Summertime is finally here. Beaches have re-opened. After living in lockdown for months, people are flocking outdoors to enjoy the feel of direct sunlight on their faces and bodies. Some safely, others not. Bikinis, speedos, and skimpy summer dresses spell suntanning. We know the dangers. But are there any benefits to sun exposure?
I personally love the sun. I’ve been a sun worshiper even, or maybe especially when I was living in Poland, where summers were short and brown bodies in high regard. During high school, I would often go with friends to a “tar beach” – the roof of a high-riser with very difficult access to it. We could draw up the ladder so that there was no risk someone else would be able to get up there. And we could suntan topless for hours on end. Result? Too many sunburns to count.
I now live in California where the sun never goes away. But somehow this makes me much less prone to seek out the sun. I rarely go to the beach for the dislike of crowds. But I make sure to get my 20 minutes of natural sunlight on my body without sunscreen almost daily. Sometimes it is while gardening, sometimes it’s lying in the hammock with a good book in my hands. Sometimes it’s having breakfast outside in the yard. California living is like that!
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Direct Sunlight
We all have heard about the risks associated with too much sun exposure. However, there are also risks associated with too little exposure to sunlight. And they are all related to a hormonal balance between serotonin and melatonin production.
So how do we navigate the good, the bad, and the ugly of sun exposure? Let’s dig in.
How does direct sunlight affect us? When exposed to sunlight, our bodies respond by producing the “feel-good” hormone called serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for boosting our mood and keeping us well-balanced emotionally.
Moderate exposure to natural sunlight can do wonders for our mental health. It can ward off depression and anxiety and impart a sense of happiness and wellbeing. This is why there is a documented phenomenon of seasonal anxiety disorder. Still more telling is the fact that there are more suicides during winter months. It is speculated that this is related to much less sun exposure during these darker times of the year.
Investigators also found that the average number of hours of sunshine per month was significantly correlated with completed suicide as well as the use of violent methods.NIH Study
Where I come from – Poland in Northern Europe – autumn and winter are long and gloomy. Days are short. It gets dark around 3 PM and doesn’t get light until well into mid-morning. When I was living there until my college years, it did not bother me that much. I can imagine though, spending entire seasons without much sunlight for years on end would get under my skin in the long run.
Did you know?
Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a type of depression that’s related to changes in seasons — SAD begins and ends at about the same times every year. If you’re like most people with SAD, your symptoms start in the fall and continue into the winter months, sapping your energy and making you feel moody.Mayo Clinic
It’s all about the hormones
How to get exposed to direct sunlight?
Too little sun exposure has detrimental effects on our mood and hormonal balance. Additionally, it can mess up with our circadian rhythm which regulates our sleep and waking patterns.
It is therefore highly recommended that we get out into the sun relatively quickly after waking up. The contact of natural sunlight with the retina in our eyes triggers a signal in the brain to start producing serotonin. This production was slowed down during the night because the body was busy producing a different hormone – melatonin – which helps us dose off and stay asleep during the night hours.
Timing is crucial
Because of the risks associated with UV light exposure, it’s best to stay out of the sun between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm when the rays are most directly hitting the body.
If you happen to be in the sun during the peak hours, wear protective clothing and/or stay in shade or dappled sun whenever possible. When going to the beach, bring an umbrella or one of the popular shading tents. If you’re on a hike or in a park, seek out the shady side for walking. And of course, use SPF. More about it below. It’s all about making sensible choices.
Another Hormone: Vitamin D
Another very important reason for moderate exposure to sunlight is the way one more hormone, mislabeled a vitamin, is produced. We’re talking about Vitamin D. This vitamin can rarely be obtained from foods such as fish and eggs and some fortified cereal, dairy, and fruit juices. Vitamin D can be produced by our bodies only when we get a moderate exposure to the sun. Hence it’s nickname „sunshine vitamin”.
As published data indicate that 80%–90% of vitamin D is obtained from sunlight.NIH Study
Lack of vitamin D can be truly detrimental to our health. It can impact negatively our bone health. The deficiency of Vitamin D also increases risks for certain cancers, including breast and colon cancers, as this Harvard University study made clear.
Vitamin D deficiency is currently recognized as a worldwide epidemic. It seems that the more we are running away from the sun in fear of getting skin cancer, the less Vitamin D our bodies can produce. This of course leads to issues with heart health, bone health, and can lead to other cancers.
I realized only after my diagnosis with colorectal cancer that my Vitamin D levels were well below the recommended level of 40-80 nG/mL. My naturopathic doctor advised immediately to start supplementing with 5000 IU of Vitamin D in addition to spending at least 20 minutes a day in direct sunlight to soak it up directly from the glorious sun.
Okay, so there are many benefits of natural sunlight for our physical and mental health. Given that fact, one would think everyone should spend hours and hours outside soaking up the sun. But that would not be wise for a number of reasons. (Now I know how stupid those “tar beach” days were, what was I thinking?!)
Direct Sunlight and Our Skin
The sun emits rays of energy, some of which can reach the earth and are fundamental for life on the planet (not only that of plants but also animals and our own). The longest of these UV rays that reach us are called UVA rays. The shorter ones are called UVB rays.
It is the UVB rays that can give you sunburn. UVA rays are even more insidious because they might not cause the burn, but they actually can travel much deeper into the skin than UVB rays. Both types of sunlight rays affect the skin’s health, including to the point of changing the skin’s genetic makeup.
Short of getting skin cancer, too much sun exposure has detrimental effect on the appearance of the skin. While suntan might look pretty and even impart a “healthy glow” to the skin, too much of that good thing is simply too much.
When we over-expose our skin to UV light, the skin will photo-age. “Photoaging” is a medical term describing the changes caused by over-exposure to sunlight or tanning beds: wrinkles, scaly patches, freckles, and hyperpigmentation. Sometimes it is called premature aging, and the skin might be called sun-damaged.
Responsible for 90 percent of visible changes to the skin, photoaging is a direct result of cumulative sun damage you’ve been exposed to throughout your life.Skin Cancer Foundation
While a sunburn might last a day or two, the damage that too much sun can do to the skin can last a lifetime. Most significantly, sun damage will rob you of collagen, which is the building block for elasticity and bounciness of the skin. Age spots and wrinkles will show up at some point on everybody, but if you fry extensively in the sun, you’ll see them much earlier than needed. A little bit later, we’ll talk about the best ways to prevent such unsightly effects on the skin.
Risk of Skin Cancer
The worst thing about too much sun is, of course, the risk of skin cancer. Too much UV radiation from the sun (or from artificial suntanning beds) damages the DNA in our skin cells. Damaged genetic material can lead to irrevocable changes in the skin’s cells – tumors, benign or malignant.
Today, skin cancer is the most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. Each year, more than 2 million people in the USA are treated for two types of skin cancer: basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. Luckily, these two types are rarely life-threatening. If discovered early, they are highly curable.
The most malignant and one of the most difficult cancers to treat is melanoma.
Melanoma is a less common but more serious type of skin cancer that’s diagnosed in more than 68,000 Americans each year. Another 48,000 are diagnosed with an early form of the disease that involves only the top layer of skin.NIH News in Health
When not discovered early enough, melanoma is a deadly disease. It is important to prevent it at all costs. Inform yourself about the risk of skin cancer, it could save your life. This CDC website provides very informative info and tips for individuals and families on how to best prevent this deadly disease.
How to Enjoy the Sun Safely?
Here are a few key ways to do it:
- Stay out of the sun when it’s most intense. This will depend on the season and the location where you live, but it’s probably safe to say that the most intensive UV exposure occurs between 10 am and 3 pm
- If you are outside during that high UV-exposure window, protect your skin by wearing loose, long-sleeved tops and long pants. Don’t forget a hat to protect your ears, neck, and head. And, of course, sunglasses. They are not only a fashion statement. They can save your eyes, but only if they offer real UV protection.
- If you are outside between 10 am and 3 pm, wear sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher. Don’t forget that it takes at least 15 minutes for the sunscreen to start protecting your skin, so plan accordingly. Also, you need to reapply it every two hours, as well as after excessive sweating or swimming.
- Never, ever use suntanning beds. “Just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of developing skin cancer (melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67%, and basal cell carcinoma by 29%” according to American Academy of Dermatology.
- Check your entire body (including areas covered by hair) for suspicious skin changes like irregular moles, spots that don’t go away, and scaly patches, which could develop into cancers.
Wearing sunscreen every day can do more than prevent skin cancer — it can prevent signs of photoaging as well.Skin Cancer Foundation
The Bottom Line
What can I say, I still love the sun! The first thing I do in the morning (around 8:30-9 am) is to make my latte and walk out to check on my garden. I’d spend around 20-25 minutes out there soaking up the glorious early-morning sun. I make sure that my face, arms, and legs are not covered and free of sunscreen so that the sun’s rays can penetrate so that my body can start producing Vitamin D and Serotonin.
After 10 am, it’s either back indoors or it’s time to cover up: sunscreen on the exposed areas, light, loose clothing, a hat and sunglasses.
I rarely lay and sunbathe anymore. If I do on a rare trip to the beach, it’s full-coverage with a healthy, organic sunscreen. I really love the ones made by Beauty by Earth. They are free of sulfates, parabens, phthalates, triclosan, or petroleum. They are also cruelty-free and vegan.
I use them for all my sunscreen needs and for sunless tanning. I still love the look of suntan, I just want to get it the healthy way – from the bottle!
Here is what I use:
- Face: broad-spectrum UVA/UVB Mineral Sunscreen SPF 20 or for a touch of color their Tinted Facial Sunscreen SPF 20 which comes in three shades – beige, toffee, and cocoa.
- Body: Mineral Sunscreen SPF 25