The Power of the Sun: Safe Sun Exposure, Benefits, and Risks

Jul 3, 2023

Throughout history populations have known and sought out the healing powers of the sun, yet in our modern world it has been villainized and feared. Most of us slather on sunscreen without question and try to avoid being exposed all together because we have been told it is harmful, but is there more to the story?

Acute (burn) and Chronic (several hours each day, over many years) sun exposure can lead to permanent ageing and for some susceptible individuals, skin cancer. However, there is evidence that sunlight is beneficial for skin conditions like psoriasis, some forms of acne, and eczema. Sunlight also has been used to treat fungal and bacterial infections of the skin and many other diseases (1). So as we can see, the sun can harm and it can potentially provide some benefits. 

Some Benefits of the Sun

While some skin cancers may be caused or triggered by the sun, there is also evidence that it can prevent illnesses such as breast cancer, colon cancer, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, heart disease, MS and osteoporosis (2,3). 

Almost all western countries at latitudes north of 37 degrees in the northern hemisphere have high rates of colon cancer and in fact, it is the second leading cause of cancer in the UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand. And elevated levels of air pollution in those areas make the problem worse (4).

Two epidemiologists, Dr. Garland and Dr. Gorham, found that there is a strong negative correlation between available sunlight and breast cancer death rates. In the US, the chances of women dying from breast cancer was 40% higher in states that had less available sunlight compared to states like Florida and Hawaii. And interestingly, the lowest rates of breast cancer worldwide are in countries within 20 degrees of the equator, where the sun’s rays are quite strong. In these regions, colon and breast cancer rates are 4-6 times lower than in northern Europe or North America (5).

Important to note: Alcohol, stress, lack of exercise, and other lifestyle and hereditary factors can contribute to colon, breast, and other types of cancer

Skin Cancers

This is a controversial topic no doubt, so take away from it what you will but there may be other negative contributors to skin cancer.

More and more people continue to work and spend a lot of their time indoors and coincidentally, skin cancer rates have gone up significantly. If skin cancer was 100% caused by the sun, then shouldn’t we see these rates decreasing?  So while the sun might trigger skin cancer, there may be other underlying factors that are making us more susceptible to the disease. 

Exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides and herbicides, non-native EMF’s, increased stress, sedentary lifestyles, poor diet, etc., may also be underlying causes to skin cancer (6). The more susceptible people (pale-skinned) can now stay out in the sun way longer with the introduction of sunscreen. This is problematic because prolonged exposure can increase our risk of skin cancer. 

A spotlight on Malignant Melanoma

If not caught in its early stages, this type of skin cancer can spread quickly throughout the body making it very dangerous. Melanoma is more common in fair-skinned people with red/blonde hair, who burn easily, and tend to freckle when out in the sun. Since a third of melanomas start in a pre-existing moles, those with a lot of them are at a higher risk. 

Interestingly, melanoma rates might be correlated with how much sun exposure you receive in your adolescent years. The intermittent exposure hypothesis remains controversial; some studies indicate that children and adolescents who received intermittent sun exposure during vacation, recreation, or occupation are at increased melanoma risk as adults, but more recent studies suggest intermittent exposure to have a protective effect. The majority of sunburn studies suggest a positive association between early age sunburn and subsequent risk of melanoma (7). Cleary, more research needs to be done.

Safe and Natural Sunscreen Products

If you are opting to use a sunscreen, a mineral-based product might be your best bet. Mineral sunscreens with both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide not only protect you from UBV rays but also protect against UVA rays, which is the wavelength that penetrates clouds and glass and causes significant photo-aging in the form of wrinkles and sunspots. 

In the 1970’s and again very recently, there have been reports of carcinogens found in certain chemical-based sunscreens. Whichever type you choose, make sure they say broad or full spectrum and that they contain clean ingredients. 

Diet and the Sun

Along with safe sun exposure, what we put into our bodies may determine how positively or negatively our skin responds to the sun. 

Vegetables and Seed Oils

These oils are known to oxidize easily because they are unstable at room temperature; easily damaged by heat, light, moisture and oxygen exposure. One meta-analysis showed that a high level of polyunsaturated fat intake was potentially positively associated with squamous cell carcinoma (9). I don’t think we should necessarily fear PUFA’s as long as we are consuming the majority of them as whole foods, I.E. Seafood, nuts, seeds, etc. 

Other foods that are highly processed like white sugars, breads, etc. should be avoided or greatly reduced for overall health in general. Some foods and nutrients that are beneficial for our health and that may help protect us from the sun’s rays include:

Astaxanthin: Protective against UV-induced skin deterioration such as ageing and skin damage (10)

Sources: Fish and shellfish, supplement

Vitamin E: Reduces inflammation and skin damage caused by sun exposure (11)

Sources: Wheat germ oil, sunflower seeds, almonds, etc. Supplement 

Vitamin C: May help protect from UVA sun damage, especially when combined with vitamin E (12)

Sources: Peppers, oranges, strawberries, etc. Supplement (Best as a whole food supplement)

Beta-Carotene: One study showed that 10 weeks of supplementation of beta-carotene was effective in protecting against sunburn (13)

Sources: Yellow and orange fruits and vegetables such as peppers, oranges, and carrots, supplement

Lycopene: Studies show that this powerful antioxidant protects cellular structures from UVR-induced damage (14)

Sources: Tomato paste, sauce, olive oil and other red fruits and veggies (except cherries and strawberries). Supplement 

Try to incorporate these powerful antioxidants into your diet as whole foods and supplements when necessary. 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is most commonly known as the sunshine vitamin, yet it is actually a hormone. Among its many benefits, it is a vital component of a healthy immune system and is also essential for the growth and maintenance of teeth and bones. 

In Calgary, we live very far from the equator so from October to March (roughly) we don’t get any Vitamin D from the sun. Because this is a fat soluble “vitamin” we should ideally store enough during the spring/summer months by exposing our skin to the sun. If you don’t have enough reserves from avoiding the sun, excess sunscreen, etc., then you potentially run the risk of serious disease and sickness in the colder months. It’s called cold & flu season for a reason! So, is the solution to just take a Vitamin D supplement? While there are definitely some benefits, there are few downsides that should be noted. 

- Vitamin D can be toxic at high levels because it is a fat soluble vitamin

- The body makes better use of Vitamin D from the sun, rather than diet and supplementation 

- Taking too much Vitamin D can deplete your liver stores of Vitamin A (retinol) which is also very important for immune function and protection from the sun. 

Some solutions

- Try taking a clean, whole food cod liver supplement that contains natural vitamin A & D. If you are adventurous, eating liver from grass-fed meat or a clean fish source is a great option too.

- Eating fatty fish, eggs, full fat dairy, and animal fat will also be beneficial in those winter months to supply the body with Vitamin A and D

- Important! Get your vitamin D levels tested for a baseline and then periodically throughout the winter months. Be sure to get tested for the biologically active form 1, 25-dihydroxyvitamin D3

- Lastly, practice safe sun exposure (more on that below)

Note: At the end of the day, it's important to have optimal levels of Vitamin D rather than not having enough. So, if you cant go out in the sun or you aren’t getting enough sunlight and taking a supplement is your only option, work with a practitioner to determine the right amount for you. Just make sure you are getting enough Vitamin A (retinol) in your diet or via a whole food supplement. 

How to Sunbath Safely*

  • Plan your exposure: don’t cram all of your sunbathing into two or three weeks of the year

  • If you go abroad to a hotter or colder climate, take a series of “air-baths” for a few days before you sunbathe

  • Don’t bake/burn. The air temperature when you sunbathe for health should be below 18 C

  • The most important time of the year to sunbathe is in the spring and early summer

  • Early morning sunshine seems to be particularly beneficial because it contains mostly infrared light, so start just after dawn

    • Note: Infrared light can help lower inflammation, repair damage from UVA exposure, improve circulation, improve mood and provides many other benefits
  • Frequent, short exposures are better than prolonged exposures to UVA/UVB exposure 

  • It is essential to obtain a full spectrum of sunlight, so don’t cover yourself with sunscreen or sunblock (This only implies if you are practicing sunbathing and you and your practitioner have determined that "safe sunbathing" is right for you).

  • Wear a hat so the thin, sensitive skin on your face, head, and neck is protected

  • If you are very sensitive to sunlight begin sunbathing the feet, then the legs, before exposing the abdomen and chest with great caution

  • If you want to tan, pay very close attention to the way your tan gradually develops. Work out your tolerance to sunlight before exposing the more sensitive parts of the body

  • Eat wholefoods, rather than refined foods

  • Stay alert, above all, do not burn

List Source: Healing Power of the Sun by Richard Hobday, PH.D.

There still needs to be more research on the sun, Vitamin D, and it’s impact to human health, but as we can see, there are definitely some benefits of getting safe sun exposure. It also is clear that how one gets enough vitamin D for disease prevention is based on where you live and is ultimately a very individualized approach. 

*There is no "one size fits all" approach to exposing yourself to the sun. Please speak with your practitioner to determine if this is right for you, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer or are fair-skinned with red/blonde hair, who burn easily, and tend to freckle when out in the sun.

All references and claims made within this article that aren’t referenced below, can be found in the book “Healing Powers of the Sun”. The author’s cited sources and references are displayed from page 179 to 212. 

(1) https://www.verywellhealth.com/eczema-and-sun-exposure-82721

(2) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2290997/

(3) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4571149/

(4) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3897598/

(5) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1047279709001057

(6) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3840456/

(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2082713/

(8) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3595561/

(9) https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31298947/

(10) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6073124/

(11) https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-E

(12) https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/vitamin-C

(13) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1751-1097.2007.00253.x

(14) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6028556/

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