April 03, 2020 at 11:25PM
Sure, we may be spending most of our time indoors at the moment, but sunshine waits for no one. While it could be a while before we host an outdoor picnic or gather a crew and head to the beach, warmer weather does serve as inspiration to catch some rays in any way we can. And in what seems like perfect timing for spring, a new study finds a gene that can help protect the skin from sun damage and increase vitamin D—well, at least for some. Is it too good to be true?
Here’s what they found.
When we bask in the sun, there is a certain molecule in our skin that helps soak up the sun’s UVB rays and converts them into vitamin D. In doing so, this molecule acts as an internal SPF (sun protection factor) by protecting the skin from UV damage. Vitamin D, of course, is an essential vitamin for the body, as it helps manage inflammation, enhance bone health, and can even support the immune system.*
But here’s the caveat: Baking in the sun for longer doesn’t yield higher amounts of vitamin D—our skin molecules can only produce a certain level of the vitamin at a time. Once it reaches your body’s quota (which looks different for everyone), any extra rays will cause sun damage. Sun damage, in turn, can trigger oxidative stress, premature aging, and a slew of other issues. This is why dermatologists are so adamant we stay smart about sun care.
Enter this new study, published in Nature Communications, which measured the genomes of more than 502,000 individuals in the UK. They found that variations of a specific gene called HAL (histidine ammonia-lyase) can influence how much of this internal SPF molecule we make.
In other words, if you have variations of the HAL gene, the more SPF molecules you could have in your skin, and the more vitamin D your body can create. Meaning, more optimal vitamin D levels with less burns—sounds like a win-win.
Anyone could have the gene, regardless of skin tone.
“This study has implicated several new skin-related genes that impact on our vitamin D status—distinct from skin color which affects our ability to make vitamin D depending on the concentration of the pigment melanin in the skin,” says author of the study, John McGrath, M.D., Ph.D., in a news release.
Currently, we know that high amounts of melanin in the skin can affect how much vitamin D our bodies make, which is why some experts say those with darker skin tones may need a higher amount of sun exposure to meet adequate levels of vitamin D. But this study takes skin tone out of the equation, finding that HAL can influence how much of the vitamin we make—no matter the color of our skin.
So what’s next?
Well, first things first: You definitely shouldn’t forego your daily SPF, even if your skin does have this natural sunscreen ability. And from there, much more research is needed before we can say who might have this sunscreen gene—or if the gene is enough to protect you in the same way a proper SPF lotion might. Co-author of the study, Naomi Wray, Ph.D., agrees: “Our findings are a treasure trove of clues which will keep researchers busy for a long time,” she says.