The long days of summer are upon us, and that means plenty of opportunities to enjoy the sun’s rays. But, wait a minute – sunshine is supposedly the nemesis of healthy skin, so shouldn’t we all be running for cover?
While, yes, it is important to protect your skin from the damaging effects of overexposure, it’s possible that sometimes, we get a little overzealous with our avoidance of the sun. A little bit of sunlight, in just the right doses, can actually be good for your skin. Let’s sit back, preferably with a glass of lemonade, and talk about all the reasons why.
Natural Vitamin D
The sun’s UV rays help synthesize Vitamin D, which provides many health benefits. Vitamin D is essential for important body functions, like helping bones absorb calcium and supporting the immune system. If you read up on Vitamin D, you’ll likely encounter the debate over whether it should be called a vitamin at all. Every other vitamin – A, E, C, the group of Bs – can’t be made by the body, so we have to seek out nutritional sources to get our fill. Vitamin D on the other hand is different.
Vitamin D is the only vitamin we can synthesize ourselves. While it is found naturally in some foods, like salmon and eggs, most nutritional sources are synthetic and can be found in vitamin D-fortified foods. This is fine, but research suggests that vitamin D that is synthesized naturally is used more efficiently by the body. Adequate amounts of the vitamin provide an anti-inflammatory effect that’s beneficial in treating psoriasis, eczema and might even add an element of protection from sun-related skin damage by making the skin itself stronger.
Great, so if we get it from the sun, why do we need to worry about eating the right foods or taking supplements? Because vitamin D is synthesized through the skin as a normal reaction to sunlight – something that we’ve learned to take every precaution against.
Sunscreen and protective clothing that block UV rays from the skin are also blocking any chance for the body to synthesize vitamin D naturally. Does this mean you should toss your sunscreen and embrace the burn? Absolutely not - but allowing a little sunlight to shine through isn’t a bad thing.
The average person needs just 15-20 minutes, twice a week, of unprotected exposure to the sun to synthesize an adequate amount of vitamin D. People with darker skin, and those that live in climates where there’s less direct sun exposure or lots of cloud cover will need a bit more time to soak up enough rays – just remember to bring the sunscreen along if you’re planning to be out longer.
Sunlight and Mood
Many of us have heard of, or even suffer from, something called the winter blues. The cold temps, excessive cloud cover and lack of good quality sunlight leaves us feeling blah. Sometimes, the lack of sunlight – and vitamin D – leads to an even more serious condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). SAD is a depressive condition that mainly occurs in the fall and winter when exposure to sunlight is at a minimum for many people in northern climates.
The occurrence of SAD is thought to be connected to a lack of serotonin – a neurotransmitter that helps to regulate mood and induce feelings of happiness. Exposure to sunlight helps to boost the production of serotonin, which is why the lack of it during the winter months leaves many of us feeling down in the dumps.
Even a short 15-20-minute walk in the sunshine has been shown to be a mood booster, no matter what the season. If you can’t get outside for few minutes, try sitting by a sunny window instead. Just a few minutes of sunlight on a regular basis can help put the smile back on your face.
Sunlight Can Be Effective in Treating Vitiligo
Vitiligo, a condition characterized by patches of skin that are lighter in color, is a disease that occurs when the skin’s pigment cells – melanocytes- are destroyed in certain areas. The cause of the condition is unknown, but it is thought that there may be autoimmune or genetic factors involved. While there is no known cure for vitiligo, the are remedies and procedures that can help lessen the symptoms, one of which is sunlight.
It is thought that mild exposure to sunlight can help to re-pigment areas of the skin that have been affected by vitiligo. The key word here is mild. Since affected areas have damaged melanocytes, they’re very sensitive and vulnerable to over exposure to UV rays. If you suffer from vitiligo, make an appointment with your doctor and discuss is light/sunlight therapy should be part of your treatment plan.
Vitamin D as an Anti-inflammatory
Some of the benefits of vitamin D might not surprise you because you’ve heard of them many times before. However, when we look at some of the other possible health benefits, such as a reduced risk of arthritis, diabetes, and possibly some cancers, plus its role in treating symptoms of acne and psoriasis, the connection between all these conditions becomes clear – inflammation.
Chronic inflammation is a significant health issue today. So many of the major ailments that we’re suffering from are related to persistent, chronic inflammation. Since vitamin D is being looked at for easing or preventing many of these conditions on an individual level, it’s worth the effort to look deeper at its ability to quiet inflammation in general.
Current research is looking at how vitamin D works with DNA to reduce the inflammatory response. There appears to be a receptor located on the DNA, that when introduce to a vitamin D molecule, turns on gene signaling to reduce inflammation.
This is pretty amazing, but the proof is in the pudding. One study that looked at over 2,000 adults, all aged 65 and older, and their levels of vitamin D discovered something very interesting. A little over half of the participants reported having moderate to severe pain, and each one of them had poor vitamin D status.
We’re not saying that vitamin D is a cure all, but a little time spent outside can put a bit of the spring back into your step, literally.
A Crowning Glory
We don’t often think about it, but sunlight can also have an effect on hair health. When you think about it, it makes sense. Your hair is on the top of your head and often the first, and most direct, point of contact for sunlight. Those who are extra diligent about sun protection are smart to wear a hat, not only to protect their hair, but also the scalp underneath from sun damage.
Still, as with most things, moderation is key and if you’re mindful, a little sun exposure is good for those hair follicles too.
Adequate amounts of vitamin D in the body stimulate hair growth. There’s even some evidence to suggest that mild sunlight is beneficial in treating hair loss. Just remember that too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. When hair follicles are exposed to too much sunlight, the epithelial cells can become damaged, making the problem worse.
Sun and Safety
Diligence in protecting your skin from too much sun exposure is important. Skin that has been damaged by UV rays is susceptible to premature aging and oxidative stress that can lead to melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. However, as with all things moderation is key, and when you’re thoughtful about your approach to sun exposure, a little bit is actually a very good thing.
Here are a few tips to help you enjoy the feeling of a few glorious rays of sunlight on your skin, without doing serious damage in the process.
- Watch the clock. Limit sun exposure to 15-30 per day, depending on the weather and your natural skin type. For example, someone with darker skin or living in a climate with less direct sunlight can safely get away with the upper end of the spectrum. On the other hand, a fair skinned person living in southern California should limit exposure to 15 minutes before slathering on the sunscreen.
- Timing matters. The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10am and 4pm. It’s best to use sun protection if you’re out during this time to prevent damage. Aim to get your daily dose of vitamin D in the early morning or early evening hours.
- Pay attention to the index. The UV index is a measurement of the risk level of exposure to UV rays on any given day. It was developed by the EPA to provide people with the information to protect their skin and the environment. The UV index is usually easy to find, with weather apps and local weather stations reporting it frequently. A UV index of 0-2 is minimal exposure to UV rays, while a level of 10 is a warning sign to slather up or stay inside. Use this number as a guide to determine how long it’s safe to stay in the sun unprotected, or if you should avoid it altogether for that day.
- Tanning beds are not a substitute. While many people feel they look better with a tan, the darkened sun-kissed look is actually a sign of inflamed and damaged skin. Using tanning beds significantly increases the risk of developing skin cancer, and should be avoided, no matter how much you might love the look. If a few minutes of natural sun exposure isn’t an option and you feel like your vitamin D levels might be plummeting, talk to your doctor about prescribing light therapy and then using only as directed.
A Beautiful, Healthy You
Sunlight, when accessed in moderation, is a beautiful thing. It allows your body to synthesize important vitamin D and can provide a host of health benefits. With summer here, it’s important to be smart about sun exposure. Moderation is key, and a little bit – about 15-20 minutes a day – could be just what you need to feel better and develop a healthy glow that has nothing to do sunburned skin.