It’s summer. It’s sunny outside. People are doing fun things in the sun and you want to too!
You can produce Vitamin D in the sun. And yes it feels good to get a little sunlight. Just understand that there are tradeoffs to sun exposure. Every second you’re in the sun damages your skin and leads to wrinkles and a weathered appearance. In fact, nothing ages your skin more than sun exposure. So if you’re going to get out there during the day, be careful and do it as considerately as possible. You’ll thank your younger-looking-self later!
Time Of Day
UVA and UVB rays are the main skin-damaging components of sunlight. UVB burns you and causes tanning, but also aids your production of Vitamin D. UVA penetrates deeper into your skin and may cause more long-term changes to your skin such as wrinkles and sun spots.
UVB rays peak in intensity when the sun is furthest overhead, and are at lower levels in the morning and evening. Meanwhile, because our atmosphere doesn’t do a very good job of filtering out UVA rays, the intensity of UVA rays remain relatively even throughout the day.
All this means that you have a better chance of tanning and burning (and producing Vitamin D) in the middle of the day, and it will take less time during the middle of the day to get red, tan, and burn. But consistently throughout the whole day you are sustaining UVA damage, even though you might not see any short-term results from this damage whatsoever if it isn’t accompanied by skin redness from UVB rays.
Most experts recommend avoiding sun exposure during the middle of the day, as this is when the sunlight reaching us is at it’s highest levels. But realize that in the earlier and later parts of the day you’re still sustaining skin damage whether or not you see the immediate consequences.
First of all, most people get a decent amount of Vitamin D from fortified foods. And if you’re concerned you may not be getting enough you can always take a Vitamin D supplement.
But if you’re trying to make some Vitamin D the old-fashioned way (and natural way), it’s actually best to do it by exposing as much of your skin as possible in the middle of the day for a very short period of time. In this manner you can be sure to maximize your production of Vitamin D (by maximizing your UVB exposure during the time of day when the levels are highest, and also by allowing UVB rays to contact as much of your body as possible) but still minimize your total sun exposure.
For fair-skinned people in North America during the summer, 10-15 minutes during one day might be more than enough for the week. But this varies significantly by a number of factors, including how much pigment is in your skin, your latitude, the time of day, the angle the sun is hitting your skin, diet (Vitamin D is produced from cholesterol–a very important nutrient), and other factors. Producing this amount of Vitamin D will normally also occur well before the amount of time it takes to tan. Just know that it comes with a consequence; this sun exposure, even in tiny amounts, is damaging your skin!
At the very least, if you want to spend a few minutes in the sun to stimulate the production of Vitamin D, it’s best to cover the areas of your body that normally get the most sun (like your face, neck, back of hands, forearms, shoulders, and lower legs/calves) and expose the areas that get the least sun (and have the least amount of accumulated sun damage). You’ll need less total sun exposure, and you’ll avoid further damage to the parts of your body that already have the most sun damage. Be careful exposing very sensitive areas for too long though! And stop well BEFORE your skin starts to change color.
A Word About Tanning
Tanning is caused by DNA damage to your melanophores. This is what causes you to tan: to release melanin. Tanning, in other words, is a sign that your skin has been damaged. So understand the choices you make: you may want to be tan, but it’s not a sign of health, it’s a sign you have sustained long-term damage to your skin. Sunburn, of course, is even worse!
The farther away you are from the Tropic of Cancer, the less UVB rays reach you. This means, all else being equal, it takes longer to tan, longer to burn, and longer to produce Vitamin D. This also means the reverse: if you live, for instance, in New York City and you go on vacation near the equator, use caution! You are going to burn much, much more quickly than you normally would in New York.
Please note: if you’re farther north than about Los Angeles and Atlanta, in the winter UVB rays aren’t even strong enough to produce Vitamin D. Yet the intensity of UVA rays remain relatively constant throughout the year. So sunlight (namely UVA) is still causing harm in the winter without any physiological benefits. And you won’t even notice the damage because there is no immediate sign it has occurred!
The ground around you also matters. Sunlight reflects off the ground, and the more efficiently the surface under you reflects light, the more sunlight is going to hit your skin. Water is extremely reflective, reflecting up to 80% of the sun’s rays, so you will obviously burn that much faster over water than, for instance, over grass. The same goes for snow. Sand, also, reflects a significant amount of light–increasing the magnitude of damage–so being extra cautious on the beach goes without saying.
Windows don’t protect you either. While UVB rays won’t penetrate through most glass, UVA rays can, so if you’re sitting next to a window in a cafe or driving in your car during the day, you still need to be aware that sunlight is hitting your skin, with nothing but negative consequences.
Even when enjoying being outside you can still be in the shade. Carry an umbrella. Bring a cabana to the beach. Sit on the shady side of the table. Sit under a tree.
But even in the shade, light is still reflected off the surfaces around you; it’s still contacting your skin. You won’t get as much sun exposure as you would in direct sunlight, but the amount adds up over time. Be aware of it and use appropriate measures to protect yourself.
To protect yourself from the aging effects of the sun, you want to cover your head, your body, and your eyes as much as possible. Yes, it’s not realistic to always wear flowing robes from head to toe, but the more you cover yourself, the more youthful your skin will look in the long term.
Wear clothing to protect exposed skin. Pants and long sleeve shirts with collars provide the best protection. And don’t be afraid to turn that collar up! Your feet are particularly vulnerable when exposed, so take care to cover them.
Some sunlight will penetrate through clothing. In general, thicker, darker clothing protects better than than thinner, lighter-colored materials. Dry clothing also protects better against UV rays than wet clothing; a dry, dark denim shirt will protect you from UVA and UVB rays much better than a thin wet white t-shirt. It might not be cooler (in the fashion sense of the word, or the temperature sense of the word), but having sun spots is never in fashion! Of course, a t-shirt will still protect you more than bare skin.
As a test, hold an article of clothing up to the light. Can you see light through it? That means sunlight will get through the weave of the clothing and will hit your skin. The more light the cloth blocks, the better.
Hats are necessary in the sun. This might be the single best thing you can do to protect the sensitive skin of your face and neck–the same skin that is often exposed to the sun. The more you can cover it, the better. Wide brim hats work the best; a brim all the way around the hat helps protect your nose, eyes, cheeks, ears, and neck.
The same suggestions about the fabric of clothing applies to hats as well: thicker, tighter weaves, darker colors. Additionally, make sure the underside of the brim of the hat is a darker shade, as brighter colors (like a white brim) will reflect more light onto your face. And it doesn’t have to look cheeky–there are plenty of fashionable chapeaus out there!
Your eyes are sensitive to UV rays, and UVA and UVB rays both damage your eyes just like they damage your skin. To avoid cataracts and diminished vision, wear sunglasses that have 100% UVA and UVB protection. The tighter they fit and the more they wrap around the sides of your eyes (and don’t let in light above or below them), the better. Sunglasses also help protect the sensitive skin around your eyes and can help prevent wrinkles and crow’s feet.
The CDC (The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention) recommends using sunscreen with at least an SPF of 15 and broad UVA and UVB protection. The problem is, many sunscreen lotions also contain toxic chemicals and don’t protect very well against UVA rays. Use a sunscreen with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (that haven’t been micronized) and no other active ingredients. It’s tough to find, but these ingredients will provide decent UV coverage without many of the toxicities of other sunscreen chemicals. You can find more information on this subject here: The Drawbacks Of Sunscreen Lotion.
Be aware of the areas that usually get the most sun so you can liberally apply sunscreen to these areas: the cheeks and nose, neck, shoulders, chest, calves, and tops of feet. Of course, any exposed skin should be protected.
Apply sunscreen lotion before going into the sun, and use a liberal amount. For most people covering a good portion of their body, this means using 1 ounce of sunscreen (think: a shot glass size) for each application. This is a lot! Sunscreen also wears off, so reapply every 2 hours, or more often if in the water.
Make sure the sunscreen hasn’t expired. If it’s exposed to high temperatures, sunscreen degrades and has a shorter shelf life.
What You Eat
Interestingly, what you eat can affect how well your skin interacts with the sun. There are many know antioxidants in different foods that have been clinically shown to help protect your skin (by fighting free-radical damage), and eating these foods regularly over time can help you promote your defenses against the effects of sunlight. In particular, carotenoids found in colorful fruits and vegetables can help, as can the polyphenols found in green tea and the omega-3s found in fish. One of the best ingredients in foods for support during sun exposure is the lycopene found in tomatoes. Healthy, regular servings of cooked tomato paste (such as that found in pasta sauce) can aid your skin’s resistance to the sun.
The product Sunsafe Rx (a capsule you take orally) was created based on extensive research showing the benefits of specific ingredients in foods and plants. Take Sunsafe Rx regularly leading up to and immediately before sun exposure; the ingredients (such as astaxanthin, Polypodium leucotomos, and many others) have been shown to help support your skin and eyes in the presence of sunlight, without blocking your production of Vitamin D. You can read more about the ingredients in Sunsafe Rx here: The Science Of Sunsafe Rx.
There are many reasons to go in the sun. It’s fun, and everyone else is doing it! Just realize there are consequences to getting sunlight; every second of sun exposure ages your skin and damages your eyes. But with a little knowledge about the sun, sunscreen, what to wear, and what to eat, you can better prepare yourself. For best results, apply these concepts year-round!