Great Ball of Fire: Can Sun Exposure Actually REDUCE Cancer Risk?

One of the perks of being “ethnic” is that I tan easily but rarely ever burn.  And I mean I get tanned really, really easily.   I’m talking going for a 20 minute jog at 9:00 in mid-June and coming back with sports-bra tan-lines.  Being the neurotic hypochondriac health-geek that I am,  this convinced me early on that I was going to get skin cancer by age 20.  After all, everyone knows that getting tan is a sign of skin damage, right? Between the none-too-few beach days from my childhood when sunscreen was forgotten (or the times my mother would grease us up with baby oil before sending us out to play in the backyard during the summer) and a family history of skin cancer from my Irish/Scandinavian side, I might not have been that far off base.  I spend much of high school and college slathering myself with sunblock before heading to school at 7:00, even in the winter, and avoiding as much sun exposure as possible in the spring and summer.  These days, I’ve lightened up quite a bit with the sun-phobia, and as a result I’m enjoy a bit more of a tan.

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See, it turns out that not all sun exposure is bad.  In fact, sun exposure can actually be good for you.  Exposure to the sun is what stimulates our bodies’ vitamin D production, which is crucial because vitamin D deficiency is a precursor to many diseases (including cancer).  Unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is pretty widespread (see more on symptoms and effects HERE), particularly in cultures where sun avoidance and extreme measures of sun protection (Who hasn’t at least considered upgrading their sunscreen from SPF 30 to the new SPF 90 formulations?) are deeply ingrained.  In addition to facilitating vitamin D production, proper sun exposure can:

  • increase your immunity
  • improve your hormone regulation and endocrine function
  • decrease inflammation
  • benefit mental health by increasing seretonin production

Chris Kresser covers all these benefits HERE, in his article on how sun exposure can lengthen your lifespan.

In addition, the right amount of sun exposure can help prevent skin cancer by improving your melanin production, increasing your protection against future sun burns (skin damage), and improving the repair capabilities of your DNA.  Skin cancer results from cellular damage inflicted upon DNA, such as that resulting from repeated sunburns or prolonged use of tanning beds.  Your body’s best defense against this cellular damage is melanin synthesis and DNA repair (see THIS study for more details), both of which are improved with moderate sun exposure.  The key, as described by Mark Sisson HERE, seems to be getting adequate sun exposure without incurring skin damage.  What constitutes adequate exposure will vary for each individual depending on their natural amount of melanin (the darker your skin, the more time you will need in the sun to stimulate vitamin D production and incur most of the other benefits).  No matter how much sun exposure you need, these general guidelines will apply:

  • Do not wear sunblock when you are trying to get some healthy sun exposure.  Wearing sunblock will prevent your body from taking any of the benefits of the sunlight.  Not only that, but many sunblock formulations are surprisingly ineffective at preventing cancer (see more on that HERE).  Most commercial sunblocks include ingredients that are potentially harmful, or even carcinogenic.  For a list of better-quality sunblock formulations, check THIS website (don’t forget to still check the ingredient lists and make sure they hold up).
  • Building up sun exposure should be gradual and intermittent.  If you are typically indoors all day long, don’t go sit in direct sunlight for an hour on a summer afternoon.  10 minutes of strolling, sunblock-free, in the morning, would be a good start.  After a couple weeks, you might add in a late-afternoon stroll.
  • When you begin to feel your skin becoming hot or starting to become pink (i.e. flushed but not burned), it’s time to head inside, or at least into some good shade).  Do not let your skin burn, or even tan significantly.
  • Gentler sunlight is best for most folks.  The afternoon is still the time when the sun is strongest and most damage can be incurred.  The risk:reward ratio is much better in the morning or late afternoon/early evening…not to mention, the temperature is typically more enjoyable at that time, too. If you must be out in the sun during the late morning or mid-afternoon, wear protective clothing (a hat, well-ventilated long sleeves/pants, etc.), and consider using a high-quality sunblock.  Again, the goal is gradual and intermittent sun exposure, not an all out UVB-ray binge-fest.  The most damaging effects of the sun are had when people who do not normally get exposure (i.e. office workers who conscientiously cover their exposed face/neck/etc. in sunblock each day) are suddenly subjected to a sudden and strong amount of sun exposure.
  • To maximize the benefits of your sun exposure, pair it with other health-promoting activities – go for a hike, weed your garden, take a swim, enjoy a picnic dinner (just be sure to invite me),  build something, walk your dog, read a book, etc.

Remember, the goal here is to let your skin become acclimated to gradual, intermittent sun exposure.  You still shouldn’t be laying out slathered in tanning oil, but you also don’t need to have a panic attack if you find yourself taking a stroll on a cloudy day without SPF 50 on every inch of exposed skin.  I’ve personally found that I feel better now that I am intentional about getting moderate sun exposure.  One of the best benefits, in my case, has been the absence of stress over making sure I’m coated in a thick layer of sunscreen whenever I’m out.  I’ve been paddleboarding twice in the past two weeks, and neither time did I wear sunblock.  I’ve got a couple little tan lines and an itch to get back out on the lake ASAP, but no regrets!  If you typically avoid sun exposure at all costs, I would highly recommend thinking about gradually increasing the amount of moderate sun exposure you get each week.

Let’s discuss:

How much sun exposure do you typically get?

Do you typically wear sunblock whenever you’re outdoors?

Do you feel differently when you have had some time in the sun vs. times when you have been primarily indoors?

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7 thoughts on “Great Ball of Fire: Can Sun Exposure Actually REDUCE Cancer Risk?

  1. Personally, being out in the sunshine is like spending time with God. Who else can surround me with so much warmth and indescribable good feeling all over?

    1. Haha, Mum….You would make your username be “daqueen.” And yes, time in the sun certainly can be a great way to feel the Lord’s presence.

  2. Thanks for posting this – as one who is quite pale and experiences sunburn (like the raging one I have right now) during most prolonged outings in the sun, I appreciate the thoughts and suggestions you shared, and the info from the other articles. Love your blog in general, by the way 🙂

    1. Thanks so much, Ashley! It was really eye-opening for me, too, when I started researching. I hope this proves helpful for you. 🙂

  3. Chris Kresser is the man. He always explains things in such an easy-to-understand manner.

    I am not a sunscreen-freak. Mostly because I hate the way it feels. I tan easily but I also am susceptible to sun rashes from too much exposure (sun poisoning in the form of red itchy rash), so that sucks. I do love some Vitamin D, though… and a good tan (whether that’s right or wrong, haha).

    PS- Your mom’s username is AWESOME. LOL!

    1. Oooh, sun rashes…I get that too, and sometimes it happens so fast I don’t realize it till after the fact! Really cute look, ya know?

      Don’t encourage her, haha! She has called herself queen for longer than I’ve been alive. (And my parents wonder how I got such a “dramatic,” or as I say, “passionate,” personality…)

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