Is direct exposure to the sun advisable? What about the risk of skin cancer? Is the sun our friend or foe? Here are 10 things to know:
1. The Sun is vital for health – To put it simply: if you do not get enough sun you die. The numbers are staggering: You can reduce your risk of heart attack by 50%, reduce the risk of common cancers such as colon, prostate, and breast by 50%, reduce the risk of infectious disease including influenza by 90%, Reduce you Blood Pressure, Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, dementia, depression, multiple sclerosis, and autoimmune diseases. A large number of people who have been misdiagnosed as having fibromyalgia can be completely cured. All this by simply getting a sensible direct exposure to the sun. But this is not all. Exposure to sun has a positive impact on our mood and sense of wellbeing. Besides this it ensures that we get good sleep and wake up well rested.
2. But what about Melanoma? – A large number of people are scared of direct exposure of sun because of the worry of skin cancer. But here is the truth: Sensible direct exposure of sun has never been shown to cause melanoma or skin cancer. In fact there are indications that it may slightly decrease the risk of melanoma. It is only overexposure that is risky. To avoid all exposure to sun is akin to avoiding water because some people die of drowning. Just like nobody can drown in a cup of water, you are not going to get skin cancer because of required daily direct exposure of sun.
3. Tan versus burn – Tanning is the browning/darkening of the skin. Burning is reddening of the skin and eventual peeling of it due to overexposure. Some people do not tan but burn easily. Some people do not burn easily but readily tan. Burning is dangerous and you must avoid it. First step is to know your skin type (Source: Michael Holick, PhD, MD. World renowned authority on Vitamin D and health benefits of Sun):
- Type 1 skin: Always burn, never tan and I am fair, with red or blond hair and freckles (albinos, some redheads, and some Scandinavians and Celts)
- Type 2 skin: I easily burn, hardly get tan, and am fair skinned (people of Northern European origin, Germans, and some Scandinavians and Celts.)
- Type 3 skin: I occasionally burn and gradually tan (people of Mediterranean and Middle East origin).
- Type 4 skin: I rarely burn and always tan (people of East Asian origin and some Indians and Pakistanis.)
- Type 5 skin: I seldom burn, always tan, and have medium-to-dark skin (people of African origin, South East Asians, and some Indians and Pakistanis.)
- Type 6 skin: I never burn and tan darkly (People with “blueblack” skin, people of African origin, and dark-skinned Asians such as Tamils).
Those with Type 1 skin have highest risk of skin cancer, while those with Type 6 have the least risk. Those with Type 1 skin need the least amount of sun exposure to meet daily requirements; those with type 6 skin need the most. Lighter skin people can get their daily requirements with lesser direct exposure to sun than darker skin people.
4. Direct exposure – “I get enough sun while sitting in my car.” This is one common comment. But be warned: The sun falling on you skin that is coming through a glass window is useless. This is because it filters the UV rays present in the sunlight. For the beneficial effects of sunlight we need to get direct exposure of it on our skin. The UVB part of the sunlight is most useful part of the sunlight. It is also important to understand that the early morning sunlight or the late evening sunlight is similarly useless at it has minimal UV rays. Similarly those living in northern latitudes may never get enough UVB rays in the sunlight during the winter months.
5. How much? – The amount of sunlight we need depends on our skin, the season of the year, the latitude we live, and the time of the day. For example somebody with type 1 skin living in the Tropical latitudes (0-25 degrees) needs just 1-5 minutes of direct exposure of direct sun between 11 am to 3 pm in the months of June to August. While a person with type 3 skin needs 10- 15 minutes of sun and a person with type 6 skin may need 15-20 minutes of exposure. This is assuming that the sun is being exposed directly on the skin of uncovered arms and legs. (If more surface area of the skin is being exposed then the exposure can be reduced and vice-versa). If we change the latitude the numbers change. Let us say we move to New York or San Francisco (Latitude 30-50 degrees). Now for the same season and time of the day Type 1 skin will need 10-15 minutes direct sun, Type 3 skin will need 30-40 minutes, and Type 6 skin will need 40-60 minutes.
One way to estimate the time you need in the sun is to find the time it takes to achieve minimal pinkness. Your safe exposure is 25% to 50% of this time. If you are a dark skinned person who does not pink, your required exposure is between 15 minutes to an hour.
A key takeaway is that dark skin people who live in the northern latitudes are at severe risk of underexposure to the sun and consequent loss of health. But this does not mean the rest of us should feel complacent. Most people living in cities even in tropical latitudes are getting deficient exposure to the sun.
6. What about wrinkles? – Over-exposure of direct sun on the skin will cause it to age more rapidly and wrinkle. For some even normal exposure of direct sun on the skin can cause wrinkles. This is why you want to protect your face from direct exposure to the sun if possible. Wearing a hat or a cap when out in the sun is a good idea.
7. Isn’t Vitamin D good enough? – Vitamin D is one of the primary things that the skin produces when directly exposed to the sun. But it is not the only thing that the skin produces. Here is what Dr. Michael F. Holick has to say about this: “When you are exposed to sunlight, you make not only Vitamin D but also at least five and up to ten additional photoproducts that you would never get from dietary sources or from supplement.” The science of the sun is only beginning. We are at the start of the process of understanding how the sun impacts us. So while Vitamin D is very important for us, it is still an incomplete substitute for the sun.
Now if you still want to ingest a Vitamin D supplement, especially in the winter months, that is fine. One approach is to take 1000 IU during most of the year, while upping the dose to 2000 IU in winter. (Either D3 or D2 is fine.)
8. What about tanning? – Tanning when done safely with a controlled exposure is not a bad idea. Just make sure that you do not overexpose yourself, and avoid places with “High pressure” bulbs that produce more of UVA and less of UVB.
Plan A should be to get required dose via the sun.
Plan B should be to supplement this with Tanning or UV lamps when direct exposure to sun is not feasible due to lack of time or lack of sun as in winter months for example.
Plan C should be to back all this up with a supplement of Vitamin D for at least 1000 IU per day.
9. Bone health – Proper exposure of sun is vital for bone and muscle health. It is not only vital to get adequate amount of Calcium via dietary sources, but it is also important to get direct exposure to sun. Both the sun and Calcium work hand in hand. One without the other can lead to serious problems in terms of osteoporosis and related problems. Symptoms such as stiffness in joints, general muscle pain and pain in all parts of the body could be due to inadequate exposure to the sun. A large number of cases misdiagnosed as fibromyalgia are completely cured by proper exposure to sun along with Vitamin D supplementation.
10. Sunscreen versus shade – You should absolutely avoid overexposure to the sun. While proper exposure of the sun is vital for health, overexposure is unnecessary and can be dangerous for some. There is no need to have a phobia for the sun, just take normal precautions to avoid over-exposure. The first and obvious way to avoid overexposure is to stay indoors, or in the shade, or under protective clothing. Sometimes this is not possible. In such cases the use of sunscreen is warranted and advisable. Make sure you use sunscreens that offer full protection for all UV. Be also sure to slather enough quantity as not applying the cream properly provides inadequate protection. Another problem with sunscreens is that many of them have products that are harmful or carcinogens themselves. So sunscreens should be the last resort when all other options are exhausted.
Humans have been hunters and gatherers for most of our history. Our mind-body system is geared towards being up and outside. Modern life has changed all this. Nowadays we are instead seated and inside. This has had serious repercussions on our health. One easy way to correct some of this is to make sure to get required exposure to the sun as described here.
Related: Here Comes The Sun Don’t Run Away
Credits:This has been written by Raj Shah and edited by Ketna Shah. Based on the book: The Vitamin D Solution, Michael F. Holick, Ph.D., M.D.