What do you associate with summer? Long days at the beach? Lazy afternoons at the pool? Picnics and barbecues? For many people, these traditional activities all come with one important caveat: sun exposure.
Sun safety should be top of mind this time of year. Health experts have long agreed that sun safety is an important factor in living a healthy lifestyle. Too much exposure to the sun can damage your skin and increase the risk for both cancerous and noncancerous lesions. It is essential to consistently practice sun safety, both in the summer months and all year round, by applying sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and limiting your time in the sun.
However, there is also a case to be made in support of sunlight. It turns out, moderate sun exposure may actually be beneficial. By avoiding it altogether, you risk missing out on numerous health benefits, both mental and physical. The trick is learning how to enjoy the sun in in smart doses.
The case for sun safety
As anyone who has ever suffered through a sunburn knows, the sun is not something you can take without precaution. The sun emits a tremendous amount of energy, even when hidden behind a cloudy day. Visible light may be the most obvious, but it also emits infrared radiation, which we feel as heat, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is what can damage the skin.
Incredibly, the Earth’s atmosphere filters out as much as 99 percent of the UV light that the sun emits — but the remaining 1 percent can still be enough to cause significant damage. In particular, prolonged exposure to ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation and, to a lesser extent, ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, is widely documented to increase the risk of a range of skin cancers. These include basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, as well as melanoma, which is responsible for up to three out of every four skin cancer deaths.
So, yes: take common-sense precautions against too much sun exposure. These include using sunscreen regularly (reapplying every two hours or so), dressing in protective clothing (such as long-sleeved shirts and hats), seeking out shade, and avoiding the outdoors altogether when UV radiation is at its highest (usually mid-day). Doing so can save you from more than just a sunburn — doing so may literally save your life.
The case for sun exposure
While protecting yourself from the damaging effects of too much sun is undoubtedly important, this shouldn’t mean hiding inside forever. Moderate exposure to the sun is extremely vital to your overall health.
Notably, in a comprehensive report on UV radiation, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that excessive UV exposure accounted for 1.5 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), or just 0.1 percent of the total global disease burden. In contrast, the WHO reported that a much larger annual disease burden of 3.3 billion DALYs worldwide might result from very low levels of UV exposure. The reason for this can be traced to low vitamin D levels in low sun-exposed populations.
Although we get most of our other essential vitamins from food (which is why it’s so important to follow a healthy diet), vitamin D can only be converted for use in the body from exposure to sunlight. In turn, our bodies convert vitamin D into chemicals that help maintain calcium and phosphorus levels. Without proper vitamin D absorption, our bodies will be unable to support a range of essential functions. This can increase the risk for diseases such as osteoporosis and rickets, a condition that softens the bones and causes painful skeletal deformities.
Fortunately, getting enough vitamin D is easy. While there are multiple factors that can affect how much vitamin D is absorbed (such as UV levels, the presence of clothing or sunblock, and the pigmentation of the skin), in general, about 10-30 minutes of direct sunlight a day should be enough.
Of course, vitamin D isn’t the only way our bodies and health are intimately connected to the sun. We also depend on sunlight to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, an internal “time-keeping” process that affects hormone and energy levels, appetite and digestion, brain health and body temperature, and a number of other functions. Avoiding natural light or sunlight, or even severely limiting exposure, can also have devastating effects to your health and longevity.
The case for moderation
Should you avoid the cancer-causing effects of the sun, or try to soak up as much of its rays as possible? The answer, as it is in so many aspects of health, is a little of both.
A moderate approach to sun exposure will help you stay safe while still ensuring you get the essential benefits your body needs. Be sure to follow these points so that you don’t over (or under) do it:
- Catch a sunset or sunrise. Due to the angle of the sun, early morning and evening sunlight must travel through much more of the Earth’s atmosphere to reach your skin. This means you can stand outside and enjoy the sunlight for much longer without having to worry about too much UV radiation exposure. Take advantage of this by getting outside and enjoying what is often the best part of the day.
- Choose your sunscreen carefully. Despite what their labels may say, not all sunscreens are the same. Some products may even be made with ingredients (such as benzene) that can increase the risk of cancer and disrupt hormones. Instead, use all-natural, preferably mineral-based sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 and labeled as broad-spectrum. And don’t forget to reapply regularly.
- Don’t forget about winter rays. While it may be colder, you should still consider winter sunlight equal to the summer. This means you should still try to get out and enjoy the sunlight, even when it means bundling up. With the sun setting earlier, this can be especially important for the body’s circadian rhythm. But keep in mind moderation. Winter sunlight can still cause damage, especially if it is reflected back by a carpet of white snow.
- Check your vitamin D levels. Take a proactive approach to your health by making sure you are giving the body adequate amounts of vitamin D and adjusting accordingly. A functional health provider can help determine whether your body is absorbing enough vitamin D to maintain optimal function. If not, they can help you supplement according to your personal needs.
Want more tips on how to enjoy a healthy and sunny summer while staying safe? Schedule a Meet & Greet with us today to speak to one of our providers.