you shop for sunscreens, you should definitely check for the following:
1. UVA and UVB protection
2. No oxybenzone (hormone disruption and coral reef damage) and no retinyl palmitate (ingredient that has been linked to the faster growth of skin tumors when applied and exposed to sunlight)
3. Nanoparticles free: minute ingredients that can cross the blood-brain barrier and also harm aquatic life.
4. Do not buy spray sunscreens as it is very difficult to apply them in a thickness that will provide adequate protection, plus, it increases the risk you’re sending sunscreen chemicals directly into your lungs
Be sure to reapply the sunscreen every time you’re out of the water.
My personal recommendation include following products (non exhaustive list of organic sunscreens available in Europe).
Enjoy the sun on the safe side!