Sun Exposure: Avoid or Enjoy?

Summer is on its way (although that remains to be seen here in Cleveland) and this time of year usually brings about all kinds of questions regarding sun exposure, sun screen and vitamin D.  So here’s what I know:

It seems to be a double-edged sword.  We are told to limit our sun exposure for fear of skin damage and cancer, but spending time in the sun is really how our bodies make sufficient vitamin D.  So where does the line cross?  What is safe and at what point do we need to cover up?

First of all, it’s a lost cause to ever think that we can get adequate vitamin D from our diets.  That will never happen.  Supplementing with vitamin D3 is a great alternative during the winter months, but still remains a close second to actually being in the sun.  Our bodies can make 10,000-25,000 IUs of vitamin D from exposing bare skin to sunlight, particularly the ultraviolet B (UVB) rays.  So how do we know when we’ve made enough vitamin D?  The rule of thumb that the Vitamin D Council recommends is that sufficient vitamin D is made in half the time it takes your skin to turn pink.  Meaning, if you’re light skinned and it takes about a half hour for your skin to turn pink, then you have made your daily dose of D within the first 15 minutes of being in the sun.  The darker the skin, the longer it will take.

Let’s also consider the sunblock issue.  From information I’ve gathered, it really sounds like we put way too much stock into sunblock without truly understanding how the products work and how to properly use them.  We automatically assume that the higher the SPF, the longer we can stay in the sun.  In theory that seems fitting, but not necessarily in reality.  There seems to be a lack of studies validating that higher SPFs truly reduce the risk of sun damage and cancers, however, we still trust that slathering on the SPF 50+ will allow us an entire day of damage-free sun.  The high SPF business is a lucrative one, so you will indeed be persuaded into thinking that higher is better.  That doesn’t appear to be the case.  Here are a few things to consider before making your decision this summer:

  • Chemical content:  the higher the SPF, the higher the amount of chemicals used in the product.  These chemicals have been found to cause allergic skin reactions and hormone disruption.
  • Proper application:  lower SPFs work just as well as the higher versions if applied correctly.  We tend to use them sparingly and fail to reapply.  Sunblock needs to be applied generously and reapplied every 2 hours to hopefully be as effective as the manufacturer claims.  (and they contain less chemicals too!)
  • False sense of security:  with higher SPF’s we’re made to believe that we can extend our time in the sun, without reapplying.   High SPF’s wear off just like the lower ones do and what we’re left with is a day of sun exposure without protection.
  • Avoid products with vitamin A:  retinyl palimate is a form of vitamin A that may speed up the development of skin tumors when applied to skin in the presence of sunlight (NTP 2012).

What I do for my kids:

  1. Allow them to play in the sun.
  2. Supplement with vitamin D3 when not in the sun.
  3. Use a sunblock with the least amount of chemicals, including retinyl palimate (I use products that are recommended by EWG).
  4. Use a lower SPF sunblock with both UVA & UVB protection.
  5. Re-apply sunblock every 2 hours and apply generously.
  6. Cover up & shade is always best when possible.

Websites Referenced