Updated: Feb 11
The benefits of sunlight exposure are greater than most people realize. In fact, you may be conscientiously working to avoid something that is extremely beneficial for your health.
For those of us in the northern part of the United States, it's difficult to get much sun exposure for about 6 months out of the year, but it doesn't mean we shouldn't try. It turns out that there's a potential panacea of benefits from sunshine exposure that has been relatively unknown to most people. This information is summarized in a review paper that I encourage you to read if you would like a deeper understanding or to find any citations from the statements below.
First, let me acknowledge the important risks that you must be aware of:
Sunburns are associated with doubling the risk of getting the most deadly skin cancer, melanoma, and an increased risk of squamous cell and basal cell carcinomas. Take care to avoid sunburns, preferably by limiting excessive sun exposure or covering skin at a certain point (as opposed to slathering on sun screen and continue to bake in the sun).
The risk of non-melanoma skin cancers, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, has been associated with more overall sun exposure. These skin cancers are less likely to be deadly, but they can occasionally be dangerous and/or disfiguring, particularly if they are ignored for long periods of time. If you have moles or bumps or discolorations that are concerning, be safe and get them assessed by a physician.
Given the risks mentioned above, why am I even talking about sunlight? Consider this list of possible benefits:
More non-burning sun exposure has been associated with a lower risk of melanoma. Outdoor workers have been found to have a lower risk of melanoma than indoor workers, for example.
Habitually avoiding sun exposure is associated with a doubling in risk of death, and those with moderate exposure had 40% higher risk of death compared to those in the highest sun exposure group. Researchers found sun avoidance to be as great a risk factor for death as smoking!
In animal studies, sunlight reduces colorectal cancer growth, a finding which is supported by observational studies in people showing higher risk of intestinal cancer in people with low vitamin D levels.
Increased sun exposure has been associated with lower breast cancer incidence, and women with higher vitamin D levels have lower risk of getting breast cancer and lower risk of death after a diagnosis of breast cancer.
More sun exposure has been linked to lower non-hodgkins lymphoma risk and prostate cancer risk.
More sun exposure, and higher vitamin D levels, have been associated with lower rates of multiple sclerosis.
Sun exposure can actually lower blood pressure.
Higher vitamin D levels are associated with a reduced risk of metabolic syndrome.
Higher vitamin D levels are associated with a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease.
Ultraviolet radiation is used successfully to treat psoriasis, an autoimmune skin condition.
What do you do?
Get outside often! You'll notice that vitamin D is mentioned several times. You make vitamin D from sunlight exposure, although this doesn't happen much in latitudes far from the equator in the winter because the sun is too low. Much, but not all of he health benefit of sunshine exposure is likely to be related to vitamin D. Realize that sunscreen blocks your skin from making vitamin D, and also that your body does not make vitamin D from sunlight that is going through glass.
So get outside and enjoy sunshine with exposed skin, without using sunscreen (at first). At the first sign that you are starting to get some skin redness, be very diligent to avoid a sunburn. At the beginning of the summer, this probably happens fairly quickly for light-skinned people (15-20 minutes, with a wide range of time based on skin color). Do this preferably by getting out of the sun or covering up, or, if that's not reliable, using sunscreen.
Do not burn, or the risks of what you've done are likely to outweigh the potential benefits.
Sun exposure is particularly wonderful when you consider what most people are doing outside, which often involves physical activity, whether it be walking or hiking or gardening. Adding physical activity is a double dose of powerful health promotion. If you are not getting these types of outdoor activities in your life, with regular non-burning sun exposure, consider how you might start to get outside more often. For some people, this may be such an important intervention that it is the single diet and lifestyle change most likely to lead to noticeable health improvement.