Sun Exposure Benefits & Risks: A Helpful Quick Guide

UltimateHuman Team Jul 28, 2022
17 People Read
Sun Exposure Risks & Benefits

Written by: Jon Mitchell, PA-C

Sun exposure has gotten a bad rap in the medical field over the past few decades — most of which is overblown and severely lacking context.

So much so... that this general advice to stay out of the sun might be doing more harm than good for the general population.

Friday Sun GIF

You might be thinking, “How can that be? Doesn’t the sun cause skin cancer?”

While it’s true that the sun can increase your risk of getting certain types of skin cancer...

Many important things are left out of the discussion... including which types of skin cancer, which types of people are most at-risk, and the significant negative health effects of avoiding the sun over a prolonged period of time.

As always with health, it comes down to benefit vs. harm.

So, is sun exposure a net positive or net negative?

We'll go over this, plus 5 tips on how to have fun in the sun, safely.

Sunlight 101

Sunlight is made up of a spectrum that has both visible & invisible light to the human eye.

We cannot see UV or infrared (IR) light, but can see the color spectrum.

Different types of light have a wide range of effects on the body:

  • UV-C light is mostly absorbed by the ozone layer and has antimicrobial properties

  • UV-B light is what largely causes sunburn... but also stimulates immune function & the conversion of cholesterol to Vitamin D in the skin

  • UV-A light has been found to help convert serotonin to melatonin during the day and to help lower blood pressure via nitric oxide release.

  • Blue-spectrum light is stimulatory in nature and suppresses melatonin release.

  • IR light has been shown to help with wound healing and improving blood flow.

The quality of sunlight also varies significantly due to things like latitude, time of day/year, weather conditions, and altitude.

For instance: During the winter time or when far from the equator... your body is exposed to less UVB rays, which is why it’s difficult to maintain optimal Vitamin D levels in the winter months.

And when you're up in the mountains at a high altitude... you get more UVB rays and need less exposure to produce adequate amounts of Vitamin D.

Art Summer GIF by MySwitzerlandBr

Also time of day can make a difference: Sunlight in the early morning or evening is more in the red/infrared spectrum, and less in the blue/UV spectrum.

Because of this, early and late sun exposure poses less of a risk of getting sunburnt than sunlight in the middle of the day.

So, what are some benefits of all this light?

Sunlight Benefits

Regular sun exposure has been found to have the following health benefits:

  • Decreased blood pressure

  • Increased structured water in blood vessels, which can improve blood flow + circulation

  • Improved circadian rhythm, which helps you sleep better

  • Decreased risk of cardiovascular disease

  • Decreased risk of many types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and colon to name a few

  • Improved immune function, through Vitamin D production & stimulation of T cells

  • Potential decreased melanoma risk (as long as you aren’t burning)

  • Decreased risk of multiple sclerosis

So, as you can see, the sun has the potential to improve our health when used responsibly...

But this isn’t to say there aren't risks associated with sun exposure:

Harmful Effects of Sunlight

Should you be worried about sun exposure?

Short answer: Yes, but only if you are doing it wrong.

The potential risks of sun exposure comes down to the dose.

Beach Life Animation GIF by Odd Bleat

Getting too much sun so that your skin burns does increase your risk of skin cancer, especially squamous and basal cell carcinomas.

Fortunately, these types of skin cancers are almost always localized to the skin and can be easily removed by a dermatologist.

It's also good to use the Fitzpatrick skin type classification to see how your personal skin type reacts to sunlight.

Those with really light complexions should be more cautious since they don't produce so much melanin, which helps protect the skin from sun damage...

Season 10 Episode 3 GIF by Friends

And those with a family history of skin cancer are also at more of a risk.

It's not that these types of people should avoid the sun entirely... but they just need to be more careful about their time exposed before they should cover up.

So, as we now know, there are benefits to catching some rays...

And avoiding the sun altogether or always wearing sunscreen can have significant health risks over time...

So, what are some optimal ways to get healthy sun exposure?

How to Get Vitamin D and Other Benefits from the Sun (5 Tips)

Here's a few strategies to use the sun to your advantage:

1. Aim to get out in the sun within the first hour of waking up

This could help set your circadian rhythm and get exposure to early morning IR light, which may help prevent sunburn.

2. Get enough sunlight to produce adequate amounts of Vitamin D daily

Doing this regularly will help your skin build up tolerance, so you are less likely to burn.

You can use the D-minder app to determine how much sun/skin exposure you will need.

3. Avoid Sunburning

This one may seem obvious, but many don't know the signs to get out of the sun:

As soon as your skin begins to turn even the lightest shade of pink... put on a safe sunscreen, cover up with clothes, or find shade.

Be mindful of wearing sunscreen all the time, as it has been found to block the production of Vitamin D.

4. Avoid direct sunlight through windows/glass

Windows can block UVB light, so you are not getting any Vitamin D protection...

But they do allow UVA exposure, which can cause skin damage over an extended period of time.

5. Have your doctor check your skin each year to catch any abnormalities

This one is important...

A health professional will help you to spot small problems before they become big ones.


So, as you can see, there's positives and negatives to getting outside in the sunlight...

And as long as you're mindful of your exposure levels, you'll have a better chance to experience more of the good effects.

Summer Sun GIF


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