The Truth About Sun Exposure and Your Health


Knowledge bomb: the sun may actually help prevent skin cancer.

Sun exposure may be one of the most misunderstood myths of all time, but not without good reason. It is marketed as a danger, not far from drunk driving, running with a knife, or unprotected sex – you’d be a fool not to protect yourself, and the consequences could be dramatic (read: cancer). However, there is more to sunlight’s affect on your body than meets the eye, and prescribing to mass marketing campaigns for sunscreens may do more harm than good.

The hullabaloo is well deserved. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the U.S. More than 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year and it is estimated that the most serious type of skin cancer, melanoma, will account for 76,600 cases in 2013. And with UV radiation linked to skin cancer, it’s no wonder people are skirting the sun.

But the silver lining is this: proper exposure to the sun is the number one way can quickly and effectively ensure we are producing enough vitamin D to support our body’s systems. There are a limited number of food sources that provide vitamin D, and these include fatty fish, eggs, milk, and supplements. These food sources are incomplete, as we derive 90 percent of vitamin D from the sun.

Despite the sun’s association with skin cancer, according to studies published by the British Journal of Cancer and Journal of Clinical Oncology, researchers found that higher vitamin D levels actually improve survival for skin cancer patients. An Italian study found that melanoma patients with intermittent exposure to the sun prior to diagnosis were associated with improved survival in the long-term.

Vitamin D is also extremely healing for other purposes and is necessary for the proper absorption, utilization and preservation of calcium in the body and bones. A vitamin D deficiency, which is prevalent in three-quarters of U.S. teens and adults, can lead to bone loss, osteoporosis, diabetes, depression, prostate cancer, and breast cancer. It is especially essential in preventing and fighting all kinds of cancer and it has been estimated that higher levels of it could prevent some 30 percent of worldwide cancer deaths each year. Women with light skin color can cut their risk of developing breast cancer in half with sun exposure.

So how much sunlight should you get? To maximize vitamin D production, expose your face, hands, back, and however much skin as possible, to the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. for between 10 and 20 minutes. Lighter skin requires less time than darker skin. If you can’t get under the sun, consider a supplement, but it is not the dosage but your blood level of vitamin D that matters. The optimal value is 50-70 nanograms per millimeter (ng/ml), but be sure to consult a doctor to measure and determine your personal level.

Keep in mind that excessive supplementation of vitamin D can be harmful, whereas your body knows to how control vitamin D production that is incited via sun exposure. If you are planning on staying out in the sun longer than a half hour, avoid applying toxin-laden sunscreens and embrace green alternatives.

Photo Credit: Vincent Boiteau