Prevention & Recovery

The health benefits and health risks of sun exposure

Photography by John Hryniuk Image by: Photography by John Hryniuk Author: Canadian Living

Prevention & Recovery

The health benefits and health risks of sun exposure

Since researchers first discovered the link between UV rays and skin cancer, the medical community has been warning people about the dangers of too much sun. As a result, Canadians were taught to cover up by wearing sunscreen and hats, and to limit their exposure during peak sunshine hours (usually between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.). While that advice still applies, we now also know that soaking up a bit of sun can have real health benefits, too.

Benefits of sunlight
Vitamin D, the "sunshine vitamin," isn't easy to get from our diets—it's mostly made by our bodies when we are exposed to sunlight. We need it for strong bones (it helps us use calcium effectively) and to keep our muscles, nerves and immune system functioning properly.

Vitamin D deficiency is an issue in Canada, especially for people living in the far north. For this reason, vitamin D supplements are recommended for many Canadians, especially during the winter months. (For most people, taking 1000 international units per day is a good idea. If you're unsure, check with your doctor.) Some studies suggest there is a link between low levels of vitamin D and various diseases, including heart disease, cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Regular exposure to daylight also helps keep our mood steady and sets our body clock so that we can sleep well at night. It probably helps that sun exposure usually means fresh air and a little exercise, too!

Dangers of sunlight
Do the benefits of sunlight mean we should throw out the sunscreen? Not so fast. The evidence is still pretty clear that too much UV exposure is a health danger. Worldwide, an estimated one in three diagnosed cancers is a skin cancer, according to the Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation.

It's important to cover up during peak hours and to wear sunscreen if you plan to be outside for a long time. In fact, the amount of sunshine a person needs to get the benefits of Vitamin D is a mere eight minutes on one forearm. In other words, more isn't better.

Sun Safety
We need to remember that sunlight isn't all good or all bad. You can enjoy the sun, but be sure to take the following precautions:

Be aware of the risks of being outside, especially without sunscreen, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are much stronger.
Cover your arms and legs and wear sunglasses and a broad rimmed hat to protect yourself.
Use sunscreen. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreen to help protect against UVA and UVB rays, and an SPF of 30 or higher. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, and be sure to reapply every two hours, or after swimming or sweating.
Avoid tanning beds and sun tanning. Studies show that tanning beds can cause skin cancer and pose other serious dangers.
Check your skin. Look for changes in the size, shape, and colour of birthmarks, moles and spots on your skin. Talk to your doctor if you notice any changes.

For more advice on how to keep your skin healthy, check out these 5 great skin-care tips for summer


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Prevention & Recovery

The health benefits and health risks of sun exposure