That is the question we face every Summer Season. A lot of controversial opinions are out there on this topic. As usual I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle.
The sun has many health benefits. Historically the sun is seen as a major source for promoting healing of tissues by boosting the circulation and other direct beneficial effects arising from its rays. In the old world the rugs are being taken out to be shaken and left in the sun for its rays to work on them – to kill all germs. In the past the sanatoriums for treating TB have been situated high in the mountains, where the sun rays are most direct. A major factor for treating TB and other lung conditions is also the availability of a “cloud” of finely dispersed etheric substances from the pine trees into the air. These etheric substances we now use in the form of essential oils for inhalation. Sun and sea water therapy is healing psoriasis, acne and other skin conditions. The sun is important for healing arthritis and depression.
In ancient Rome sun decks (solariums) were a regular feature in large homes. The rest of world independently followed suite. One of the major factor for the health benefits of the sun is related to the synthesis of Vitamin D into our skin with the help of the sun rays. Vitamin D is nowadays looked upon as a hormone influencing all cells of the body. It boosts our immunity and helps prevent and cure a wide range of conditions including: Cancers, Infections, Diabetes, Cardiovascular diseases, psychiatric conditions and osteoporosis.
The concerns about sun exposure are related with worries for increase in skin cancer risk. There are three basic skin cancers: Malignant Melanoma, Basal Cell Carcinoma and Squamous Cell Carcinoma. They are all “on the rise.” The Basal Cell and the Squamous Cell Carcinomas are locally invasive. Their treatment is by local surgical excision or other local treatment. The Malignant Melanoma is the one that is related to distant metastasis and is, therefore, a significant oncological problem.
The UVA and UVB sun rays are blamed for the development of skin cancers, wrinkles, aging of the skin, cataracts and other cosmetic and health related issues. Based on this notion, some medical professionals recommend staying out of the sun or limit its effect by liberally applying sunscreens.
I have been following the medical and non-medical literature on this topic for many years. My impression is that lately there are enough studies proving the benefits of the sun. Yes, the solarium in the White House is not for the purpose of giving skin cancer to the presidents but to keep them healthy.
Vitamin D prevents DNA damage in the skin and in the whole body, thereby prolonging the life of the cells and eventually the person. It works as an antidote to the harmful free radicals produced in the skin by the UV Rays, which reduces skin cancer risk. The same way Vitamin D in our bodies protects us from virtually all cancers so far studied.
Less than 10 % of the population is genetically predisposed to developing skin cancer. That is the population which will benefit from avoidance of the sun and religious use of sun screens. If you are suspicious that you might be in that group, please check “Melanoma Risk assessment tool” of the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health. These individuals will benefit from DNA analysis, if available, and, of course, from Vitamin D supplementation and other specific supplementation.
All these steps, I believe, will be very important in preventing the expression of their genetic predisposition.
For everybody else, who believe they are in the 90% “Sun Friendly” group, here are some tips on how to safely benefit from the sun:
1) First exposures in the sun should be shorter, depending on your skin color –
Light to fair skin – about 10 min
Darker skin- up to about 20 min
If you stay longer than that initially, you are running the risk to get a sun burn- red, painful skin and blisters. The redness, pain and blisters develop within a day or two post sun exposures. So, please be patient and wise in the beginning. If by chance you develop any of this unpleasant complications- stay in cool place, drink plenty of fluids and apply plain yogurt or slices of cucumbers on the “hot spots.”
2) As you get exposed to the sun, your skin starts building up melanocytes, which give the tan. When your skin gets darker you will be able to extend your stay in the sun. Do that gradually. When you are able to stay in the sun longer, you will be able to give a chance to your skin to produce Vitamin D naturally.
3) You cannot overdose on natural Vitamin D. When your body gets saturated, mechanisms kick in, which store the inactive Vitamin in different tissues- mainly the liver and the gut lining. Those stores are used when sun is not available.
4) The UV rays are only partially filtered from the regular window glass. You need to count that also as staying in the sun.
5) In the beginning expose only parts of your body- arms, legs. Even after you have successfully started to tan, it is a good practice to protect your head and eyes with hats and glasses from direct sun. Indirect sun/ full spectrum light is good for your eyes and helps to keep you away from depression. There are some studies that point to the increase in the prevalence of macular degeneration as a consequence of lack of sun light.
6) The tan or the darker skin (the melanin) reduces the production of Vitamin D in the skin. Therefore, darker skin people need to spend longer in the sun to produce the same amount of Vitamin D.
7) When in the sun and in hot weather make sure you are well hydrated.
Enjoy the summer!
Siranush K. Cholakian MD