Ask The Dr.

10 tips on how to enjoy sunshine responsibly.
Spending time outdoors with proper protection can boost mood and bolster vitamin D levels. Photography: Jess Vide

By Dr. Frank Lipman

Beyond just simply being drawn to the sun—its light, its warmth, the everything-will-be-OK vibe it sends off—we actually need sunshine. Much like plants, which harness the sun’s rays through photosynthesis, our bodies use sunlight to help the skin produce the vitamin D it needs to build bones, tame inflammation, boost the immune system and protect against cancer.

While ancient cultures deified the sun and modern culture embraces it as a symbol of health and hope, dermatologists and public health authorities tell us to fear it, at least for the past 30 years or so. In our all-or-nothing culture, we’ve lost a balanced relationship with the sun, either underestimating its power and inviting damaging sunburn or avoiding it entirely. But there is a middle road: developing a safe personal strategy for sun exposure.

Although irresponsible sunbathing is, without question, harmful and precautions must be taken, regular sun exposure in small, managed, unprotected doses is essential for good health. This is not a license to overdo it! Consider it permission to step outside and into the light with a little less fear. So, how to use the sun to your advantage? Here’s what I recommend:

Respect the power of the sun. To start dialing down your sun-o-phobia, treat sun exposure with respect and think of it as powerful medicine. Like with most meds, the right dose can be helpful, but a too-high dose comes with dangerous side effects. With the sun, use the lowest dose necessary, but don’t avoid the solar medicine completely.

Know the enemy: sunburn. It is sunburn, not healthy sun exposure, that causes problems. Repeated sunburns, especially in children and very fair-skinned people, have been linked to melanoma. But there is no credible scientific evidence that regular, moderate sun exposure causes melanoma or other skin cancers.

Prepare your skin—and slowly build up tolerance. Instead of kicking off the summer months with a dangerous sunburn, slowly ramp up your tolerance. The time to start with brief sessions—no pinking!—is early in the spring, or early in the morning, before the sun gets too strong. From there, slowly build up the amount of time you spend in the sun, to a safe and sensible max—but remember, we’re talking minutes, not hours.

Managing your dose. Daily exposure of large amounts of bare and unprotected skin to sunlight, for the amount of time it takes just before you become the faintest shade of pink, is the best way to optimize your D levels. If you’re very fair-skinned, your limit may be as little as five minutes, or considerably longer if you’re dark-skinned and tend not to burn. To keep a close eye on exposure, try a vitamin D-tracking app called dminder, which, using your skin tone, age, body type, location and local weather, calculates how many minutes you need to spend outdoors in the sun to generate optimal D without burning. (While you’re out there, be cautious about exposing your face to the sun. Facial skin is delicate and prone to aging and wrinkles. Better, for instance, to give your legs a nice shot of direct sun instead.)

Think short shots of unprotected sun exposure. Based on factors like your age, skin type, time of day and where you live, your exposure needs may vary, a lot. The farther you are from the equator, the more sun exposure you’ll need to generate a healthy amount of vitamin D. For example, a fair-skinned person, hanging at the beach in June, in the middle of the day for about 10 to 15 minutes (just enough to cause a light pinkness 24 hours after), is producing the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 IU of vitamin D. But put that same person farther north in Montreal and they’d likely need 20 to 30 minutes to get a similar benefit. Those with dark skin pigmentation may need 30 minutes to 3 hours longer of exposure to sunlight to generate the same amount of vitamin D as a fair-skinned person would. Not sure where your D levels are? Have them checked regularly. The appropriate blood test to ask for is the 25OH vitamin D or 25-hydroxy vitamin D test. Be aware that the current “normal” range for vitamin D is 20 to 55 ng/ml, which is, in my opinion, much too low. Those levels might be fine if you want to prevent rickets or osteomalacia, but they are not adequate for optimal health. The ideal range for optimal health is 50 to 80 ng/ml.

Plan your retreat. After you’ve hit your allotted maximum sunblock-free time in the sun—again, think minutes, not hours—protecting yourself comes back into play. Time to cover up, seek shade or use a healthy, chemical-free sunblock. Also, don’t overestimate the protection that sunblock provides—it’s not a magic bullet. One of the primary causes of sunburn and skin cancer is the use of poor-quality sunscreens, which may prevent burning but don’t properly defend against the UVA rays that can cause melanoma.

Cover your, um, assets. If you’re spending time above and beyond your daily sunshine max, be sure to reapply sunblock often and be sensible about layering up with lightweight T-shirts, pants, hats, etc. to keep you cool and provide physical protection from the sun, regardless of how long you plan to be outside. For extra coverage, invest in a “flap-hat” with side panels to cover the ears and neck, plus lightweight, long-sleeve shirts and long pants whenever possible. Working or playing outdoors for hours at a time? Then invest in a few pieces of sun-protective clothing, from sites like Solumbra by Sun Precautions or Australia’s

Know what’s in your brew. Though I’m hardly a fan of the toxins found in sunscreens, or their relative inability to fully block melanoma-triggering rays, for now anyway, it’s one of the best defenses we have, so buy the best stuff possible. Choose organic sunscreens with as many eco- and body-friendly ingredients as possible to lessen your toxic load—what’s in the tube can be almost as dangerous as the diseases they’re designed to protect against! A typical sunscreen product is a chemical carpet-bomb to the body, so the cleaner your brew the better. Look for brands that provide broad-spectrum (UVA- and UVB-sunburn) protection with fewer hazardous chemicals that penetrate the skin. A mineral-based product that uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically block sunrays by reflecting and scattering them is safest (it protects against both UVB and UVA rays). My personal favorite is Beautycounter’s mineral sunscreen. According to the Environmental Working Group, the best—as in, least toxic—sunscreens available are ones without PABA, parabens, fragrances, nanoparticles, retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A), oxybenzone, benzophenone-3 (BP-3) and aminobenzoic acid, which can affect your heart, hormones and even your DNA. For excellent guidance on which sunscreens are naughty or nicer, check out the Environmental Working Group’s list of safer sunscreens.

Hold your fire! Hit the beach or the playground on any given weekend and you’ll see platoons of well-meaning parents hosing down their kids, head to toe, with aerosol sunscreen sprays. They douse the family—and anyone else downwind—in a toxic cloud of sunscreen.

Pure madness, if you ask me. The saner alternative? Skip the sprays and instead, use lotions and creams that remain localized.

Boost your “internal sunscreen” with the right food. Consuming antioxidants and beneficial fats strengthens skin cells, helping to protect them from sun damage. Eating lots of vegetables and fruits such as blueberries, raspberries, goji berries and pomegranates and supplementing with green powdered mixes and fish oils are great options when going into the sun. Here’s to enjoying the sun safely!