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Is Sunlight Really As Bad As Sunscreen Companies Tell You?

Your skin needs sunlight to produce vitamin D, which is essential for the functioning of your body. However, barring the few minutes that you need to step out into the sun to produce the sunshine vitamin, make sure you apply sunscreen and stay covered. Excess sun exposure could cause skin cancer. Opt for sunscreens with zinc and titanium components or go for natural sunscreens like coconut oil or shea butter.

If there’s one product that finds a place in our everyday beauty routine, – even on the days we decide to skip the lipstick or the eyeliner – it’s got to be sunscreen. We’ve heard how harmful the sun’s UV rays are and we know it’s probably not a good idea to step out without generously dabbing sunscreen on our skin. But, is sunlight really as bad as sunscreen companies claim?

Why Does Your Body Need Sunlight?

Your body needs vitamin D to keep your bone, heart, brain, and prostate health. And sunlight is a major source of the sunshine vitamin. This vitamin isn’t present in most of the food we eat, even when it is, it’s only in minuscule quantities. Vitamin D absorbed from food isn’t too useful unless it’s metabolized by your body. This metabolism produces calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D, that can be used by your body for calcium absorption. However, exposure to sunlight is the easiest way for your skin to produce vitamin D. If you’re not exposed to the sunlight – like 70% of the global population – could be at a risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency!1 2

How Much Sunlight Does Your Body Actually Need?

Generally, the darker your skin, the more it can handle UV rays.

Up to 70 years of age, it’s recommended that you get 600 international units of vitamin D per day. For your skin to produce vitamin D, sunlight is required. But, it’s not easy to figure how much sunlight you actually need. If you’re fair-skinned, you only need to step out without sunscreen for a few minutes (5–8 minutes) a day. If you’re tan or brown-skinned, you might need about 15–20 minutes of sun exposure. And dark-skinned individuals need to step out longer to be able to produce enough vitamin D. However, there’s not a lot of research about how much sunlight one actually needs and how the quality of exposure is affected by sunscreen or clothing or even the geographical location.3

What Is The Best Time For Sun Exposure?

To soak up the sunshine vitamin, it’s essential that you know when to step out. Interestingly, while most experts suggest you to avoid getting exposed to the sun around 11 AM–4 PM, recent reports suggest that the best time to step out into the sun to make enough vitamin D is actually the noon! Just a few minutes of sun exposure around 1 PM will help your body produce the required amount of vitamin D. However, if you live in a harsh climatic zone around the equator, you might want to cut down the time you spend outside, as it could put you at an increased risk for skin cancer.4 5

What Happens If You’re Overexposed To Sunlight?

So, if sunlight lets your body make vitamin D and keeps you away from the vitamin D deficiency pandemic, why must you protect yourself from it? Here’s where things get tricky. Too much sun exposure could cause skin cancer. Although there are other causes of skin cancer, the most preventable one is sun exposure.

Even 15 minutes of sun exposure could be harmful.6

However, as discussed before, not everybody’s skin reacts in the same way to UV rays. White-skinned people and those who live away from the equator face are more sensitive to harmful UV rays than dark-skinned individuals. Also, some studies suggest that most of the skin damage usually occurs before you turn 20, and the chances of skin damage, later on, is less. Additionally, research also states that a sudden, excessive exposure could put you at an increased risk of skin cancer than a long-term steady exposure. And this is where sunscreen comes into the picture.7

Do You Actually Need Sunscreen?

Buy sunscreens containing zinc or titanium minerals.

Yes, you need sunscreen! Applying sunscreen can reduce the incidence of skin cancer by almost 40 percent. But it’s important to pick the right one. Zinc or titanium sunscreens, unlike toxic chemicals, don’t permeate into your skin. Choose an SPF (sun protection factor) that is at least 30 or higher. Alternatively, you could opt for natural sunscreens like coconut oil, shea butter, and even carrot oil! As long as you buy the right sunscreen for your skin type, you should be safe from the harmful UV rays of the sun. 8 9 10

But a few experts have mixed opinions about sun exposure and the effectiveness of sunscreen against skin cancer. In fact, some studies observe that moderate sun exposure prior to cancer diagnosis actually improved survival and remission rates in skin cancer patients. Moreover, a few studies also indicate that the chemicals – oxybenzone, benzophenones, retinyl palmitate or vitamin A palmitate, and parabens – contained in sunscreens could actually cause skin cancer and be more dangerous to your skin that the sun itself!11 12 13

While the available research on the link between sun, sunscreen, and cancer is mixed, here’s the bottom line. Use sunscreen whenever you’re stepping out. But, every noon, for about a few minutes (based on your skin type and geographic location), try to get some direct sun exposure without sunscreen application. If you notice that your skin is starting to turn pink, go back indoors or cover yourself up.

References   [ + ]

1. Vitamin D and your health: Breaking old rules, raising new hopes. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.
2. Are we currently amid a vitamin D deficiency pandemic? Vitamin D Council.
3. Vitamin D. National Institutes of Health.
4. Moan, Johan, Arne Dahlback, and Alina Carmen Porojnicu. “At what time should one go out in the sun?.” In Sunlight, Vitamin D and Skin Cancer, pp. 86-88. Springer New York, 2008.
5. How to get vitamin D from sunlight. National Health Services, Choices.
6. Sun Safety. Centers For Disease Control And Prevention
7. Benefits of moderate sun exposure. Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.
8. Cancer myth: Nanoparticles in Sunscreen. Cancer Council, Western Australia.
9, 13. Crosera, Matteo, Andrea Prodi, Marcella Mauro, Marco Pelin, Chiara Florio, Francesca Bellomo, Gianpiero Adami et al. “Titanium dioxide nanoparticle penetration into the skin and effects on HaCaT cells.” International journal of environmental research and public health 12, no. 8 (2015): 9282-9297.
10. Korać, Radava R., and Kapil M. Khambholja. “Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation.” Pharmacognosy reviews 5, no. 10 (2011): 164.
11. Rosso, Stefano, Francesco Sera, Nereo Segnan, and Roberto Zanetti. “Sun exposure prior to diagnosis is associated with improved survival in melanoma patients: results from a long-term follow-up study of Italian patients.” European Journal of Cancer 44, no. 9 (2008): 1275-1281.
12. Kawamura, Yoko, Yuko Ogawa, Tetsuji Nishimura, Yutaka Kikuchi, Jun-ichi Nishikawa, Tsutomu Nishihara, and Kenichi Tanamoto. “Estrogenic activities of UV stabilizers used in food contact plastics and benzophenone derivatives tested by the yeast two-hybrid assay.” Journal of Health Science 49, no. 3 (2003): 205-212.

Disclaimer: The content is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be construed as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical or healthcare professional.