Ahhh, a nice day relaxing in the summer sun! There’s no doubt that the sun is both beneficial and important to the human body—ultraviolet rays released by the sun are used by the body to synthesize vitamin D, and sunlight releases endorphins that can both improve your mood and increase your energy. But there are some dark clouds in front of this glorious sunlight—overexposure to the sun (or more specifically, its UVA and UVB rays) has been linked to skin cancer, and as anybody who’s spent a day on the beach without sunscreen will know, painful sunburns.
Are there really good and bad aspects of sun exposure? And just how much sun is “too much” sun?
Benefits of Sun Exposure
- Vitamin D Production: Sunlight synthesizes the production of vitamin D in the body, which has a number of good effects—it stimulates absorption of calcium in bones and teeth to help strengthen them, and high amounts of vitamin D have been linked to decreased rates of colon and breast cancer.
- Easing Seasonal Depression: The mood-improving hormone serotonin is produced more readily on sunny days than days with little or no sun, and studies have shown that seasonal affective disorder (a form of depression that is most prevalent at a certain time of year, usually winter) is less prevalent in areas that tend to see more sunlight overall.
- Improving Sleep Quality: Melatonin, the hormone that promotes sleep, is not produced by the body when it detects light—especially sunlight. A full day of sunlight increases the melatonin production when it is time to go to bed at night.
Drawbacks of Sun Overexposure
- -Sunburn: The most obvious drawback of spending too long in the sun, these pinkish-red and usually very painful burns result from UV rays damaging cells in your skin. Peeling of the skin that often occurs a few days after the burn is the body’s attempt to rid itself of those damaged cells.
- -Skin Cancer: UV exposure and sunburns (especially at younger ages) are the most well-known risk factors for melanoma, the most serious forms of skin cancer. Sun overexposure has also been linked to less serious forms of skin cancer like basal and squamous cell carcinomas.
- -Cataracts: It only takes hours of sun to burn and damage the outer layers of the eye. With enough exposure, the lens of the eye itself can cloud opaquely, causing blurred vision or blindness.
- -Premature Aging: Sun overexposure has been linked to the early development of wrinkles, lines, and other aging marks in the skin.
Enjoy the Sun
It’s clear as day that the sun can be both good and bad for everyone. They key is to enjoy it like you’d enjoy anything—in moderation. But how much sun is the right amount of sun? There are a few ways to make sure you’re getting enough sun while avoiding too much.
- Wear Sunscreen: How often you need to reapply it and the SPF you need is based on your individual skin tone and natural protection. While short stints in the sun can generally be survived without sunscreen (and are recommended for absorbing enough-but-not-too-many UV rays), long period s of direct sunlight demand some sort of sun protection. Avoid sunscreen with para- aminobenzoic acid (PABA) as it’s an easily-triggering skin allergen.
- Wear Sunglasses: For the same basic reasons as sunscreen—to protect cells in your eyes from developing cataracts.
- Time Your Excursions: Sunlight is at its strongest and most direct from ten in the morning until four in the afternoon, peaking at noon. If at all possible, avoid long periods in direct sunlight during those hours.