Artificial versus natural sun protecion
After a couple of weeks of blue skies and mild temperatures (most unusual for March / April in the north of England), this taste of things to come has made me impatient for the long, warm days of summer. That said, sunny conditions are never a certainty in our neck of the woods, but I live in hope. So, with this in mind, I am going to be optimistic (literally looking on the bright side). I am going to risk putting a jinx on the British summer by broaching the deceptively harmless subject of #sunglasses.
Most of us own at least one pair of these practical yet stylish accessories at any one time and many of us expend considerable time and money on selecting them. They can be just as much a fashion statement as our garments and hair style and a top quality pair can cost a lot more than an entire outfit. In fact, many people regard their "sunnies" as a vital component of their seasonal wardrobe, as important to their summer look as sporting sun-bronzed skin. But, whilst a cool pair of shades can, undeniably, set off a golden tan to perfection, some people believe they may also sabotage your efforts to develop one in the first place. In short, there is a hotly debated (no pun intended) theory that wearing sunglasses for too long could cause sunburn by interfering with the body's natural tanning process. For most people, this possibility is nothing more than a quirky and obscure snippet to be filed away as a potential party piece, should you ever need it. But for anyone with #vitiligo, its possible implications might be much more significant.
Our love-hate relationship with the sun
Extensive reading on the pigmentation process, coupled with my own experience of vitiligo recovery, have convinced me that #sunshine is a bit like food. It is one of life’s great pleasures and is absolutely essential to our survival. But it needs to be approached thoughtfully and taken in moderation. This advice, of course, applies to every living thing, but more especially to those with a pigmentation disorder. Through personal experience, I have learned that getting too much sun can be as counterproductive as too little.
So how does the pigmentation process actually work and why do some claim wearing sunglasses interferes with it?
Well, first of all, skin pigment is not just for decoration: it exists for a practical reason. It is the body’s way of protecting itself against UV damage. A person with normal skin produces a certain amount of melanin whether they are exposed to sunshine or not. The amount of melanin present in their skin determines how fair or deep their natural colouring is. Our natural skin colour is determined by our genes and exists in order to provide protection to the deeper layers of the skin. As such, it tends to give a clue as to where our ancestors came from: peoples who lived nearer the equator for generations generally have more melanin and darker skin than those who lived far away from the equator where there is much less sunshine and therefore less need of UV protection.
When the skin is exposed to sunshine melanin production increases further to provide even more protection. This is what we call a sun tan. Deeper skin tones usually tan easily because they have more melanin to start with. Fairer skins tend to burn if sun exposure is too intense or too long because they have relatively little melanin to start with and can’t make sufficient quantities fast enough to keep pace with the UV damage. This is why paler people need to sunbathe more carefully and more gradually if they want to avoid looking like a boiled lobster by the end of the first warm day of summer.
the eyes may play a part in tanning
The question of whether or not wearing sunglasses interferes with the tanning process seems to hinge on exactly how the mechanism by which this increase in melanin production is actually triggered. The claim is certainly not as crazy as it might at first sound. The logic goes that the tanning process is largely triggered via the eyes. The pigmentation process is regulated by our hormones. UV exposure stimulates the pituitary gland, located at the base of our brain close to the optic nerves, into producing MSH (Melanin Stimulating Hormone) into our bloodstream. It is this hormone that then causes the pigment producing cells (melanocytes) to produce a protective tan. The connection between the pituitary gland and the optic nerve is significant in this concept because it is the pituitary gland’s ability to sense light via the eyes that triggers the whole process. Therefore, filtering out UV light with sunglasses should, in theory, impair the body's ability to protect the skin against sunburn. This also has implications for the risk of developing skin cancer.
If this is true, we would all be well advised to minimise our use of sunglasses when we are in strong sunlight. But, of course, the irony of this is that this is the very time when we tend to need them. Not only is squinting in bright light uncomfortable and likely to produce wrinkles but excessive exposure without the appropriate eye protection can cause eye damage, including cataracts.
So are sunglasses good or bad?
Before you throw out your treasured Ray-Bans, there are plenty of opposing views on this topic which also appear to make sense if we accept that the trigger for the tanning process is not wholly reliant on the optic nerves. This theory says that melanin is produced in response to detecting UV light on the skin itself and therefore wearing sunglasses should make little or no difference to tanning. But then, it begs the question: does wearing a sunscreen trick the body into thinking the UV light is less intense than it really is. If this is true, then the risk of burning once your SPF product has worn or washed off is probably higher than if you hadn't applied one in the first place.
From what I have read so far on this subject, there is no definite consensus among experts. But, as ever, intuition tells me that common sense and moderation are the best guides as to how reliant we should be on sun protection in general. And I have some tips of my own for others who have vitiligo and are wondering how to approach this whole issue.
sun protection for vitiligo, yes or no?
The therapeutic value of sunlight is one thing that is beyond question. Without it we would die. And in the context of vitiligo (and many other skin conditions) UV therapy is the cornerstone of most effective treatments. It was certainly a key part of my own success story. On the other hand, sunburn is one of the events that is known to trigger de-pigmentation in those who have a susceptibility to it. Similarly, it seems that there is at least a fair chance that wearing sunglasses and sunscreens could be counterproductive since some credible theories exists to suggest they hinder the body's natural detection and defence system against the dangers posed by UV radiation.
The answer to this dilemma, it seems to me, is to ensure we get regular, but moderate, exposure to sunshine. It seems that, in the case of sunglasses, it is an over-reliance on them (i.e. wearing them, uninterrupted, for prolonged periods of time) that is likely to be a problem. So, my view is that it is best to save your sunglasses (good quality ones, please) for the times you really need them, like when the sun is causing you real discomfort or when driving for example. Squinting may cause a few wrinkles around the eyes (laughter lines, I mean) but personally I don't mind risking the odd one or two if it means my skin continues to produce healthy pigment. Wearing them throughout the summer might be tempting if you suffer from vitiligo "Panda Eyes" (as I used to call mine) but in my opinion it is unlikely your eye area will ever re-pigment if you constantly keep it hidden from the sun.
And, when it comes to sunscreens, I prefer not to block the healing rays of the sun by using these myself unless I know that I am going to be exposed to intense UV for prolonged periods of time with no other means of protection. On those occasions, I use as natural a product as I can find (this is my current favourite sun cream) because products containing harsh chemicals can be as bad for vitiligo - or worse - than sunburn itself.
In short, sunshine is a two edged sword for people with vitiligo. But I am convinced that it is far more beneficial than it is harmful, as long as we apply common sense and moderation to our relationship with it.
A vitiligo blogger since 2011. My name is Caroline. I had vitiligo for nearly 50 years before finding an effective treatment. I created this blog to share my experiences with others affected by this skin condition.