The Sun And Your Skin – It’s Complicated

Living in Florida, most of my patients, like myself, enjoy being out in the sun all year long. Now that it’s summer across the United States, you, too, are more likely to get out in the sun.  I want to remind you, though, that when it comes to the relationship between your skin and the sun, things can get a little complicated.  You love the sun, you need sunlight on your skin, but you have to exercise a little caution too.   Here’s what I mean.

Love The Sun But Also Love Your Skin

When I talk to my patients about their skin and regulating sun exposure – especially during the summer months – they are always amazed to learn that their skin is not just an inert covering around their muscles and bones.  It’s actually a very large manufacturing center for your entire body.

In fact, skin is the largest organ in your entire body that regulates your body temperature, acts as a barrier for germs and viruses, relays messages to your brain through nerve endings, protects your immune system by helping your body manufacture Vitamin D in the fat cell layer, and filters out toxins in your body through sweat.  As such, special consideration needs to be taken when exposing this very important organ to the hot summer sun for long periods of time.

Here are some things you need to know:

  • Sun exposure:  Now, most sun exposure advice has been to stay out of the strongest sun between 10 am and 4 pm. However, this advice runs counter to the need your body has for unfiltered sun on your skin for about 15-20 minutes, several times a week, to make enough Vitamin D. Current research has proven that adequate vitamin D levels help protect your body against a number of diseases including 17 types of cancer, depression, osteoporosis and more.  Recent studies also show a correlation between heart disease, heart attack and low vitamin D levels.   If your skin is completely covered by clothing or sunscreen agents when you go out in the sun, you will not get enough sunlight to create vitamin D and your health will suffer.

With new research findings in mind, I recommend that my adult patients spend 15 minutes in the sun between 11 a.m. and 12 noon without sunscreen at least 4 days a week (children 6 months and under should not be placed in direct sunlight like this).  In this amount of time, your body manufactures about 15,000 units of Vitamin D.  If you are a dark-skinned person, of Latino, Indian or African descent, I suggest even longer exposure at one time, without sunscreen, as it takes darker skin up to 6 times longer to make the same amount of vitamin D that a fairer skinned person does. Also, very obese people need longer sun exposure because fat under the skin also blocks UV rays.  Don’t worry, though, your body self-regulates the amount of vitamin D it makes naturally through sunlight, so you don’t need to be concerned about making too much.  I do recommend, however, that if you take a vitamin D3 supplement, that you cut back on it, or stop taking it altogether, if you are spending a lot of time in the summer sun, especially if you live south of Atlanta, Georgia. If you live north of Atlanta, and it is frequently overcast, or you can’t get 15-20 minutes unprotected summer sun every day, then supplement with 1,000 units D3 a day.

  • Sunscreens:  For a day in the sun, at the beach, or a picnic in a sunny park, I recommend using a light sunscreen of SPF-15 on exposed skin after your 15-20 minutes of unprotected sunlight.  However, you should know that some commercial sunscreens have been in the research hot seat lately for some of the chemicals they contain that actually promotes health damage.  There are some natural-based sunscreens on the market now that don’t contain these toxic chemicals that I suggest you switch to. These are usually found in health food stores or online.   Also, mixing a little zinc oxide with coconut oil or olive oil and applying to sensitive areas like nose, cheeks, and shoulders, helps prevent sunburn without toxic chemicals.
  • Hydration:  Frequently exposing your skin to the sun in the summer can also dehydrate you and your skin.  Be sure to drink enough water every day, and more, if you are out in the sun sweating a lot.  Always drink at least half your body weight in water – if you weigh 190 lbs, you should be drinking at least 95 ounces of water a day.
  • Skin Health:  As your skin is the first line of defense barrier against bacteria, molds, viruses, and other organisms, keeping your skin intact, without cracks, cuts, etc, is important.  Watch for any undue dryness due to sun exposure that may cause tiny fissures that can become an open door for germs.  This dryness starts to be noticeable on the skin of the feet, heels and soles, especially if you walk barefoot, or wear flip-flop sandals.  Use a good moisturizer that not only keeps skin soft but also provides an additional moisture barrier against the start of skin infections.
  • Photosensitivity/Medications/Cosmetics: Certain medications, or cosmetics you use may have a side effect called photosensitivity.  This means that with unprotected sun exposure, you may react with a skin rash, swelling, or itching. Be sure to read the product insert from your pharmacy or ask your doctor.  Avoid using citrus-based essential oils (orange, bergamot and lime) perfumes or moisturizers in the sun as these can result in a nasty skin reaction or burn.
  • Antioxidants: You can help prevent skin damage from the sun if you get enough antioxidants through your food or through supplements.  These include beta carotene (1,000 units a day), vitamins C (1,000 mg) and mixed tocopherols and tocotrienol Vitamin E (400 mg), selenium (200 mcg a day), alpha lipoic acid (200-400 mg), Omega-3s that help keep skin soft and hydrated (2,000-4,000 mg a day).

Summer is definitely the time for fun in the sun.   It’s perfectly okay to love the sun and want to spend as much time as possible in it.  However, I just suggest you love your skin, just as much as the rest of your body, and take preliminary precautions to get all the wonderful health benefits from the sun without the damage of sunburn or other skin damage.

Stay well,
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.
Natural Health News


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Jay Brachfeld, M.D.

Dr. Jay H. Brachfeld is a dermatologist in Boca Raton, Florida and is affiliated with West Boca Medical Center. He received his medical degree from University at Buffalo, School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and has been in practice for more than 20 years.

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