There's no debating the fact that sunlight is hard on your skin. It causes premature aging, and the sun's UV light causes sunburn, skin damage, and skin cancer. In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 90 percent of skin cancer is caused by sun exposure External Site. Using tanning beds also increases your risk.
That said, a little sun exposure is good for you, especially early in the day before it’s at its brightest. UV rays help the body maintain healthy vitamin D levels. Vitamin D is important for your bones, blood cells and immune system. In addition to the sun's rays, you can get Vitamin D from many foods, including:
- Fatty fish like tuna and salmon
- Cheese and egg yolks
- Foods fortified with vitamin D, like dairy products, orange juice and cereal
How much sun is safe?
The answer varies depending on your skin tone, what time of the day you are outside and where you live. Most studies show 5–15 minutes — up to 30 minutes if you’re dark-skinned — is enough time in the sun without it causing health problems. People with pale skin who sunburn easily need only a few minutes, and should likely stay out of the sun altogether during peak hours. Plus, some studies suggest that suddenly getting a lot of sun is more dangerous than steady exposure over time.
Tanning = skin damage
“There is a misconception that tanned skin looks healthy; however, there is no such thing as a healthy tan,” says Jill Ireland, health systems manager at the American Cancer Society. “Any change in a person’s natural skin color is a sign of skin damage. Tanning greatly increases the risk of developing skin cancer.”
Skin cancer facts
Skin cancer includes basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma and other uncommon skin cancers. It's by far the most common type of cancer in the U.S. Melanoma is the deadliest of the skin cancers.
- Melanoma is the second most common form of cancer for young adults 15–29 years old.
- In 2019 alone, an estimated 98,480 Americans are expected to be diagnosed with melanoma and 7,320 will die from the disease.
- Your risk of melanoma before age 35 increases 59 percent with use of indoor tanning devices.
- Approximately $5.3 billion dollars are spent each year on treatment costs for melanoma.
There are many ways to protect your skin from harmful UV radiation, including seeking shade when you can, wearing protective clothing, generously applying sunscreen, not letting your skin tan or burn and avoiding indoor tanning devices.
“As a parent or caregiver, it’s your responsibility to protect your children, as they tend to spend more time outdoors and could burn more easily,” says Ireland.
Spot a good sunscreen
Sunscreen is an important tool to protect yourself against too many UV rays. But, with so many options and the confusing labels on each bottle, it can get pretty overwhelming.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
- SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays.
- Broad spectrum protects against both UVA and UVB rays External Site.
- Check expiration dates. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires all sunscreens be marked with one unless the product has been proven to last at least three years. So unless your sunscreen bottle is stamped with a specific expiration date, you can assume it's good for three years past its purchase date.
How to apply:
- Be generous. One ounce (about a palm-ful) should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck and face.
- Don’t forget hands, feet and underarm area.
- Reapply at least every 2 hours, more often if you’re in and out of water or sweating.
Other sun safety advice:
- Wear sunglasses
- Wear a hat
- Seek shade (especially between 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.)
- Cover up with clothing
Check your spots
Skin cancer can develop anywhere on the skin. Ask someone for help in checking your skin, especially in hard to see places. If you notice a mole that's different from others, or that changes, enlarges, itches or bleeds (even if it is small), you should see a dermatologist.
Find a dermatologist or other specialty provider by logging in to myWellmark®.
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- Health.Harvard.edu — Benefits of moderate sun exposure External Site
- Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov — Recommended summer sunlight exposure levels can produce sufficient (> or =20 ng ml(-1)) but not the proposed optimal (> or =32 ng ml(-1)) 25(OH)D levels at UK latitudes External Site
- Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov — Sun and sun beds: inducers of vitamin D and skin cancer External Site
- Time.com — Does sunscreen expire External Site