Sunshine, Vitamin D and Sunscreen – What You Need to Know

Sunshine isn’t like sex: if you want to optimize your health, you gotta go do it unprotected.

Having a cavalier attitude towards sunbathing has long drawn mass disapproval from the skincare and anti-aging crowd (and your mum). But the truth is, our paranoia about exposure to direct sunlight has been far and away more problematic for health.

The simple reason for that is sunshine is the only reliable way for your body to generate vitamin D – which as you know from this blog, is kind of essential for optimizing health and preventing disease. The evidence is pretty conclusive that we need to prioritize vitamin D over UV.

Even ignoring vitamin D, sunshine has a ton of other amazing benefits (want to live longer anyone?)

There’s another issue, too.

Most sunscreen is awful for you.

That’s right, the stuff we have been slathering on in the name of protection often contains toxic chemicals that can be more dangerous than moderate sun exposure.

If any of this comes as a surprise to you, then you could do with enlightening up about what’s hot and what’s not in sun safety.

The melanoma myth – the ‘outdoor worker’ effect

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Melanoma, a type of skin cancer, is a familiar word to most Aussies (Australia has the highest incidents rates in the world). Depending on where you get your data, melanoma accounts for less than anything between 2-5% of skin cancer cases, but it’s deadly – hence the scary factor. 

The high incidence of melanoma in Australia led to an iconic campaign which vilified sunshine. (Guidelines have since been tempered to reflect the serious problem with people not getting enough vitamin D). 

However, research has shown that people regularly exposed to daily sun have a lower risk of getting melanoma, and also have a higher survival rate if they do, because regular sun exposure protects against burning (the so called ‘outdoor worker effect’). In fact, the incidence of melanoma has increased despite the push for more awareness about sun exposure, and the advice to use sunscreen whenever we go outside. 

Skin cancer rates are rising by 4.2% annually, despite the fact that we spend less time outdoors and wear more sunscreen.

Despite this, misinformation about staying out of the sun between its strongest hours abounds. 

The real role of the sun in melanoma?

As with all serious disease, there are usually multiple factors at cause – nutrition, environmental toxins, stress, inadequate sleep, etc. For melanoma, the sun does appear to play a role – it is that we are getting too little of it.

Studies show melanoma mortality actually decreases after UV exposure. According to the British Medical Journal:

“There is solid descriptive, quantitative, and mechanistic proof that ultraviolet rays cause the main skin cancers (basal and squamous). They develop in pale, sun exposed skin, are related to degree of exposure and latitude, are fewer with avoidance and protection, are readily produced experimentally, and are the overwhelmingly predominant tumor in xeroderma pigmentosum, where DNA repair of ultraviolet light damage is impaired. None of these is found with melanoma.”

The upshot is that, by avoiding the sun, your risk for vitamin D deficiency increases, which raises your odds of developing melanoma and a multitude of other diseases. 

More generally, the risks associated with insufficient vitamin D are far greater than those posed by the more common (basal cell and squamous cell) types of skin cancer.

How exactly sunlight affects skin

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To an extent, that depends on you.

How the sun affects us depends on complexion (the shade of which is determined by melanin), your age, where you live and multiple other factors.

Generally speaking, here are some health related facts about UVA and UVB radiation. 

The good

There are lots of beneficial effects of UV radiation other than vitamin D production (although this is the main one).

For one thing, UVB stimulates the production of melanin, a natural sunscreen that protects the skin from the damaging effects of excessive sun exposure. It’s our cool little inner sunscreen mechanism.

UVB stimulates the production of melanin - our cool little inner sunscreen Click To Tweet

UVB also stimulates the production of beta endorphin (important in pain management).

Vitamin D is generated when UVB rays interact with 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC) present in the skin. UVB rays from the sun actually have to pass through the atmosphere and reach where you are on the earth – so the angle of the sun is important. The ‘zenith angle’ is the angle between the sun and the vertical. When you are directly above and zero angle, that is maximum efficiency for the UV rays. 

In practical terms, this just means it’s impossible to get enough vitamin D from sunshine during Winter time. 

You can purchase portable meters to help you to know for sure. 

The bad and ugly

There is no question that excessive exposure to sunlight causes the skin to age. UVA in particular causes aging via a cross-linking process known as glycation. 

Excessive exposure to the sun damages DNA, which in turn can cause non-melanoma skin cancer. UVA radiation also depresses immune reactions that destroy developing skin tumors, resulting in increased risk for skin cancer. This suppression can also decrease resistance to some infectious diseases of the skin.

An estimated 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetimes (no small number). 

Why we need to optimize vitamin D

This subject, along with microbial health, has been one of the hottest topics in health in recent years.  

Vitamin D deficiency is such a problem, that it has been identified by the USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee as a public health threat.

Scientific research links low sun exposure and/or low vitamin D levels with higher levels of malignant skin cancer. Here is list of other health problems linked with low sun exposure and/or low vitamin D:

  • Increased loss of muscle strength and mass.
  • Increased risk of cancers.
  • Lower levels of immunity.
  • Higher blood pressure.
  • Development of neurological disorders (including dementia). 
  • Development of diabetes.
  • Mood disorders, anxiety, and depression.

Probably the most powerful function of vitamin D is in the regulation of our immune system

To give you an idea of how pervasive its importance is, nearly every cell in our bodies has a vitamin D receptor. Vitamin D is associated with 80 different metabolic processes in the body. 

But can’t I get it from food?

As I have written about before, you can forget the idea of getting enough vitamin D from food.

There are few dietary sources for vitamin D. Fortified foods including milk, orange juice, margarine and cereals have small amounts- but why would you want to eat those?!

Oily fish, cod liver oil and sun-dried mushrooms have some, but it still isn’t enough. 

This means we must rely on the sun, just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did.

We must rely on the sun for vitamin D, just as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did Click To Tweet

Also, when you make it on your skin, it lasts 2-3 times longer than when you take as a supplement.

Getting enough (yes, there’s an app for that)

Getting enough is tricky business.

We need to think of things like latitudes, and zenith angles, and our ages and skin types and stuff. Or we can just use this awesome app co-developed by the world’s leading authority on vitamin D and health, Michael Holick.

D Minder tracks the amount of vitamin D you get from the sun based on your age, location, body type, and time of day, etc. and even includes a timer so you’ll know when you’ve topped off the D tank, without burning.

D Minder app tells you when you've topped up your D tank adequately Click To Tweet

Guideline amounts floated by experts are (for Summer sun) for lighter skin types, 5-15 minutes 2/3 times per week. For darker skins, we might need up to 5-10 times more to raise our blood levels.

Experts recommend going out in the sun between the hours of 10-3pm (very little if any vitamin D is produced outside those hours), for half the time it would take to develop a mild sunburn.

The Vitamin D Council recommends exposing your skin for half the time it takes for it to turn pink. There is no benefit in extra exposure – it is understood that UV light will begin to destroy vitamin D in the skin when the skin is overexposed.

Get your doctor to test your blood levels if you’re at all concerned. Then follow the advice in this article to optimize your levels.

Other sunny benefits

In addition to the vitamin D, sunlight affects feeling of wellbeing and regulation of circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm (‘CR’) is another hot topic of research right now, and might be pulling the strings in significant ways on our health.

Basically all you need to know now is that things that help to regulate CR are good. 

The reason we feel so damned good in the sunshine is the boost we get to beta endorphin levels, which help to manage pain. 

Sunlight has a positive effect on stress and depression – we do not get Seasonal Affected Disorder (the name for the condition of prevailing misery in cold/dark weather) during the Summer. Here are some tips for dealing with that by the way, from mega health buff filmmaker Max Lugavere

According to The UV Advantage author Micheal Holick, radiation going through the retina (and maybe even just through landing on the skin) increases serotonin (happy hormone), improves cognitive performance, brain and blood flow, and affects food and water intake, obesity and chronic illness. 

Sunshine helps our mood, cognitive performance, brain and blood flow and affects food choices Click To Tweet

Everybody’s free (to wear sunscreen) 

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Oh man that was such a great song. 


Setting aside for a moment the significant matter that using sunscreen prevents vitamin D production by 98%, there are various safety issues with many sunscreens. Studies conducted in the 1990’s indicated a higher risk of malignant melanoma among individuals who used the most sunscreen.

The Environmental Working Group’s 2015 review of sunscreen found that 80 percent of 1,700 products examined offered inferior sun protection or contain worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone and vitamin A. The brand Neutrogena took some real bashing this year. 

These nasty ingredients absorb into our blood, release damaging free radicals, act like estrogen (disrupting hormones), cause allergic reactions and release toxic chemicals that can increase risk of cancer and other health issues. Guys, studies have shown that sunscreen can interfere with testosterone and lower sperm quality. 

See this list of unsafe, toxic chemicals in sunscreen.

Recommended products

When buying sunscreen, I’d first check the EWG’s Hall of Shame. 

Here are three examples of excellent products:

  1. Kiss My Face SPF 30
  2. 100% Pure Hydration Organic Pomegranate
  3. Herbal Choice Mari SPF 30 Face & Body Lotion Unscented

Another great alternative is natural plant oils. A good one is carrot seed oil, which may have the sun protection of an SPF 20 sunscreen. Others (and their SPFs) are almond (5), avocado (4 – 10, up to 15) and coconut (2 – 8).

Can you protect your skin through food?

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As with everything, how you eat definitely makes a difference to your ‘inner sun protection’.

A large part of natural sun protection is eating an anti-inflammatory diet. This is about crowding out your diet with lots of healthy saturated fats, omega 3 rich fish and nuts, leafy greens and a variety of different colored vegetables. Eating more of these foods naturally reduces your intake of (omega ratio unbalancing) processed food and vegetable oils, grains and sugars. 

Coconut oil is a super healthy addition to your diet, supplying medium chain fatty acids and saturated fat which are easily used by the body for new skin formation and are protective against burning. You could make bulletproof coffee or take it straight. 

Savvy supplementing

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Certain supplements help reduce inflammation and improve sun tolerance. Guess what? They are the same supplements you need for health anyway. 

Summary – 6 guidelines for optimizing sun and vitamin D levels

  • Use D Minder app to help you to track your ability to generate vitamin D.
  • In the Summer, expose your bare skin to the first 10 to 15 minutes outside without sunscreen. Try to get out 3-4 times per week in the strongest sunshine hours (10am-3pm). 
  • Afterwards, use a good natural sunscreen, such as this
  • In the Winter, supplement with an oral spray or softgels. Aim for around 5000 IU per day (stands for international units). 
  • Eat an anti-inflammation diet high in antioxidants.
  • Don’t burn. If you do, use aloe vera to help you heal and soothe skin. Vitamin C (taken orally) is excellent for wound healing.

Recommended reading

What other things do you do to optimize your sunshine/vitamin D levels? Perhaps a bit of butt naked gardening? Get in touch!

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