As summer hits full force, it’s important to remember that sunshine brings both health benefits and risks. Sun exposure allows us to make vitamin D, which protects us against osteoporosis, heart disease, and many types of cancer. It also elevates our mood. On the other hand, it can burn our skin, age us prematurely, and increase our risk for skin cancer. As with so many things, moderation is key.
Sunlight is a powerful antidote for depression. In winter, many people suffer from seasonal affective disorder, a type of depression made worse by short, dark winter days. Recommended cures? Sunlight or phototherapy (exposure to light that mimics the sun). When I’m working with patients suffering from depression, I often recommend spending some time outdoors as part of their treatment plan.
Sunlight is also essential for our bodies to manufacture vitamin D, essential for strong bones. And babies who are born with jaundice (a yellowing of the skin caused by excess bilirubin) are put under a blue light so the ultraviolet rays can permeate the skin and break down the bilirubin until the baby’s liver can catch up.
The problem is that not all sunshine is created equal. Sunshine exposes us to ultraviolet (UV) radiation through UVA rays and UVB rays. UVA rays are more common and less harmful than UVB rays. While UVA rays most commonly cause premature aging (photoaging), UVB rays are more likely to cause sunburns, inflammation, hyperpigmentation (darkening of the skin) and skin cancer.
Whenever people plan to spend extended periods in the sun, they should wear sunscreen and/or sun protection. This is true for both light- or dark-skinned people, though light-skinned people are more likely to burn in the sun. The most effective sunscreen is broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30, applied 15-30 minutes before sun exposure and allowed to dry for at least two minutes before dressing. It should be reapplied every two hours, and more frequently if you’re swimming or sweaty. Broad-spectrum sunscreen absorbs both UVA and UVB rays.
If you just can’t bring yourself to wear sunscreen, choose clothing that protects you. Many brands offer clothing with SPF ratings. And hats that cover your face, ears, and neck are a great idea. The truth is, I love the sun. I wish it were healthy to spend all day outside with my skin exposed, but having seen the dangers of over-exposure, I reluctantly grab my hat and sun-shirt as I head out the door.
The best-case scenario from too much sun is a sunburn. The worst case is skin cancer, which comes in many forms and can cause problems from disfigurement to death. You can use the ABCs (actually, the ABCDEs) to determine whether you have any moles that fit the profile of a high-risk lesion. If any of your moles have any of the following characteristics, please schedule an appointment with a medical provider as soon as possible.
- Asymmetrical – irregular shape, not circular, not even
- Borders – uneven or jagged borders
- Color – multicolored, spotty, light and dark areas in a single mole
- Diameter – larger than a pea
- Evolving – noticeably changing over the course of weeks or months, either because of how they look or how they feel (suddenly itchy, catching on a bra strap)
In addition to protecting yourself, please protect any children in your care. Requiring sunscreen or insisting on hats and sun clothing can feel like a battle you don’t want to fight, but trust me when I tell you this battle is far easier than the battle against aggressive skin cancer.
Sarah Beach, NP, is a primary care provider at MCHC Health Centers—a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.