Why do we need sunlight but also protect ourselves?
Have you ever asked yourself: Why do we need sunlight for our bodies? You know that overexposure can be harmful, so what can we do to protect our skin? We have been asked these questions quite a bit, so let me first explain how it works. Let's shine a little light on sunlight!
Sunlight is essential to almost all living things. Our bodies are built to make good use of the sun. Sunlight keeps our sleeping pattern on track, so we can stay awake by day and sleep soundly at night. Getting too little sun exposure especially in winter months can lead some people into a form of depression, called "Seasonal Affective Disorder" or otherwise known as SAD. And light therapy products, such as light boxes and special lamps can give people relief for SAD.
Are there other reasons we need to be exposed to the sun? Yes there are! Exposure to the sun not only gives us a suntan, but also helps our body manufacture Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a steroid hormone vitamin that influences virtually every cell in your body. Nearly every type of human cell responds to Vitamin D, from your bones to your brain.
Your organs can convert the Vitamin D in your blood into calcitriol, which is the hormone from Vitamin D. Sunlight is the natural way for your body to produce Vitamin D.
So we need the sun to keep our natural body rhythms in check and for the production of Vitamin D but how can we avoid sunburn? Limit your exposure is first and foremost. You can do it by three different ways:
- Expose your skin for a limited time during a safe time of the day. The sun helps your skin produce Vitamin D, but also increases your risk of skin cancers, including malignant melanoma. The sun is the most intense between around 10 am to 4 pm, so avoid the middle of the day, when UltraViolet exposure is the most intense.
- Get out of the sun when your skin turns pink. Sun exposure should stop when your skin turns from normal color to slightly pink. This may take a few minutes for someone with very pale skin. Once you reach this point your body will not make any additional Vitamin D and any additional exposure may cause harm to your skin.
- Wear sunscreen & protective clothing. Wearing sunscreen and protective clothes will greatly reduce your sun exposure. Cotton clothing provides around an SPF (sun protection factor) of 5 to 10. Choose a safe sunscreen, that gives broad protection (either zinc or titanium minerals work well), with an SPF of 30 or greater.
So the message here is that we do need sunlight for our bodies and minds to function properly. But we also need to be mindful of overexposure, and take careful measures to soak in the rays the right way - which is easy to do!
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Medically reviewed on 2/21/17