Sun Exposure: Too much or not enough?

March 26th, 2011 | Nutrition and Health

Don’t stare at the sun. That’s a no brainer. But are we able to even expose our skin to the sun? You can’t Google “skin health” without being overwhelmed with results about sun exposure and skin cancer. The news tells us a lot about good health practices, but sometimes they can be a bit confusing and a bit contradictory.

Here are some things I’ve been reading in recent headlines:

So let me get this straight.


Cancer and multiple sclerosis are less likely with plenty of sun exposure, but ingredients in sunscreen are causing cancer and lung disease.


Super model calls sunscreen ‘poison’ and ticks off health experts who are at the same time saying ingredients in nearly half of the sunscreens on the market are linked to the development of skin tumors and lesions.


Avoid the sun! Stay out in the sun! Use sunscreen! Don’t use sunscreen! Let’s boil all this down to understand what you should really be doing.

The Pros and Cons of Sun

Skin cancer is on the rise, and whether it has to do with indoor tanning, ignorance, laziness or global warming, we have to take proper measures to get a balanced dose of sun so that we may reap the benefits while protecting ourselves at the same time.

The sun’s rays can alter our DNA, which ultimately leads to skin cancer, and can cause rapid signs of aging. Melanin is what our bodies use to naturally protect our skin from the sun. It determines the pigment of our skin, hair and eyes. More melanin equals darker color. Fair-skinned individuals are at higher risk of the harmful effects from the sun because they lack significant amounts of melanin. And with every sunburn you get, your chances for developing skin cancer increases.

About this whole vitamin D thing: When the sun hits our skin, our bodies start an internal process that creates vitamin D; this is the primary nutrient responsible for all the major health benefits you’re probably reading about. Vitamin D helps our bodies retain calcium for stronger bones and can also prevent high blood pressure and several autoimmune diseases. This isn’t an excuse to bake in tanning beds or outside all day, though. Research believes that 10-15 minutes a day of sun exposure is enough to prevent a vitamin D deficiency.

A little sunlight everyday is good for your mental health, as well. Have you noticed how a sunny day simply makes you feel happier? It will quite literally brighten your day. Getting less sun than you’re used to, such as in the winter when days are shorter, and you could develop seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD symptoms include extreme lethargy, depression and an increased appetite, which often leads to weight gain. People living in countries far from the equator, which have a significant difference in length of day from summer to winter, are more likely to experience symptoms of SAD.

And don’t forget, it’s hard to get fresh air and be active solely indoors. Going for a walk, golfing or gardening are all great stress relievers and simple ways to enjoy the beautiful day that seems all too rare — outside of California or Florida. And even if it’s not a perfect, sunny day, you can still spend a little time outside to get the necessary UV rays to start the vitamin D process.

UV Ray Facts

There are two types of ultraviolet (not ultraviolent) rays that can reach our skin — UVA and UVB. Both types can contribute to skin cancer. UVA rays were once regarded as the “safe rays” but are actually the more dangerous version as they penetrates deeper levels of the skin and can cause greater damage.

The sun’s rays penetrate windows, windshields and light-colored clothing and also reflect off water, sand and snow bouncing up to 80 percent of the UV rays back at you. So, just because you’re inside, doesn’t mean you’re fully protected. Ever think how much exposure the tops of your hands are getting on the steering wheel of your car? As I touched on earlier, many also forget that UV rays also go through light cloud cover, and so they stay outside longer without any protection, which can be potentially more dangerous than a sunny day where you know to protect yourself.

Why Do We Want To Be Tan?

We tend to seek out that bronzed look for a variety of reasons. You think you look sexier; it makes you feel good; you want to look good in that white dress; it protects you from the harsh sun when you’re on vacation. Out of all the reasons out there, simply ask yourself these questions. “Is being tan worth the leathery, old purse look when I’m older?” “Is being tan now worth me potentially developing skin cancer?” I don’t intend to scare; I simply want you to understand the risks of prolonged, repeated exposure to UV rays.

Besides, you look beautiful, regardless of the tone of your skin.

Sun Protection

A Scandinavian study of melanoma risk published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2003 found that adolescence is the most dangerous time to get a sunburn; so it’s especially important to protect younger, more sensitive skin.

Understand your skin type. If you have very pale skin, be sure to give yourself more protection than someone who may naturally have darker skin.

The key is to protect your skin during peak sunny hours, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., by wearing wide-brimmed hats, sun block and UV protective sunglasses and clothing. Be sure to use at least SPF 15 for adequate protection, but SPF 30 comes more highly recommend by experts. If you’re outside for most of the day, like at the beach, seek a shady area or bring an umbrella to prevent direct exposure and reapply sunscreen every few hours or after you’ve been in the water.

You can also purchase natural sunscreen without all those nasty chemicals that Giselle was talking about. The Daily Green has compiled a list of safe, effective sunscreens that will protect you from the sun’s rays without the potential negative side effects.

Finding daily moisturizers that contain SPF is a great way to protect your skin without feeling like you’re getting ready to go to the beach for the day.

Alternative Sources of Vitamin D

The sun isn’t the only way to get your daily dose of vitamin D, either. You can get much of your vitamin D from a variety of food sources. Half of a filet of salmon has nearly twice the daily value of vitamin needed for most people. Other fish, like tuna and flounder, are also great sources of vitamin D. Milk and eggs are also great sources and ricotta cheese has about five times as much vitamin D as other cheeses.

Moral of the Story


Don’t be sun-phobic. Feel free to go outside and enjoy the day as it was given to you. You don’t want to lock yourself inside with the curtains pulled. It’s good to be outside and it’s good to feel the warmth of the sun on your skin for a few minutes every now and then. The danger comes from repeated, extended and unprotected exposure. Wear sunscreen of at least SPF 15 and cover up your skin, especially your shoulders and ears, with clothing and a hat during the sun’s peak hours in the sky. And if you really want that dark, tan look, try spray tanning before sitting under the UV bulbs at the tanning salon.

I wish healthy, happy skin to you all.

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