Closer to the Sun: The Dermatological Benefits and Consequences of Living at High Altitude

As many of us know, high-altitude living goes hand-in-hand with a multitude of outdoor activities like biking, hiking, and skiing. But with all that outdoor activity comes an insidious risk: radiation from the sun. According to an article interviewing Kim Guthke PA-C, a Physician Assistant working in Dermatology in Boulder, CO, “living at a higher elevation exposes us to approximately 25 percent more ultraviolet radiation when compared to sea level” (Guthke 2018). This means that with all the outdoor activities we enjoy, we must also be proactive about protecting our skin from high altitude sun and the increased risks of long-term skin issues it brings. 

Using thick UV-protectant clothing, sunglasses, and sunscreen (and reapplying it) are great ways to protect our skin from the sun. However, some new research has argued that we are actually hurting our health by staying away from the sun. In a revelational article from Outside magazine called “Is Sunscreen the New Margarine?”, Rowan Jacobsen uncovered a novel study claiming only the sun can provide the vitamin D we need. He claims that we are trying and failing to supply vitamin D with pills alone, and the pills just aren’t good enough. Vitamin D is a vitamin required for calcium absorption whose levels, if low, can increase one’s risk of “cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions, and more” (Jacobsen 2019). Thus healthcare workers have concluded that supplementing it will obviously decrease the risk of these diseases. 

Jacobsen reports that multiple different studies have proven that supplementation of vitamin D just isn’t enough to lower that risk. The studies reported that even if supplementation raised vitamin D levels, the general health of the patient did not improve. There was no correlation between high supplemented vitamin D levels and overall health.

So, why was this?

Jacobson claims that vitamin D is actually just a marker for overall health. In other words, raising vitamin D by artificial supplementation does not make one healthier; rather, to raise one’s vitamin D level one must live a healthy lifestyle outside in the sun. Jacobsen states, “…what made the people with high vitamin D levels so healthy was not the vitamin itself. … Their vitamin D levels were high because they were getting plenty of exposure to the thing that was really responsible for their good health — that big orange ball shining down from above” (Jacobsen 2019). 

Soaking up the Vitamin D on Lake Dillon.

So, what are the implications of this study? Does this mean we all need to stop using sunscreen in order to absorb the most natural form of vitamin D and subsequently decrease our risk of dangerous diseases? Well, yes and no.

Yes, in that the best way to absorb vitamin D is from the sun and sunscreen does inhibit that absorption.

No, in that one day of playing at the beach and getting horribly sunburnt is not going to raise your vitamin D levels enough to benefit your health.

Unfortunately, the answer is quite complicated. I believe the implication of this new information is that we all need to start getting outside every day, exercising, enjoying the mountain air, and absorbing small amounts of sunlight each day, rather than just enjoying a single session of baking our skin to blisters. Living at high-altitude, I hypothesize that we don’t need as much time to absorb the same amount of beneficial sunlight as we would at sea level, so I feel there is still a need for sunscreen and protective clothing, if outside for an extended period. We should all try to absorb the sun’s rays daily, but we need to do it in a healthy way.

Cooling down on the way up Uneva Peak off Vail pass.

I encourage everyone to read Jacobson’s article, as it has points both for and against protection from the UV rays of the sun. In the meantime, there is one point Jacobson makes that I would like to argue. 

In his article, Jacobsen admits that increasing sun exposure does increase the rate of skin cancer, but then claims this is ‘okay’ because, “Skin cancer kills surprisingly few people: less than 3 per 100,000 in the U.S. each year … People don’t realize this because several different diseases are lumped together under the term ‘skin cancer.’ The most common by far are basal-cell carcinomas (BCCs) and squamous-cell carcinomas (SCCs), which are almost never fatal” (Jacobsen 2019). The reason I’m disagreeing with this point is due to my direct experience with the “non-fatal” skin cancers. I spent 12 months working with a board-certified dermatological surgeon performing Mohs micrographic surgery, a delicate and precise surgical procedure to remove said cancers from the face, ears, scalp, fingers and toes. Although it’s true BCCs and SCCs are rarely fatal, they can cause significant damage to one’s image. Depending on the location and size of the cancer, a “non-fatal” SCC in-situ has the potential to cause extensive disfigurement of the face, ears, or eyes. I strongly believe this is not something to take lightly, and I fear that saying skin cancer is non-fatal creates a false sense of security. This can be especially dangerous in high-altitude where the sun’s rays are exceptionally stronger than the majority of the US. 

All in all, I do believe that the sun is incredibly beneficial to our health, though in moderate portions. Living in the Colorado mountains gives us more opportunities to enjoy the mountain air, along with the sun, and allows us to lead healthier lives in general. I don’t think I’m going to stop using sunscreen in the near future, but I do know I won’t be so afraid of the sun anymore. I definitely won’t be letting the sun keep me from enjoying my time here in Colorado!

Delaney Schara is a Physician Assistant student at Des Moines University in Des Moines, Iowa. She hails from Fergus Falls, Minnesota, and obtained her undergraduate degree in Chemistry at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Delaney gained valuable experience in medicine by working as a medical scribe in Dermatology prior to beginning PA school. After completing her pediatrics rotation with Dr. Chris, Delaney will have rotations in multiple Midwestern states before her graduation in June 2020. Delaney is an avid musician who loves singing in choir, playing the flute, and playing acoustic guitar. She also enjoys tasting new blends of tea, exploring rural communities, and spending time with loved ones. 

References

Guthke, Kim. “Sun Protection at Higher Altitudes.” Boulder Medical Center, 29 August 

2018, www.bouldermedicalcenter.com/sun-protection-at-higher-altitudes/

Jacobsen, Rowan. “Is Sunscreen the New Margarine.” Outside Online, 6 June 2019

www.outsideonline.com/2380751/sunscreen-sun-exposure-skin-cancer-science?utm_source=pocket&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=pockethits

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