Are you struggling to balance the benefits of natural sunlight with protective skincare?
Anyone will tell you today that too much sun is bad for you. Sunburns, blistering, premature aging, and an increased risk for skin cancer are the usual consequences after being overexposed to the sun. But in this age of careful application and re-application of sunscreen, where is the talk about the benefits of sunlight? And are there any? And what about vitamin D? Is a supplement really enough, or so we need to achieve optimal levels through natural sunlight? I have many patients who are confused by the cautions against sun exposure from their doctors and the simultaneous recommendation for more vitamin D. How do we practice healthy skin care habits while also being mindful of the many natural benefits of sunlight?
First of all, know the risks and the benefits. As I mentioned above, we are all familiar with the risks of too much sunlight, which include skin burns, premature aging, sun spots, and skin cancer. The most common recommendations to reduce your risk of burning and developing skin cancer include applying sunscreen (I recommend 30-50 SPF) to exposed skin every time you go outside, and staying out of sunlight in the middle of the day. Instead, aim for morning sunlight before 10 am or late afternoon sun after 4 pm.
But in the midst of these protective recommendations, are we missing something about the benefits of the sun’s rays? Are there benefits to natural sunlight?
- Serotonin: Sun exposure correlates with hormone secretion, particularly serotonin. This hormone supports calm, focus and a general sense of well-being, and a dip in its secretion is involved in the development of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Aiming for adequate sun exposure, starting particularly in the morning hours, can be helpful for preventing the development of SAD and promoting a general sense of well-being
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D is naturally produced in our bodies only in response to sunlight. But, levels of vitamin D have dipped to dangerous lows for many Americans, particularly African Americans and Hispanics. Is this due to higher rates of sunscreen use? If the sun’s UVB rays (these trigger vitamin D production) are not making it through our sunscreen (in an effort to prevent a burn), then our skin may not be responding to sunlight with its natural vitamin D production. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to a variety of health issues, including osteoporosis, osteopenia and autoimmune disorders that may require autoimmune therapy as treatment. Aiming for morning sunlight on arms, face and neck for 10-15 minutes about 3-4 times per week can be adequate for generating healthy vitamin D levels
- Cancer: While we know that excessive sunlight can lead to skin cancer, moderate amounts may aid in cancer prevention. However, if you develop skin cancer, there are skin cancer treatments that are proven to be safe and effective. People who live in areas of the world with fewer daylight hours show higher rates of colon, pancreatic, prostate and ovarian cancer, as well as Hodgkin’s Lymphoma
- Mental health: Along the lines of serotonin production, sunlight also supports healthy melatonin production, reducing excess secretion to protect against fatigue and sleepiness. A good balance of serotonin and melatonin can support symptom relief with depression, SAD, and anxiety-related disorders
- Skin Health: Yes, that’s right. Moderate sun exposure can support skin health! In fact, the World Health Organization says that sunlight can help fight psoriasis, eczema, acne and other skin disorders. The key here is knowing your limits, based on your skin color and tone. Talk to your doctor about healthy sun exposure and the possibility of UV radiation therapy if you struggle with any of the conditions I mentioned above
- Immune Regulation: Vitamin D is said to play a main role in the regulation of immune function in autoimmune diseases, like MS, Lupus, Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Rheumatoid Arthritis. Again, aiming for moderate sun exposure, preferably in the am sun, can help boost vitamin D levels and support healthy immune function. Talk to your doctor about how to balance natural sunlight with a vitamin D supplement for optimal vitamin D blood levels
I would love to see more discussion about healthy sun hygiene, especially given natural sunlight’s powerful effect on our skin, mood, mental health, and immune system. While we need to take cautions not to overexpose ourselves to the sun’s powerful rays, the positive effects of moderate sunlight can be harnessed to support overall wellness and balance.