Sunshine is good for you; it feels good, it makes you feel good, and it makes you look good. Exposure to the sun can improve your mood by increasing serotonin, and keratinocytes in your skin convert UV light into the active form of vitamin D (1,25(OH)2D3 or calcitriol), an important nutrient that assists in calcium absorption and that may help prevent the formation of skin cancer. A lack of sun exposure, on the other hand, can lead to symptoms of depression, commonly known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). SAD usually occurs in the winter and is believed to be caused – at least in part – by the reduced amount of sunlight.
Being outside in the sun can also improve your mood simply because you’re outside. The sunshine, the blue sky, the green grass and trees, and the (occasionally) fresh air are all natural stress relievers. Think about it; when you go on vacation, you likely retreat to a secluded spot in the woods or a tropical beach next to the ocean. We weren’t meant to sit inside all day in front of a computer screen (I know, tell that to your boss). Even a quick walk around the block during your lunch break can do wonders for your productivity (and your posture).
Unfortunately, the sun has a dark side, too. UV radiation is the number one cause of skin cancer, and prolonged exposure to UV rays can cause acute and chronic skin damage including:
- Dry skin
- Premature aging (lines and wrinkles)
- Collagen and elastin damage
- Destruction of antioxidant vitamins A and C in the skin
- Pre-cancerous lesions
- Cancerous lesions including basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and melanomas
Changes in moles, birthmarks, and other skin tags – like those depicted in the chart below – can indicate skin cancer. If you notice any changes, get them checked by a dermatologist.
The signs of a melanoma include ‘E’ as well, for Evolving. If there is any change in color, size, shape, or elevation, or any bleeding, itching or crusting, get it checked.
The onset of skin cancer is the result of years of chronic UV exposure, and there is some evidence that severe sunburns (especially during adolescence) can increase the likelihood and severity of skin cancer later in life. There is no known threshold of UV exposure after which cancer develops, and risk varies among individuals and can depend on genetic, environmental, and dietary factors.
The best way to prevent skin damage and cancerous lesions is to limit your exposure to UV radiation throughout your life. While you don’t want to avoid sunlight entirely (that wouldn’t be practical or beneficial), you should limit your time outside during peak UV hours (generally 10 AM – 3 PM). You can check the UV Index and get recommendations on exposure here. UV radiation from tanning beds is just as dangerous as radiation from the sun, so you should limit your time at the tanning salon, too.
If you are outside, you can wear a hat to protect your face and UV blocking sunglasses to protect your eyes. Sunscreens with at least 15 SPF are recommended to protect your skin. The Skin Cancer Foundation assures consumers that the chemicals in sunscreens are safe, but in case you’re concerned the Environmental Working Group has put together a list of “safe” sunblocks. They also have a list of “safe” sunless tanners and bronzers, but be careful, there is a thin line between unnoticeable fake tan and Oompa Loompa.
Being outside, soaking up the sun is a primitive pleasure that can make us feel good and that is good for us. Prolonged exposure to UV radiation – from the sun or the tanning salon – however, can be damaging to your skin and is the leading cause of skin cancer. Take the necessary protective and preventative measures so you can enjoy the sun now and well into the future.