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Sun Exposure: Finding a Balance

woman sun sunglasses Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States. Since the main cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, people are conscious of the harmful effects of sun exposure.

Reducing your risk for skin cancer includes covering yourself with high SPF (sun protection factor) sunscreens and avoiding midday sun. While there are still many sun worshipers out there, most people are now aware of the risks of sun exposure.

Experts suggest the following:

  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Make sure the sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Do not stay out in the sun for a long time, especially when the sun is at its strongest (mid-morning to late afternoon).
  • Wear long sleeve shirts and long pants made of a tightly woven material, such as linen. It is also a good idea to wear sun hats and sunglasses when outdoors. UV protection clothing is available, but the protection wears off with each laundering and standards are still being developed.
  • Do not use sunlamps and tanning booths.

The sun, however, does have certain health benefits. It can enhance your mood, protect against certain diseases, and boost your level of vitamin D. So should people work to balance their level of sun exposure—finding a common ground between getting enough, but not too much, rather than avoiding the sun altogether?

Sunlight and Skin Cancer

Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. While non-melanoma skin cancers (basal and squamous cell carcinomas) rarely spread, melanoma can spread to other parts of the body.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun are the main cause of skin cancer. Where you live may also be a risk factor. For instance, one study found that women who live in states with a higher level of UV rays from the sun had an increased risk of squamous cell carcinoma. States with a higher amount of UV rays included Connecticut, Indiana, Arizona, California, and North Carolina.

The Benefits of the Sun

Mental Health

The warmth and light generated by the sun can enhance your feeling of well-being. Sun exposure can also help prevent seasonal affective disorder, a condition that results in bouts of depression in the late fall and winter, when exposure to sunlight is reduced.

Vitamin D

Furthermore, the sun triggers your skin to synthesize vitamin D. While vitamin D is found in foods, including fortified milk and cereals, cod liver oil, and certain fish, many people do not get enough of it from foods, so the sun provides most people with their vitamin D requirement. The catch is that sunscreen blocks the production of vitamin D.

With 10-15 minutes of sun exposure to the face, arms, hands, or back without sunscreen at least 2 times per week, most people can get an adequate level of vitamin D. However, people who live in northern or cloudy climates during certain times of the year may not be able to synthesize enough vitamin D from the sun.

Adequate levels of vitamin D prevent rickets in children and osteomalacia in adults (both are diseases that weaken bones). In addition, vitamin D may help maintain a healthy immune system, promote normal cell growth, and prevent osteoporosis.

Researchers do not yet know for sure, but some propose that increased levels of vitamin D associated with sun exposure may also have anti-cancer effects. In laboratory studies, vitamin D has been shown to inhibit cancer cell growth and induce death of cancer cells.

To Sun or Not to Sun?

Until there is enough evidence to make solid recommendations, the best advice is to use your own good judgment and talk to your doctor. Weigh your own personal risks versus benefits of moderate sun exposure and decide on a safe amount of sun for you. While anyone can get skin cancer, people with fair skin, light-colored eyes, blonde or red hair, a tendency to burn or freckle, and a family or personal history of skin cancer are at higher risk.

Safe and consistent sun protection is very important. Since the damaging effects of the sun start early in life, it is important to begin practicing sun protection in childhood.

  • American Academy of Dermatology

  • National Cancer Institute

  • Canadian Cancer Society

  • Canadian Dermatology Association

  • Dietary supplement fact sheet: vitamin D. Office of Dietary Supplements website. Available at: Updated November 10, 2014. Accessed July 29, 2015.

  • Melanoma. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated June 15, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2015.

  • Qureshi A, Laden F, et al. Geographic variation and risk of skin cancer in US women: differences between melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma. Arch Intern Med. 2008;168(5):501-507.

  • Skin cancer. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: Accessed July 29, 2015.

  • Skin cancer index. American Cancer Society website. Available at: Accessed July 29, 2015.

  • Skin cancer prevention. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: Updated May 14, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2015.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated April 27, 2015. Accessed July 29, 2015.