Most of us have been taught to avoid the sun due to concerns over skin cancer. UV radiation from the sun can indeed cause damage to the skin, which down the line can lead to skin cancer.
Types of skin cancer
The most common skin cancers, basal and squamous cell carcinomas, are, for the most part, unlikely to kill someone. Due to their intrinsic characteristics, and due to the fact that they cause unsightly skin lesions which prompt treatment, they are unlikely to progress to a point at which they spread throughout the body and become deadly. On the other hand, melanoma, a third type of skin cancer, CAN be deadly and spread throughout the body. Furthermore, melanoma often starts as a small abnormal mole which many people can miss or pay little attention to.
But what about too little sunlight?
Lack of sunlight leads to deficiency in vitamin D. It’s quite hard to obtain vitamin D solely through diet since it isn’t found in any significant amount in most foods. Sunlight and supplements are pretty much the only way to obtain enough.
Low vitamin D levels may increase the risk of dying from heart attacks, strokes, and certain cancers, including . . . melanoma. I know this sounds odd, but it seems that sunburns/too much sun exposure increases the risk of a less aggressive form of melanoma whereas low vitamin D levels increase the risk of the more aggressive type.
A recent study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine lends further credence to the idea that some sun exposure is quite healthy. The study followed close to 30,000 women aged 25-64 for over 20 years, and found that those women who avoided the sun had approximately DOUBLE the risk of dying compared to those who had the highest sun exposure. Furthermore, with the exception of women who used tanning beds, the risk of developing melanoma or dying from it was not higher in the sun exposure group, presumably because of what I stated above that lack of sunlight (leading to low vitamin D levels) increases the risk of more aggressive types of melanoma.
The bottom line
I am NOT suggesting based on this study to go lie down on the beach all day and get burnt to a crisp. However, being deathly afraid of every little ray of sun and walking around slathered in sun tan lotion with a large brimmed hat for every short outdoor excursion seems harmful to one’s health.
There is no way for me to tell you exactly how much sun exposure is ideal. That is based on how dark your skin is and how powerful the sun’s rays are based on where you live and what time of the year and day it is. A simple way of gauging whether or not you are overdoing it is sunburn. If you are frequently getting sunburned then you are overdoing it and running the risk of skin cancer. However, if your skin gets a little color, then you probably hit the nail on the head.
One last note – in the winter in some areas of the world it is virtually impossible to have enough sun exposure to make adequate vitamin D levels. So it’s probably a good idea to take supplements. This also hold true for those of you who are never in the sun.