What do we think about sunlight in 2020?
June 25, 2020 5:32 PM   Subscribe

For decades, we were told to cover up to avoid skin cancer. But then in the past year or two I started seeing articles around saying that actually some sun exposure was good, and that avoiding the sun could actually be harmful. What's the latest thinking on this?
posted by The corpse in the library to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
This 2019 article from Outside Magazine makes the case for more sunlight, less sunscreen. In particular, it discusses the failure of studies attempting to show a benefit from vitamin D supplements, in contrast to the known benefits that correlate with naturally produced vitamin D that occurs with exposure to sun.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 5:45 PM on June 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

This summary is fairly useful. There are benefits to getting sun, but definitely risks. (You also probably don't need much sun...for something like vitamin D, you only need ~15 in the sun each day if you have light sun.) The article mentions one suggestion to get more sunlight in the winter when the UV is lower, and less at other times of year.
posted by pinochiette at 6:15 PM on June 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

You live in Seattle? Then if you don't aggressively supplement with Vitamin D, I suspect you, like almost everyone in the Pacific Northwest, is Vitamin D deficient. (Anecdata: I have always been deficient when I've had my levels checked; after a check at the end of summer in 2019, I started supplementing most days, probably 5/7 or more; I finally had acceptable Vitamin D levels for the first time that it was checked in February.)

But we can also get skin cancer, right? So, given things like that Outside Magazine article above, what I do: sunscreen on my face every day, always (okay, I haven't been as good about this during stay-at-home, but it generally holds true; this has been an anti-aging thing for me as much as cancer prevention). If I'm going to be in the sun long enough to burn, I wear sunscreen. But if I'm just out and about taking a neighborhood walk and not baking in the sun, sometimes I skip sunscreen on my arms and legs now.

(Were you looking more for official info or advice?)
posted by bluedaisy at 6:23 PM on June 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's not just vitamin D. Vascular health and mood are also tied to sun exposure.
posted by fshgrl at 6:28 PM on June 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

This is a good question, and I wonder about it, as well. Both of my parents are white, and they have spent a lot of time working out in the sun throughout their lives. Their skin now, in their mid-late 50's, looks very damaged and cancer prone. My grandma also got some benign skin cancer removed from her face recently. I grew up in a sunny region. I was pretty tan, and my skin actually looked healthy. I had no skin issues. I moved to a less sunny area when I got older and spent more time indoors because of my work environment. My skin got more pale due to lack of sun. After a few years, I have developed psoriasis. No one knows what causes psoriasis, but I can tell you that my pink, itchy patches heal quicker after some sun exposure than any other medication I have been given. To my knowledge, no one in my family has psoriasis, and most of my family lives in fairly sunny areas. I got prescribed a few ointments/creams by dermatologists and one of them is actually vitamin D. The dermatologists I talk to always say that the sun is bad, and I should avoid exposure. I think that for my complexion, some sun but not a lot of sun is best because of my psoriasis along with possibly developing skin cancer. Although I have no proof that my psoriasis developed because of lack of sun exposure, that is when it started. But I think that the amount of sun exposure that is acceptable differs between populations of people, as well; so, I cannot speak for everyone, but from my own personal experiences. I think that the worst thing that can come from prolonged exposure to the sun is skin cancer. On another note, we all die of something, and a lot of times it is some form of cancer, not just skin cancer. From this article, it looks like there could be more damaging effects from not enough sun exposure. So the question is maybe: where is the sweet spot? I do not think anyone has that answer yet.
posted by sqrt(-1) at 6:50 PM on June 25, 2020

so I try and look into this all the time, and I think the real answer is - we don't know.

Depending on where you live and your skin colour, your vitamin D levels could be really low, and they're finding some problems with that. Chemical sunscreen also has some compounds that aren't...great to be putting on your skin every day. But sun damage is also real, and leads to skin cancer.

This paper (kinda about indoor tanning but the info is there) says there are benefits to sun exposure but in moderation I think the current recommendation is 5-20 minutes of sun exposure sans sunscreen per day for light-skinned induviduals.
posted by euphoria066 at 7:22 PM on June 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

I've been reading more about vitamin D and sun and even though I supplement vitamin D at a high level, I'm thinking of getting a beach chair to sit out in the sun a bit. I'm going to wear a hat and sunscreen on my face, chest, and hands because those are the high-risk cancer areas given that they're almost always exposed, but I'm going to let the rest of my body make vitamin D for me. A friend just recommended an app called Dminder that tells you how long you should spend in the sun given your location and time.
posted by quince at 8:29 PM on June 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Look at Australia’s government guidance. The combination of good public health and lots of sun means they’re light years ahead of most other places. Recommendations are different for different skin types.
posted by Jobst at 4:27 AM on June 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Yes, I live near Seattle. I’m White, have low vitamin D last time it was checked, and I have mild psoriasis. I’m hoping for the definitive scientific answer but I know that isn’t going to happen.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:16 AM on June 26, 2020

Just a data point, I live in the Northeast and do the same thing as bluedaisy.
posted by the_blizz at 11:20 AM on June 26, 2020

One other thing that does not get discussed enough is that eating better food helps your skin deal with the sun. So does constant low level exposure instead of occasional high exposure.

Bottom line: humans developed a spectrum of skin and eye colors for a reason. Sun exposure is critical to our health and mood and also potentially dangerous. Too much and you get cancer, not enough and you get rickets, heart disease and immune problems. And maybe cancer! Plus we fucked up the ozone layer, as an added wrinkle. Bottom line: cover your face, ears and nose with mineral sunscreen and get regular but low amounts of exposure on the rest of your body commiserate with your latitude and altitude and skin type, protect your eyes if they are light colored, use layers over sunscreen on your body when possible and eat whole foods and you'll be largely ok.

Also please wear mineral sunscreen in natural waterbodies. The chemical stuff is just awful for corals as many people know but also for other invertebrates. Zooplankton is pretty important!!
posted by fshgrl at 12:08 PM on June 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

Here's a good page from Australia. Read the link under "What is your skin type". If you're type 1 or 2, the recommendations are generally to avoid all sun above a UV index of 3. If that can't be avoided, use the normal precautions: clothing, hat, glasses, umbrella, sunscreen, etc. Check your vitamin D levels and supplement as necessary.

People 3 and above get a slight relaxation in the guidelines. Usually they just drop the "seek shade at all times" part but leave every other recommendation.

Personally, as a person with level 3 skin, in northern latitudes, I just avoid anything that could burn me. Even in the middle of summer here, that takes about 4+ hours in direct sun as long as I have even a slight base tan. Technically, the tan is damaged skin and increases my risk of skin cancer ever so slightly. But I consider the reduction in burn potential to be worth it, because I'm nowhere near 100% reliable with using the physical protection stuff.
posted by Jobst at 12:11 PM on June 26, 2020

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