Gorgeous weather here recently – sunshine, mid 60s to mid 70’s, sunshine, light breeze, sunshine, and did I mention sunshine? People are outside again. My kids have noticed that there is a palpable increase in energy among their classmates. Spring is sprung!
So we’re outside a lot more, happily taking in the warmth and the light. And the UV rays. And the conflicting caveats to stay-out-of-the-sun-so-you-don’t-get-skin-cancer and to get-enough-sunshine-so-your-body-can-make-enough-vitamin-D. Both of the caveats have merit, and a little practicality and balance can go a long way.
The sun can certainly harm us, but lack of sun can harm as well.
Sunburns are not good – aside from the temporary pain they cause (and the dehydration and infection risk, too, if they are serious burns), they are linked with a higher risk of melanoma (the least common but most deadly of the “big three” skin cancers: melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma). The later melanoma risk seems to occur when the sunburns occur during childhood (when folks in this country tend to get most of their sun exposure), but sunburns are not good for adults either. Cumulative lifetime sun exposure, in addition to increasing skin cancer risk, also causes generalized skin aging (wrinkles, sagging, etc.). The sun seems to do its harm through a combination of direct DNA damage and damage to the skin’s immune processes.
Of course looking directly at the sun can cause permanent, severe eye damage and blindness, but ambient sunlight exposure can harm our eyes also, as well as our skin. One biggie is that cumulative sun exposure is related to certain types of cataracts (clouding of the eye’s lense). An afternoon skiing/sledding, at the beach, out on the water, or out in the open without adequate eye protection can cause photokeratitis (“snowblindness,” a temporary (and painful) burn of the cornea due to bright, ambient sunlight intensified by reflection off snow, sand, concrete, etc.). Wearing sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB protection helps protect your eyes from bright ambient sunlight. And wide brimmed hats are quite helpful as well.
Lack of sunlight has its downsides. Seasonal Affective Disorder is depression that occurs during winter and early spring, thought to result from prolonged lack of sunlight. It is actually treated with light therapy. There are medical conditions that occur more frequently in areas with longer winters. The conditions are likely multi-factorial, but may certainly have a lack-of-sunlight component. Low vitamin D levels have been found more frequently in people with very little sun exposure.
Sunlight helps us regulate our circadian rhythms, and it’s simply a pleasure to be outside on days with bright blue skies.
So here’s what I do regarding me and my family and sun exposure:
We love being outside, and we get outside frequently. I find that the best time is in the early morning – it’s cool, the sun wakes me up, people are out but it’s not yet crowded and noisy everywhere, and there’s plenty of shade (since shadows are long). When there’s not plenty of shade, wide-brimmed hats, preferably ones with flaps to cover napes of necks, are essential (you can find great ones at Army/Navy stores). When outside during the part of the day when the sun is strongest (about 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the eastern edge of the time zone, and about 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on the western edge of the time zone), we seek shade (there’s still plenty of scattered ambient light to enjoy, and brief forays into direct sunlight in between shady spots allow for some vitamin D synthesis). When shade is not available, we make use of hats and sunglasses, protective clothing when practical, and use of a good sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher, UVA and UVB protection), applied thoroughly and frequently.
(Note: Sunscreen use has been associated with a decrease in risk of basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, but not of melanoma, so given what we know at this point, it’s still probably best to seek shade when possible, even when wearing sunscreen.)
We always keep hats and sunglasses in the car (it’s not difficult to find cheap sunglasses that block 100% of UVA and UVB). I keep sunscreen in my purse, and the kids keep it in their backpacks and sports bags, but we try to make use of shade and avoidance-of-peak-hour-sun in preference to sunscreen when possible (this is difficult to do at track meets, so we use a ton of sunscreen at those). We also use big golf umbrellas to shield ourselves from the sun at track meets or other similar outdoor spectator activities (tons of people do this – such a smart, basic idea, and I had never thought to do it until I saw it done at a high school meet a few years ago).
Happy spring! Happy sunshine! Enjoy your day! Enjoy being outside!