When it comes to sun and skin, there are two camps. The worshippers and the dreaders. Both have a point, but perhaps there’s a middle ground.
We know that the sun is the source of all life on planet earth. It gives us warmth, light, plant life, and food. It turns out it’s critical for human health (and skin health) too.
Benefits of Sunshine
Ancient cultures revered the sun, well aware of how vital it was to our very existence.
Science is only beginning to understand the effect of sunlight on human health. What researchers have learned is fascinating. And complicated.
One of the most interesting findings is that sunlight has a profound effect on hormones in your body. Serotonin, melatonin, cortisol are all linked to sunlight exposure.
Sunlight and Mood
Sunlight lifts your mood, which is something we all could use a little more of. There are a couple of reasons for this.
Exposure to sunlight stimulates our “feel good” endorphins. Endorphins are natural pain and stress fighters. They’re responsible for the feeling known as a “runners high”.
Sunlight causes special receptors on the retinas of your eye to signal the brain to release serotonin. Serotonin lifts mood and helps create calm focus. A lack of serotonin is linked to depression, seasonal affective disorder, and anxiety/panic attacks.
Sunlight also helps with sleep (one of the foundations of health and beauty), sunlight exposure during the day stimulates the melatonin production at night that helps you sleep well. Good sleep is critical for good health, mood, and skin.
Sunlight and Your Immune System
Sunlight boosts your immune system, something just about everyone is concerned with right now.
Sunlight is readily available, and free. Just don’t hoard it (for the reasons we talk about below.)
Georgetown University Medical Center researchers have found that sunlight energizes T cells that play a central role in human immunity. Natural short wavelength blue light from the sun speed up the response of T cells that fight infection.
Sunlight also affects your immune system by regulating melatonin and cortisol release, reducing stress and producing vitamin D. Vitamin D is responsible for bone health, immune response, and other possible benefits. Next week we’ll talk about vitamin D and sunscreen in more detail.
Sunlight and skin health
Yes, skin cancer and photo aging are big concerns. But, it turns out, with sunscreen and moderation the sun can be your skin’s friend. Moderate sun exposure improves certain skin conditions:
Other Possible Benefits of Sun
We know that being outside in nature is one of the best tonics for overall health that there is.
Just like whole foods are generally more beneficial than the sum of their “active ingredients”, I’m betting that there are many more benefits to being outdoors in the sun.
The Australian Cancer Council agrees:
It should be noted that the benefits of sun exposure may extend beyond the production of vitamin D. Other possible beneficial effects of sun exposure… include reduction in blood pressure, suppression of autoimmune disease, and improvements in mood.”
The Dreaders have a point
There’s no arguing that too much unprotected time in the sun and you’re courting collagen breakdown and sagging, wrinkles and fine lines, hyperpigmentation, and rough spots.
Sun damage accounts for 90% of the visible signs of aging.
Then there’s skin cancer. Too much sun exposure is definitely a factor. And skin cancer rates are on the rise.
There are several types of skin cancer. Basal cell and Squamous cell carcinomas are the most common types (accounting for 97%+ of new skin cancers). These cancers need to be removed, but they are very rarely life threatening. They’re linked to too much sun exposure over the course of time.
The deadly form of skin cancer is melanoma. Melanomas account for 1% of new skin cancers a year, but the vast majority of deaths. Researchers believe that 86% of melanomas are caused by sun damage.
So yeah, it’s a big deal.
Here’s the thing. The recipe for melanoma seems to be a bit different from the other skin cancers. Melanomas seem to be caused by little sun exposure in general and instances of massive sun exposure that cause a severe sun burn. A person who works indoors all of the time who goes on vacation at the beach and gets fried on the first day seems to be far more at risk than a person who is exposed to the sun daily.
Obviously, it’s important to avoid sunburns and too much exposure, but it’s also pretty clear that we all need some sun too.
Can we meet in the middle?
The position of the American Academy of Dermatologists is that the risk of skin cancer is great enough that you should always take precautions against the sun. But, there are many researchers that believe the benefits of sun exposure to overall health are important not to miss out on. They call for “moderate” sun exposure.
In truth, there’s no formula for the right amount of sun exposure to get the benefits without risking too much damage. Obviously, no one thinks that getting a sun burn is a good idea but opinions vary on what this balance actually is.
So you need to decide for yourself. I cannot give you medical advice. But I can give you my opinion.
I’m a big advocate for using sunscreen, especially on your face and neck since they’re the areas that get almost constant sun exposure. They’re also the areas that we see the most. And what most of us think about when we worry about our appearance and, as we get older, the health of our skin. Since we now know that 90% of the visible signs of skin aging are due to damage from the UV rays of the sun. Using sunscreen on your face, neck, and hands makes sense.
I like Micheal Holick PhD’s approach. He’s the head of the Vitamin D Research Lab at Boston University and author of the book The UV Advantage. He recommends “sensible sun exposure”. 5-10 minutes of direct sun exposure to unprotected arms and legs 2-3 times a week.
If you’re going to be outside longer, then apply sunscreen or cover up.
This makes sense to me. Being outdoors is too good for you and too much fun to avoid and being active outdoors means that completely covering up your skin is going to be a bit restrictive to say the least. And hot.
Sunscreen, hats, clothing and common sense are the best ingredients for balancing the good things that the sun and outdoors have to offer and protecting yourself from damage.
The $99,000 question is – does sunscreen block all of the benefits of the sun? That, my friends, is an area of disagreement. I’ll be writing a separate blog on vitamin D (since that’s easily measured with a blood test) and sunscreen use.