One of the best things about summer days is that everyone’s mood is lifted a little when the sun shines. During the walk to work or a weekend trip to the beach, its warm rays on your face just make you feel good, but it’s what happens under the surface that’s the real magic.
As the sun hits our skin, our bodies use the light to produce a vital ingredient of good health: vitamin D. Essential for healthy bones and teeth, as it helps the body absorb calcium, vitamin D also protects against certain diseases and supports many of the body’s functions. While we wish it was easy as running outside naked to soak up as much as we can, we know that the sun has its dangers too. How do we find the balance?
To mark UV Awareness Month in July, we’ve gathered the ways you can make the most of the sun’s health-boosting powers while avoiding the dangers.
What is vitamin D, and why do I need it?
Technically a hormone rather than a true vitamin, the body relies on the sun’s UV light to convert it into vitamin D. While the fat-soluble compound can also be found in certain foods and supplements, it’s no match for your self-made variety. Strong bones, teeth, and muscles need vitamin D, and it helps to regulate insulin, supports our immune and nervous systems, and protects against some diseases and cancers. Vitamin D deficiency can result in an increased risk of sickness or infection, fatigue, low mood and depression, hair loss, muscle pain, and back pain—no one wants any of that!
How much sun will give me the vitamin D I need?
It’s impossible to put a number of minutes on the exposure that is recommended as many factors can affect your body’s ability to produce vitamin D: UV strength is higher near the equator and at high altitudes; sunscreens limit UV absorption; people with dark skin require longer in the sun to produce the same amount of vitamin D as those with lighter skin; clothing and how much skin is exposed has an impact. Generally speaking, from spring to fall most people can make all the vitamin D they need by simply getting outside daily for short periods with their forearms, hands or lower legs uncovered, especially between 11 am and 3 pm. The key here is short periods—the midday sun is strong—so any longer than 10–30 minutes without sun protection must be avoided. You can still produce a little vitamin D wearing sunscreen, as no sunscreen is able to block UV rays completely.
Is it safe to be in the sun?
Following the right guidelines, yes. You should avoid the sun without sun protection between 11 am and 3 pm if it is going to be for more than 10–30 minutes. You should never allow your skin to burn. Ever. If your time in the sun is going to be prolonged, or your skin is particularly sensitive, cover up with light clothing and a hat, wear sunglasses with UV protection, seek shade when you can, and apply at least SPF30 sunscreen 30 minutes before going out.
SPF ratings tell you how long it would take the sun’s UV radiation to burn your skin, as long as you use the product exactly as directed, versus wearing no sunscreen at all. Wearing SPF30, it would take you 30 times longer to burn, SPF50 would take 50 times longer, and so on. If your skin starts to redden, you should seek shade immediately and stay there. Reapply the sunscreen to any skin exposed to the skin (and even under light clothing, like t-shirts) as directed, at least every two hours, and immediately after sweating or swimming.
What are the dangers of too much sun?
UVA and UVB are the main parts of the sun’s UV radiation. UVA is responsible for the most visibly obvious side effects of over-exposure, like aging skin and damaged hair, but the UVB dangers are much more concerning, including cancer and significant eye problems. Getting mild sunburn just once every two years has been found to triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.
Be aware of the sun’s strength in different weather and locations, and don’t let it catch you out—over 90% of UV light can pass through clouds, while water, sand, and snow can reflect up to 80% of the sun’s rays, increasing the intensity.
What about winter?
Sadly, no matter how much sun you get over the darker months of winter—unless you’re skiing, then see the point above—it’s unlikely your body will be able to make the vitamin D it needs. Instead of tanning beds, which are definitely not advised, look to eating more foods rich in vitamin D, including eggs, cheese, mushrooms, and oily fish like salmon and tuna. Some cereals, juices, and milks are fortified with vitamin D too. Natural vitamin D supplements are available, but you should consult a nutritionist or doctor to check how much is right for you. As vitamin D is fat-soluble, combine any supplements with plenty of healthy fats.
Can I get too much?
It’s almost impossible to overdose on vitamin D if you are getting it from your diet and the sun. Although people can take vitamin D supplements safely, very high doses can mean excess amounts build up to levels that could be dangerous, particularly during pregnancy or with certain medical conditions. Don’t exceed recommended doses for your age group and personal circumstances, and check with a doctor if you’re unsure.
8fit Pro members can find lots of healthy, vitamin D-rich meal ideas plus a new series of outdoor workouts that will allow you to soak up the sun’s goodness as you work up a sweat.