If the fear-mongering about skin cancer conflicting with the idea that sun exposure is good for you leaves you paralyzed about what you could do, how can you think about how to maximize your wellness with solar power?
For ease of navigation, to allow you to jump to the parts that interest you, here is a hyperlinked content list.
N A T U R E, E V O L U T I O N & S C I E N C E
Why that Title?
Do You Need Sun Exposure?
A Quickie on Sunlight
A Quickie on your Skin
Is Morning Sun Good or Bad for You?
Why is Mid-Day Sun Good for you?
Why Are We Not Getting Enough?
1234Marriage and Parenting
Science Research, Pharma Research, Doctors vs Truth
R I S K, R E T U R N & T R A D E O F F
Risk, Return & F*ckoff
R I S K
Cancer Risk & Cancer Return
12Skin Cancer Risk
12Alternatives to Sunscreen
R E T U R N
12Mood & Emotion
I M P L E M E N T A T I O N
Money is in the Detail
12Race or Skin Tone
12Frequency, Timing & Coordinates
12Heastroke & Dehydration
Combining with Other Protocols – fasting, exercise, socializing
Limiting Unknown Risks
F I N A L T A K E A W A Y
NATURE, EVOLUTION & SCIENCE
Why that Title? [top]
I was fat for a while as you may have seen in say this picture in this article and so I love it when people accept that they could lose a few pounds of fat and want to work towards it. When I realized that [a] most of the 1-plus billion Indians preferred to avoid the sun, and [b] many “don’t like to wake up early” it got me thinking about tradeoffs for time management with regards to wellness. When delivering a 2-hour lecture “A Philosophy of Fitness: How to get fitter and stay motivated” 10 years ago, one of the smartest men I know on this planet was in the audience and he helped me coin a motto I live by – “Better to be Tight and Tanned, than Fair and Fat”. When I took on the additional career of wellness mentoring (CNBC TV interview) I continued to use it to motivate others who also have busy lives and want to have long Healthspans.
Do You Need Sun Exposure? [top]
Yes, you need sun exposure. To believe that one does not need sun exposure on a regular basis is downright foolish given that we have evolved with sun exposure and continue to thrive with sun exposure. That we might not get it is a separate matter. Even if someone doesn’t actually do it, we all know that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables, get sufficient exercise, and sleep a bit more! Unfortunately, many people do not realize that sun exposure is essential – and many people behave as if sun exposure is optional for good health. Be wise, don’t be one of them!
A Quickie on Sunlight [top]
Of the vast spectrum of radiation from the sun what we ‘see’ is called visible light (VIBGYOR). Beyond both the Violet and Red ends, we receive radiation that is not visible and it is the ultra-violet light that gets a bad rap from a health angle when it comes to sun exposure. However, this is where things get interesting. UVA (ultraviolet A) penetrates deeper into your body, compared with UVB (which stays closer to the surface skin) or UVC (which is mostly stopped at the earth’s atmosphere level – not really reaching you in the first place). In fact, visible light actually penetrates deepest, reaching your blood vessels!
A Quickie on Your Skin [top]
Your skin burns at the surface because of UVB light. UVB light penetrates the surface and attenuates in the epidermis (outer) layer and does not reach your dermis (lower) layer. UVA light does not burn your skin but penetrates into the dermis (inner) layer, potentially causing greater harm than a sunburn.
Your blood vessels are at a layer below the dermis but visible light can reach there! That is why your veins carrying red blood appear green/blue because that’s the end of the visible spectrum that more easily reaches your veins and also makes its way back up through your skin to the retina of your eye!
Is Morning Sun Good or Bad for You? [top]
The short answer is – “it depends”
Of course, having the sun out in the morning is great because it means that you can see without having to turn the lights on. However, between the morning and mid-day sun, it is the mid-day sun that is more beneficial as that is when the UVB rays reach your skin and do their magic in the epidermis. It is not about the time of day (morning vs mid-day) but the fact that when the angle of the sun is high (e.g. directly overhead) that the UVB rays of the sun are able to reach you through the earth’s atmosphere (as they have a smaller length of atmosphere to fight through).
The UVA light that does not burn your skin much reaches deeper into your dermis causing DNA damage. That is what is likely to cause you more serious problems than a bit of sunburn. Although UVB (B=beneficial) light can cause sunburn (nice to avoid) it is UVA light that will eventually make your skin wrinkle and lose its elasticity i.e. tightness sooner. When it comes to sunburn, the responsibility lies 15% with UVA and 85% with UVB light. The UVB light of the midday sun is not what will cause wrinkles. The UVA light which is there during midday and is also there in the morning and late afternoon is what will cause wrinkles (if exposed for too long over many years).
Why is Mid-Day Sun Good for You? [top]
I am in a part of the world today where even at 9am the sun’s angle is steep enough to send UVB light onto me. On the other hand, when I am in London during a bright and sunny Christmas afternoon, none of the beneficial UVB light will reach me even at noon.
If you are about as old as I am or older, you would have been told that it is the morning sun that is good for you, and you must stay out of the strong mid-day sun. Given that now science tells us otherwise, please let others know too. Especially if they publish or read school science books that might still contain outdated (and harmful) information.
Why Are We Not Getting Enough? [top]
In the last few decades, with a larger fraction of the world becoming urban, as more jobs moved from farms to factories and into offices, there has been, by design, less exposure to the sun through a typical year.
For those who have been urban since birth, after some play in the sun through school years, once within an office setting, there has been increasing economic pressure to be at one’s desk for a greater fraction of sunlight hours.
Racism – We cannot escape the unfortunate history of racism and ignore its current prevalence. While white-skinned people, since the latter half of the 20th century, have enjoyed ‘looking tanned’ by choice without losing their white privilege, others in the spectrum from white to the blackest black have often had to deal with issues around skin colour, often from people of their own race too.
At a national level, in countries with large populations and diverse skin colours, prejudice against darker skin exists – manifested in economic outcomes. This is true in India, the USA and Brazil (together, they are 25% of the world’s population). [top]
Status – Within a country with a relatively homogenous natural skin tone, sun-tanned skin is viewed favourably (in ‘white countries’) if it demonstrates that one has the financial luxury of enjoying beach holidays and skiing trips. In poorer countries, a darker skin tone indicates a lower socio-economic status (manual labour in the sun). [top]
Brainwashing exists at every level. I was fortunate enough to not need to notice differences in skin colour as a child in India. This is because I grew up in Mumbai in the 70s and 80s, a child of parents with very different skin tone (my father has ‘almost white’ skin where he isn’t tanned, my mother is whom I get my ‘medium brown’ from) and my 3 siblings are noticeably lighter-skinned than I am. In school, our teachers were of the entire skin tone spectrum from black to white and ‘skin colour’ was never a topic of discussion other than when learning about Gandhi and Apartheid in South Africa. With limited international media (we had our first black & white TV at home when I was 15) racism wasn’t an ‘ism’ that cropped into my thinking.
It troubles me to hear very fair-skinned Indian females (fair enough to be mistaken for being European when they travel) that they were called ‘dark’ in a disapproving tone by their own very fair-skinned mother. Matters are made worse when they are also compared with their sister who was praised for being ‘fair-skinned like milk’.
I think I was fortunate to never have to consider skin colour (until I faced racism in London, my place of birth when I went back there for high school) but today the situation is not the same for others. It troubles me that, for instance, the Chinese in Singapore and Hong Kong are constantly brainwashed into believing that they should be fair to be beautiful (i.e. purchase skin-whitening chemicals). The problem is not with having a preference for a specific colour, but with what that implies beyond just a trivial colour choice. For the health of the individual and for the intellectual maturity of a nation, paying attention to skin colour with a ‘bias for lighter’ should be discouraged. [top]
Marriage and Parenting are both reasonably stressful with, hopefully, great sources of joy. As a white person, you have to teach your child about white privilege and not deny its existence. As a non-white person, if you attempt to enter the marriage market with no sun exposure, it might land you a (skin) fairness-loving partner, but you run the risk of poor health yourself, lower chances of pregnancy, lower chance of a healthy and happy pregnancy, greater risk of post-natal depression and higher health risks for your future child. [top]
Science Research, Pharma Research, Doctors vs Truth [top]
The Science Research is limited but on-going. Conclusion so far – you need sun exposure, but there are best protocols to follow for maximizing the payoff. The reason I am telling you about sun exposure today is that the payoff is positive if you are sensible. My own approach to problem-solving tends to be evidence-based. Partly science publications, partly small data collection for myself.
Research sponsored or conducted by the pharmaceutical industry we should all have a strong bias against. Remember, if something is free and good for you, you will not find a profit-seeking entity encouraging information about it reaching you. That is especially the case if they are selling you factory-produced chemicals that they claim are an equally good alternative. When is the last time you saw a pharmaceutical company advertising that you should fast for better health?
In most countries currently, medical doctors tend to be biased in financial favour of the pharmaceutical industry, whether they want to admit it to themselves or not, and whether they believe it or not. And even when they do not want to be biased, their actions tend to be biased, perhaps as nudged by their superiors (in turn, nudged by the shareholders of the sick care centre) – biased towards increasing pharmaceutical sales.
Heliotherapy (sunlight therapy) was prescribed in the West from the time of the ancient Greeks (and my guestimate is, in India, even earlier). Western doctors prescribed it from the 19th century onwards with encouragement to white mothers to allow their babies to get a tan.
Phototherapy (using artificial UV light) was used in the middle of the 20th century in order to ‘monetize’ the science by selling UV lamps (when the sun is free). Paying for the lamp (using up the earth’s resources) is bad enough, but it also started to move our focus away from the sun as a free source of good health.
From the 1960s, especially with the widespread use of penicillin, the mindset of patients and doctors changed to believing that good health could be obtained from a pill. Solar Power was then Lost!!
The truth is the truth and we should continue to seek it. Bring Solar Power back into your life.
RISK, RETURN & TRADEOFF [top]
Risk, Return & F**koff [top]
There is a risk associated with sun exposure like there is risk associated with any kind of exposure. It is unwise to ignore the benefits of sun exposure. The choice of how much and what kind of sun exposure you get is what will determine your happiness over time. Yes, literally, besides increasing sun exposure actually increasing your level of happiness, your choice of duration/type of sun exposure is something you should assess based on your specific circumstances, preferences and goals.
The important thing is for you to THINK about your specific circumstances, preferences and your goals across many time horizons. Combine those with what we know from science and make a plan. Remember, it’s a tradeoff that YOU need to consider. If someone doesn’t like your considered choice based on the tradeoffs you perceive, they can f**koff.
Skin Burning [top]
It must be common sense to you that you must avoid skin burning. Beware though that applying creams that prevent skin burn often still allow UVA light to go deeper into you. That could actually be more harmful than a slight burn. A sunburn warns you that you’ve had a bit more than what is safe for you. (See implementation.)
You can never get toxic levels of Vitamin-D production from the sun.
External supplementation can lead to toxic levels. This is not an unusual phenomenon i.e. toxicity is not specific to just Vitamin-D through pills/injections. There is a reason that every pharmaceutical aid comes with a dose prescription (how much and when) that should ideally be customized to your physiology but is becoming a reality only now in the 21st century, and very slowly.
Please be aware that there are medications that you might be on that can already lower your Vitamin-D levels by force!
Cancer Risk & Cancer Return [top]
Skin Cancer Risk [top]
All other things being equal, a lighter-skinned person is at a greater risk of skin cancer than a darker-skinned person. Neither needs to have skin cancer if they get the appropriate quantity and quality of sun exposure. Skin cancer risks are very low and rarely lead to death!
Cancer Return [top]
Sun exposure reduces the risk of many cancers – you don’t see billions being spent on advertising that!
Sunscreen lotion manufacturers will earn a global revenue of $25 billion by 2024 and so think twice before you use their products that are made from a host of chemicals that are unsafe and may increase your risk of other forms of cancer. In addition, be aware that a sunscreen that protects you from your superficial skin burn (UVB rays) may still allow DNA damaging (UVA rays) to cause you harm.
Alternatives to Sunscreen [top]
If you have to go out in the harmful sun there are lower-cost alternatives than potentially harmful sunscreen. If you remember the Internal-External-Divide you will like the idea of avoiding slathering yourself with chemicals and can simply use an umbrella along with clothes that cover your skin.
The most popular (researched and talked about) chemical for the body from the sun is Vitamin-D. Vitamin-D is not a vitamin but a steroid hormone that your body produces in your skin when the UVB rays of the high angle sun reach your skin.
Vitamin-D is extremely important, controlling around 22% of your body’s processes – way, way, way more important than the “strong bones and teeth” reductionist approach advice that most sickness professionals (doctors) and supplement manufacturers rave on about. Even when it comes to Vitamin-D, a lot of the processes and pathways for better health that include Vitamin-D are not clearly understood. For example, the extent to which your gut microbiota mediates the benefits of Vitamin-D is not yet fully documented. It is possible that poor gut health might prevent you from benefiting from sun exposure or the Vitamin-D containing food you eat.
Beyond Vitamin-D [top]
Autoimmune Disorders – are often cured or provided symptomatic relief e.g. Lupus sufferers often avoid the sun as they are sensitive to it; someone I mentor who suffered from Lupus symptoms for more than 10 years, and avoided the sun, was able to go into the sun and was free of symptoms just 3 months after her multi-pronged improvement in lifestyle – now, I am pretty sure that any appropriate sun exposure she gains will reduce the risk of Lupus and other autoimmune disorders [top]
Brain Health – cognitive function and brain response time is improved with increased exposure to the sun [top]
Blood Cells – both energy (red blood cells) and immunity (white blood cells) are improved in both quantity and quality [top]
Blood Pressure – is reduced because of nitric oxide released into the bloodstream – this effect is produced by both UVA (deep penetration, all sunlight) exposure and UVB (low penetration, mid-day, skin-darkening) exposure [top]
Circadian Rhythm – The main control centre in your brain is reset by bright light – you can get that by simply looking at a brightly lit sky in the morning; in fact even if the sky is dull and grey but you can view an expanse of it, you can correctly signal to your physical self (brain and body) that it is the start of a day [top]
Depression – patients suffering from depression in northern countries can get artificial light exposure daily to cure their condition; but if you have access to actual sunlight, drop the antidepressant pill and its negative side-effects and get some actual sunlight with its many positive side effects! [top]
Fibromyalgia – patients can get relief from many of the agonizing symptoms of fibromyalgia from appropriate sun exposure [top]
Immune System – whether it is to be unaffected by the “flu season” or “eliminate the risk of TB” sun exposure could play a role for you too! [top]
Mood & Emotion – It is the ß-Endorphin produced in your epidermis (UVB light, mid-day) that reaches your brain to elevate your mood, so even if you are not clinically depressed, you can use the sun to improve your mood [top]
Neurological Diseases – Alzheimer’s, Motor Neuron Disease and Parkinson’s have all been addressed with different levels of success with sun exposure; amongst people I have known first-hand, I have seen all 3 of these illnesses in adults who have tended to avoid the sun (to stay ‘fair’?); Multiple Sclerosis incidence risk lowering has also been associated with greater sun exposure [top]
Pain Relief – the natural pain-relief from ß-Endorphin produced in your skin from UVB exposure has been estimated to be 33x the analgesic potency as morphine. You do not need a difficult-to-get prescription to be in the sun, and improper use of morphine can definitely hasten death. [top]
Pathogens – sunlight acts as an antimicrobial and as an antiseptic [top]
PMS – sun exposure provides relief from negative PMS symptoms [top]
SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder – is depression because you are not getting enough sunlight [top]
Skin Diseases – from acne to psoriasis (another autoimmune disorder) there have been reports of improvements in skin ailments from UV light exposure – get it from the sun! [top]
Sleep – quality is improved [top]
Safety First [top]
As with everything – better to be safe than sorry. That means you should get sun exposure for better health, but you must not overdo it. If your skin burns, you are overdoing it. The skin burn itself is not a long-term problem. In fact, it is a ‘safe warning’ with the downside of some short-term irritation. The more insidious risk is that, whereas skin burn is superficial from UVB light (which is otherwise beneficial), the UVA light goes deeper into the dermis to cause DNA damage that you may not be conscious of.
The Money is in the Detail [top]
Age – even if you are older and have a reduced capacity to manufacture Vitamin-D, you will still produce enough for your needs [top]
Gender – Women – to the extent that certain autoimmune disorders are more prevalent in women, women should, perhaps, get more sun than they are currently. Non-white women who are chasing ‘fairness’ for beauty should reassess their priorities. This is especially the case if they tend to ‘feel low’ or suffer from ‘skin issues’ they cannot explain. It is also worthwhile noting that sun exposure reduces the risk of breast cancer too! It does not make sense to me that one should take steps to avoid good health to be ‘fair and lovely’ for a man and then find it difficult to conceive or to increase the risk of autism (one conclusion from some research) in their male child. Priorities! [top]
Gender – Men – if men are not bothered by the darkness of their skin, they should get appropriate sun exposure, especially as it has been associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer. [top]
Race or Skin Tone – if you are fair, you are fortunate that you can produce Vitamin-D faster in the high sun than I can; the greater concentration of protective melanin in my skin reduces my risk of DNA damage (that may lead to cancer) so I need to spend more time in UVB afternoon light than you do. The flip side (nature is awesome) is that I almost never burn even in the very hot and harsh sun. [top]
Frequency, Timing & Coordinates – get your sun exposure during the right hours of the day that will vary depending on your geographical coordinates, time of year and altitude. I use this tool to plan the timing of my sun exposure. It is better to get frequent (e.g. 10 mins daily) rather than intense (e.g. 2 hours on a Sunday) exposure, as the dose is more likely to be hormetic rather than traumatic. [top]
Heatstroke & Dehydration – besides avoiding a sunburn, you have to be careful that you do not suffer from heatstroke or get too dehydrated. Be safe, but also don’t be paranoid and stressed out! [top]
Economic Migrants – face a risk that many are not aware of. White people working in India (we call them ex-pats as part of their white privilege) run the risk of harmful sun exposure if they overdo it – but they must get out for a short while in the high sun. Dark-skinned people who live in Europe or North America (called ‘economic migrants’, not ex-pats) run lots of health risks from inadequate sun exposure. If you are Indian and live in Toronto, you have been warned. If you are Pakistani and live in London, you have been warned too. My African-American friends would do well to pay attention to where they spend their time when the sun is high up and consider whether it might be better to move from New York to Florida or to San Diego! New York will not permit Vitamin-D production (no matter how sunny) between November and March, whereas Florida will allow you to do so throughout the year! [top]
Vitamin-D Supplementation [top]
When you manufacture Vitamin-D in your skin, its bioavailability in your body is for 2-3 times longer than if you take it in through other methods.
Food – is typically a poor source of Vitamin-D compared with the sun. [top]
Pharmaceutical – Whether you believe in the usefulness of Vitamin-D supplementation, it is important to express the much higher value you believe the sun has for you beyond just a higher reading for Vitamin-D in your blood. You can do that by getting the right type of sun exposure.
The current understanding in parts of the scientific community is that Vitamin-D supplementation (i.e. not naturally from the sun) has only an associative relationship and not a causal impact on bone health. There is no robustly identified beneficial impact on other benefits of Vitamin-D when it comes from supplementation e.g. reduction in heart-attacks or all-cause-mortality.
I used to supplement some sun exposure with Vitamin-D and would recommend a detailed protocol for intake and blood measurements to those who were deficient in Vitamin-D (as measured in the blood). It has been almost a year since I have stopped doing that. My focus is now on sun exposure only! (There will be some Vitamin-D intake through the mostly-vegan minimally-processed food that I consume.) [top]
Vegans – Most vegans are unaware that just about all the Vitamin-D supplements are obtained from sheep! Instead of trusting what ‘vegan Vitamin-D’ says on the label, or what its actual benefits are, just head out for a walk before lunchtime today! At least it’s free and the results are guaranteed! [top]
Sunburn Threshold [top]
Although sunburn doesn’t feel or look pleasant, it is important to worry about it less than about chronic exposure to UVA light. For instance, let’s imagine that you accidentally burn at noon one day because you fell asleep for 60 mins on your terrace or patio on a summer Sunday. That one-off exposure may well be better for you than 10 mins in the early morning sun for a week.
So, how can you know your sunburn threshold? I believe that your sunburn threshold is time-varying and path-dependent. How can you use that thinking? Say, you are someone who was told to avoid the sun e.g. if you now have skin that is sensitive to the sun because of Lupus, you might have no issues with 30 mins of strong summer sun a year from now. Knowing that it is time-varying and our principle of ‘safety first’, my suggestion is to progress with baby steps knowing that, although it’s best to avoid a burn, you are worse off getting no appropriate sun exposure.
Combining with Other Protocols [top]
By now you might be aware of my intense focus on efficient use of resources (your time and your planet).
I try to combine fasting, exercise and socializing with sun exposure as all 4 are good for me. I will admit that what I do is not everyone’s cup of tea.
For example, I ran in 45°C (113°F) yesterday at noon in the middle of a 22 hour fast. If I want to socialize, I might walk-talk in that hot sun with someone I mentor. The benefits accrue to those who do it! The planet is also happier because I did not turn on a UV lamp, exploit sheep for Vitamin-D, or contribute that little bit more to the not-spoken-about pollution by the pharma industry.
As you become more robust by combining good lifestyle protocols, you will automatically be happier and the planet will become healthier too. [read: How Green are My Movements?]
Limiting Unknown Risks [top]
If you want to limit the risk of “unknown unknowns” or “you don’t know what you don’t know” then you can limit your ‘sun exposure risk’ by sleeping right, eating right, giving up alcohol for good, never smoking, and getting appropriate physical exercise into your life. You only die once, you can live thousands of times in this life, you might as well live them all well like I do!
If you are someone who is guaranteed to get the appropriate sun exposure through the week, month and year, without any tweaks or changes to your lifestyle, then there is no real need to log it.
If you have to consciously increase your sun exposure, you should log it daily. Even a simple binary (“yes, the sun found my skin” vs “no, my skin hid from the sun”) is a good start. I also log my rough geographical coordinates and the start and end time (gives me ‘duration’) along with the type of exposure (e.g. shorts or shorts + vest) and any other tags (e.g. while speaking to Mum or running around the village).
FINAL TAKEAWAY [top]
In the 16th century, Galileo said, “The sun, with all those planets revolving around it and dependent on it, can still ripen a bunch of grapes as if it had nothing else in the universe to do.”
In the 21st century, if you will eat grapes for their health benefits (and not drink carcinogenic wine) you too could live by my motto “Better to be Tight and Tanned, than Fair and Fat” to engineer a long Healthspan for yourself!
As always, I hope you found this note useful. If you did, please share it with your family and friends.
I hope to bump into you in the afternoon sun…
Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.