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Life could not exist on Earth without the sun, and the vitamin D you pick up from sun is essential to your body’s vital processes. But even though you need the sun to survive, it is possible to get too much sun exposure.

Sunlight itself is not harmful, but prolonged exposure to the sun’s harmful rays—both UVA and UVB—is when skin damage can occur. UVA rays are responsible for the signs of aging that we typically associate with sun damage, like age spots and wrinkles, while UVB rays are to blame for soreness and sunburn.

So how can a person distinguish between what is too little or too much sun exposure? And, without surrendering to a life indoors, what can be done to prevent skin damage from occurring?

Benefits of Sun Exposure

New research has pushed for an increase in the amount of recommended daily vitamin D from 400 IU to 800 IU, citing that most people are not able to get adequate amounts of vitamin D from food.

Although some organizations such as the American Cancer Society do not recommend getting vitamin D from the sun—noting that daily supplements and foods that provide vitamin D can help—other research shows that minimal amounts of sun exposure can be beneficial to your health and wellness. Aside from getting outside for some fresh air, taking in the sunlight in short spurts can do wonders for your brain, immune system, and other important functions.

MOOD-BOOSTING BENEFITS

The number one reason you should be heading outside for some much-deserved time in the sun is that it’s good for your mood. During the winter months, a lack of sunlight can decrease levels of serotonin—the mood-enhancing chemical in your brain—in favor of the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin.

This increase in melatonin is believed to be responsible for some people’s experience with SAD, or seasonal affective disorder, during the darker months of winter. It’s not just the vacation time in the summer that makes us feel good; it’s the extra sunlight, too.

BETTER BONE HEALTH

Your brain isn’t the only part of your body that gets a boost from the sun—your bones feel it, too. Sunlight helps your body produce essential levels of vitamin D, which are necessary for good bone health and immune system support. UV radiation has even been administered as a medical treatment for certain types of skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema.

According to the World Health Organization, five to fifteen minutes of sun exposure on the arms, face, and hands, two to three times a week, is enough to produce a substantial amount of vitamin D in most people—although fairer-skinned individuals are able to absorb vitamin D more easily.

Negative Effects of Sun Exposure

Many sources say that ten to fifteen minutes of sun exposure is all your body needs to absorb a necessary dose of vitamin D. However, the amount of time you should be spending in the sun also depends on your skin type, with lighter-skinned individuals needing less sun than those with darker skin. No matter what skin type you have, though, there’s no excuse not to protect yourself from the sun’s rays.

WHAT IS SKIN CANCER, AND HOW DOES IT DEVELOP?

The most obvious risk associated with too much sun exposure is the development of skin cancer, which can occur in any person and at any age. The most common forms of skin cancer are basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, and melanoma—the last of which is the most dangerous because its cancer cells can spread throughout the entire body.

According to Dr. David Leffell, a professor of dermatology and chief of dermatologic surgery and cutaneous oncology at Yale School of Medicine, though skin cancer can develop in any person, there are some who are more at risk than others, and they should be warier when out in the sun. People with fair skin, a family history of the disease, and people with a weakened immune system, for example, are all at an increased risk.

To help reduce the risk, you should wear sunscreen and avoid the sun during peak hours (10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.), get an annual skin exam, and pay attention to your skin for any abnormalities that may develop, such as moles that increase in size or change in color and shape.

THE DANGERS OF SUNBURN

Sun exposure makes the skin prone to certain types of cancers, and UV radiation can also penetrate and damage the cell structure that contributes to premature aging and wrinkling.

With a mild burn, the skin might appear red or splotchy in areas for eight to twenty-four hours after sun exposure, but in some cases, a burn can become more serious and blister. When blistering occurs, there is likely permanent damage to the upper layers of skin, and the exposed skin will be more sensitive to light. The same burns can also occur with indoor tanning, which Dr. Leffell blames for 99 percent of the skin cancer cases he sees.

PROTECT YOURSELF AT ANY AGE

Though young skin may appear more sensitive to sun damage, it’s not just young people who need to worry about protecting their skin. “One of the most common myths about sun damage is that all of the damage was done in childhood,” says Dr. Leffell. “But aggressive sun protection will benefit the skin at any age.”

It’s important to use sunscreen, but the type and ingredients in it are equally important. Hawaii’s governor even signed a bill, to take effect in 2021, that bans sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because of the harmful impact these chemicals can have on marine ecosystems. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), one of the most concerning ingredients is oxybenzone, which was found in 65 percent of the nonmineral sunscreens in EWG’s sunscreen database in 2018. It has been shown to cause disruptions to hormone production—specifically testosterone. So how can you protect yourself without exposing your skin to harmful chemicals? Look for sunscreen with a combination of organic and inorganic ingredients, such as those with zinc oxide as the main ingredient.

A HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP WITH THE SUN

It’s never too late to change your habits when it comes to protecting your skin. If you have a history of sun damage, it’s a good idea to get to know your skin so that if any abnormalities develop, you can catch them quickly.

The sun can contribute to our happiness and well-being, but, like anything else, is best enjoyed in moderation. An increase in warnings in recent years has made some people fearful of the sun. However, if you take proper precautions and ensure your family does the same, your skin—and your overall health— will be grateful.

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