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Nearly all of us — 97% of Americans, according to a national survey — enjoy time in the outdoors. “A majority of Americans prefer to spend their summer…outdoors, with sitting on one’s patio, deck, or porch, and barbecuing the most common responses,” adds Gallup. “Ten percent also say they like to be at home with family. Other common activities include reading and being by the water (at a beach, lake, or ocean). Yet with all that time enjoying nature, there are also concerns about sun exposure. Despite that, being outdoors and basking in the sun has numerous health benefits. All you need is healthy sun protection.

Healthy Sun Protection and Your Health: What Are the Benefits of Sun Exposure?

Much has been said about the dangers and risks of prolonged sun exposure. “For decades now, our sun has been reviled and demonized,” explains Michael F. Holick, a professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University Medical Center. “These messages have caused widespread paranoia about sunlight, especially among parents who religiously apply sun protection multiple times a day on their children.”

However, he goes on to argue that “the risks associated with sensible sun exposure have been exaggerated by well-meaning health authorities, and the measures to guard against them often have nothing to do with the sun’s occasionally malignant effects. Contrary to the paranoia generated by years of messaging, the sun is not our enemy. It’s safe to step back outside — and, please, go easy on the sunscreen.”

A great example is vitamin D.

Your body needs sun exposure to produce this important immune-boosting vitamin that plays a key role in nearly every aspect of your body, including cell production and disease prevention, with one study finding that “on a sunny day, the skin can generate 10,000 IU of vitamin D just from UV light exposure.” (Meanwhile, the recommended daily amount is 600 IU for most children and adults, and 800 IU for those over the age of 70)

The results of sun paranoia are easily found around the world, with Dr. Holick pointing to a case study from down under:

“While we need to avoid cancer, we also need vitamin D, and the sun is the only reliable way to get it outside of a daily supplement. Australia’s decades-long public campaign to curb its skin cancer rates and encourage less sun exposure has been unfortunately effective: 31 percent of Australian adults are now vitamin D deficient, which is linked with a number of serious and deadly conditions, including several cancers. Sunscreen dramatically limits the production of vitamin D — SPF 30 reduces it by 97 percent (meanwhile, the recommended daily amount is 600 IU for most children and adults, and 800 IU for those over the age of 70)”

Other benefits of sun exposure include:

  • Mood Enhancement: Sunlight exposure may boost your mood and reduce your risk of depression. Sunlight increases the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. It can also help alleviate symptoms of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
  • Improved Sleep: Exposure to natural light helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, promoting better sleep. It helps maintain a proper sleep-wake cycle by regulating the production of melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep patterns.
  • Reduced Risk of Certain Diseases: Adequate sun exposure has been linked to a lower risk of several diseases, including certain cancers (such as breast and colon cancer), multiple sclerosis, and cardiovascular diseases. This is thought to be partly due to the role of vitamin D in regulating cell growth and maintaining the immune system.
  • Lower Blood Pressure: Some studies suggest that exposure to sunlight can help lower blood pressure by causing the skin to release stored nitric oxide, which helps dilate blood vessels and improve blood flow.
  • Skin Conditions: Controlled exposure to UV rays can help treat certain skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema, and vitiligo. Phototherapy is a medical treatment that involves exposing the skin to specific wavelengths of light under medical supervision.

That’s not to ignore the true risks of too much sun exposure. It all comes down to healthy sun protection and treating the sun not as an inherent villain in your health journey, but as a tool that you need to use properly. As Dr. Frank Lipman explains: “Have a healthy respect for the sun. It is a powerful medicine with potentially dangerous side effects on your skin. Treat it like medication, using the lowest dose necessary — but don’t avoid it completely.”

How to Practice Healthy Sun Protection Outdoors This Summer

Start with slow sun exposure. You’re not aiming to switch in a day from a life indoors at your office cubicle to a radiant, golden goddess fresh from a tropical vacation.

“It is sunburn, not healthy sun exposure, that causes problems,” adds Dr. Lipman. “Repeated sunburns, especially in children and very fair-skinned people, have been linked to melanoma. Whereas there is no credible scientific evidence that regular, moderate sun exposure causes melanoma or other skin cancers — so prepare your skin and build up tolerance gradually.”

He recommends:

  • Starting early, ideally in the spring, or going out in the early morning when the sun’s rays aren’t at their peak
  • Slowly building up the total amount of time you’re outdoors in the sunlight (“Regular short exposures have been found to be much more effective and much safer than intermittent long ones,” he explains. “Get 15-30 minutes of unprotected sun exposure 2-4 times a week.)
  • Personalizing your slow sun exposure plan according to your unique, individual needs (“Each of us has different needs for unprotected sun exposure to maintain adequate levels of Vitamin D,” he says. “Depending on your age, what type of skin you have, where you live and what time of the day and year it is, your needs will vary.”)

This all works together to give you all the health benefits of the sun, while also building up your skin’s tolerance to avoid sunburns — a key part of healthy sun protection.

But that’s not the only way to practice healthy sun protection.

Use Sunscreen

Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an appropriate SPF to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Even with gradual exposure, sunscreen helps prevent overexposure and sunburn. Unfortunately, many popular sunscreen products are actually harmful to your skin, your immune system, and your overall health.

“Avoid sunscreen with vitamin A,” warns the Environmental Working Group, whose scientists review hundreds of sunscreen products to identify those that are not only effective but also safe for your health. “Government data show that tumors and lesions develop sooner on skin coated with creams containing vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate or retinol. Avoid any sunscreen whose label includes retinyl palmitate, retinol or vitamin A.”

Likewise, the EWG recommends we “avoid oxybenzone, an ingredient that readily penetrates the skin and has been shown to disrupt the hormone system. Instead look for sunscreen lotions with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the only two sunscreen ingredients categorized as safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Avoid Peak Sun Hours

Time is your friend when it comes to healthy sun protection. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Try to get your sun exposure outside of these hours to minimize the risk of intense UV radiation.

Wear Protective Clothing

Gradual exposure doesn’t mean you should forego protective clothing. Wear hats, sunglasses, and long sleeves to protect sensitive areas while allowing other parts of your body to acclimate.

Monitor Your Skin

Pay attention to how your skin responds to the sun. If you notice any signs of overexposure, such as redness or discomfort, reduce your time in the sun and apply soothing products like aloe vera.

References:

  • https://winnebago.gcs-web.com/news-releases/news-release-details/participation-outdoor-activities-continues-increase-road-trips
  • https://news.gallup.com/poll/28294/most-americans-prefer-spend-their-summer-evenings-outdoors.aspx
  • https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/go-ahead-soak-up-some-sun/2015/07/24/00ea8a84-3189-11e5-97ae-30a30cca95d7_story.html
  • https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10239563/
  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-vitamin-d/art-20363792
  • https://www.huffpost.com/entry/safe-sun-exposure_b_901853
  • https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/top-sun-safety-tips/