Vitamin D is important for immune system health, and we get it from the sun. That’s why some scientists argue that protecting yourself from UV rays is detrimental to your health.
For the last 30 years or so, dermatologists, health officials, beauty experts and companies have shunned the sun. They’ve told us to avoid it because without sunscreen, exposure to the sun’s rays will damage skin and cause cancer. However, in the past few years, numerous studies have shown that optimizing your vitamin D levels may actually help prevent as many as 16 different types of cancer including pancreatic, lung, breast, ovarian, prostate and colon cancers. And the best way to optimize Vitamin D levels is through safe, smart and limited sunscreen-free exposure to the sun.
Western medicine has a habit of telling us to abstain from things that are bad for us in extreme quantities, when in fact some of those same things (such as fat, salt and sun) are actually good for us when consumed wisely and in moderation. In the case of sunshine, our fear of skin cancer may be contributing to a vitamin D deficiency epidemic. Most people don’t even know they are deficient and that a lack of this crucial vitamin can lead to cancer and a multitude of other diseases. We tend to believe that even small amounts of sunshine will harm us, and so we slather on sunscreen, which blocks vitamin D production and exacerbates the Vitamin D deficiency made worse by our busy, modern, indoor lives.
Studies show that as many as three out of four Americans suffer from Vitamin D deficiency. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that 70 percent of Caucasians, 90 percent of Hispanics and 97 percent of African Americans in the US have insufficient blood levels of vitamin D and that those with the lowest vitamin D levels have more than double the risk of dying from heart disease and other causes over an eight-year period compared with those with the highest vitamin D levels. The researchers cite “decreased outdoor activity” as one reason that people may become deficient in vitamin D.
We now recognize that some sun exposure is important for health, at the very least, to maintain healthy vitamin D levels. In light of this, the Cancer Council of Australia has actually eased its sun protection message a little over the last few years and now recommends that if you’re out in the sun for relatively short periods, with a UV indexless than 3, then sunscreen and other sun protection (like hats and protective clothing) are not required.
How Much Sun is Safe?
Each of us has different needs for unprotected sun exposure to maintain adequate levels of Vitamin D. Depending on your age, what type of skin you have, where you live and what time of the day and year it is, your needs will vary. The farther you live from the equator, the more exposure to the sun you need in order to generate vitamin D. For example, a fair skinned person outside in New York, in the middle of the day, for about 10-15 minutes is producing the equivalent of 15,000-20,000 IU’s of Vitamin D. But the same person living further north in Canada would need 20-30 minutes to get that same amount. Also, people with dark skin pigmentation may need 20-30 times as much exposure to sunlight as those with fair skin, to generate the same amount of vitamin D. Experts do agree that after 15-30 minutes of sunscreen free time in the sun, you must protect yourself.
Obviously, careless hours-long sunbathing is not a healthy skin choice for anyone. But shunning the sun entirely comes with consequences as well. Be smart about your sun exposure and have your vitamin D levels checked annually to avoid the D-deficient epidemic sweeping our nation.