To tan or not to tan – The risks and benefits

These days we all know about the dangers of sun exposure - it can lead to skin damage, skin cancer, and melanoma. But not so long ago it was advised to get a “healthy” tan and to soak up the sun to stay looking and feeling good. This is further complicated by the latest news that many of us are not getting enough vitamin D due to our habit of staying indoors. So what is the right advice and how much of a summer glow can we get before the benefits are outweighed by the risks- to tan or not to tan, that is the question.

What are the benefits of sunlight

The most obvious benefit of the UV light that comes from the sun is the vitamin D that we absorb via our skin. Vitamin D is incredibly important when it comes to calcium absorption and low levels can lead to osteoporosis, low muscle strength in the elderly and can even lead to problems with depression and low mood.

There is also research that suggests that there may be a protective effect from sun exposure when it comes to certain cancers such as prostate, breast and pancreatic cancer. There are also some studies that indicate that people diagnosed with cancer in the summer have better outcomes than those diagnosed in the winter due to the added sunlight exposure.

The UV light is also thought to reduce blood pressure and inflammation as those people who live in countries with higher latitudes have higher blood pressure and the effect is seasonal. Doctors even use UVB radiation to treat mild hypertension. Skin conditions such as psoriasis also react positively to sunlight.

What are the risks of sunlight?

We all know about the risk of skin cancer from exposure to sunlight – especially if we become burnt. But there are plenty of other reasons to avoid the sun. One of these is wrinkles. Your skin is easily damaged by sunlight which can destroy collagen and cause the skin to thin. The UV radiation is also thought to cause cataracts and could even be responsible for some autoimmune diseases such as lupus which gets worse when the weather is sunny.

To tan or not to tan, that is the question?

It seems that we need to both get enough sunlight and get none at all. A halfway house is probably the answer. The following are some tips to get just enough sunlight, but not too much:

  • The most important thing you can do is avoid getting sunburnt when you do go into the sun.
  • Get to know your skin. How quickly do you burn? What parts of your body burn the easiest? You can then judge more easily the amount of sunlight you can handle.
  • Understand the strength of the sun where you live. Avoid the sun during the hottest parts of the day and at times of the year when you are likely to burn.
  • If you suspect vitamin D deficiencies you should aim to get about 30 minutes of sunlight each day, but not enough to burn.
  • Build up your exposure to sunlight during the summer months and never spend a longer time out in the sun than you can handle.
  • Try to get your sunlight exposure during the less warm time of the day such as in the morning or late afternoon/evening.

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