One of the great benefits of living here in Southwest Florida is that the weather is usually conducive to outdoor activities, which is an important part of maintaining optimum health.
Yes, it gets oppressively hot here from Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving (and sometimes beyond that). Yes, we have daily storms that resemble living inside a dishwasher. But they are short-lived, and within an hour or two, it’s OK to go back outside.
Then, there’s that beach! Miles and miles and miles of gorgeous, sugar sand beach! There’s really no place like it on earth.
That’s a significant part of why Southwest Florida has been acknowledged, time and again, as being one of the best places in the world to live – and not just from a tourism perspective. In 2015, we were listed as one of the Blue Zones, indicating that our regional culture and environment were ideal for promoting health and longevity. As one of the first Blue Zones-accredited healthcare providers in the area, I am especially pleased to see where Southwest Florida is heading.
Getting Ready To Be Outdoors In The Summer
All that said, I want to talk this week about the importance of protecting your skin from the sun. Considering the number of sunny days we enjoy here (after all, they don’t call Florida “The Sunshine State” for nothing), we should be diligent about this topic all year. In fact, the hotter it gets, the more time most of us typically spend in air-conditioned homes and workplaces.
So, why bring it up now?
I bring it up partly because readers from other parts of the country are finally getting to shed their winter coats and go outside. But before my neighbors in Naples tune out and go back to Facebook, it’s important to remember that just because it’s uncomfortably hot outside doesn’t mean we can huddle inside the air conditioning all summer. Sunlight is critical to our physical and mental health and wellness. And because the sun is so much more intense here this time of year, we need to be all the more strategic about our outdoor time during the summer months.
The Nutrition We Get From The Sun
One of the great misunderstandings about Vitamins is that we tend to think of them in the same way we think about medicine: take a pill and let it do the work. That’s not accurate.
The truth is that Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and Vitamin D (cholecalciferol) are macronutrients that should be measured in our diets like protein, fat, carbohydrates, and water. Nearly every cell in your body requires Vitamin C and Vitamin D to perform its service to the body.
Vitamin D manages the balance and absorption of calcium, phosphate, magnesium, iron, and other minerals. It is critical for bone density and strength, joint cartilage, digestive health, metabolism, and over 2,000 different genetic processes in your cells.
While your body was designed to receive its Vitamin C supply primarily from fruits and vegetables, it was designed to receive its Vitamin D from daily sunlight exposure through your skin.
Do you see why health and longevity researchers consider Florida such a great place to live?
Now, having said that, it’s important to know how to give your skin the sun exposure it needs without overdoing or under-doing it.
Sunlight: Ride the Waves
Sunlight includes a huge bandwidth of electromagnetic frequencies, of which we can only see a narrow subset (visible light). Most of the health-promoting qualities of sunlight actually fall outside the range we can see. Infrared and ultraviolet waves aren’t visible to your eyes, but are still active around you, performing other tasks. You may have noticed a growing trend of infrared saunas. They are becoming popular as researchers have been promoting the detoxifying and weight-loss benefits from infrared heat.
On the other end of the spectrum is ultraviolet light. If you’re more than five years old, you’ve probably seen a TV commercial warning you about the dangers of UV exposure. Ultraviolet comes in two bands – UVA and UVB. For a comprehensive understanding of the differences between them, I’ll refer you to Dr. Joseph Mercola’s terrific series of articles.
Untangling Two Types of Misinformation
There are two common untruths that sit on either end of the sunscreen debate. One, which is promoted heavily by dermatologists, is that sun exposure is bad for you and you should avoid it at all costs. As we’ve already seen, that is not healthy. The other extreme is that sunscreen alone provides all-day protection.
Since UVB has the effect of reddening or tanning your skin, most sunscreens are formulated to “protect” you from UVB rays.
Now, here’s where it gets tricky. Although UVA rays don’t contribute to tanning, they do penetrate the skin and effectively “cook” the dermis. That is why you need to limit your direct exposure to sunlight, especially in the middle of the day. While sunscreen helps to mitigate or slow the effects of UVB exposure, most formulas do nothing to control the effects of UVA exposure, which is ultimately more damaging.
As a result, people buy into a false sense that their sunscreen is buying them more time outside when it really is not. You might be slowing your UVB exposure, but you are not slowing your UVA exposure.
The Importance of Keeping Sunlight In Balance
So, there is a balance. You need a little UVA and a little UVB every day – not too much, but also not zero. Also, there are better times to get Vitamin D from your sunshine. In fact, I’ve seen apps that calculate your ideal Vitamin D time based on your latitude, longitude, and day of the year. The sunlight in the morning and late afternoon are not as good for Vitamin D harvesting as the hours right around lunch.
But wait? Didn’t I just finish saying that we need to limit our direct exposure to sunlight in the middle of the day?
When To Get The Sunlight You Need
I suggest you take a 10- to 15-minute walk in the sun during your lunch break with as much of your skin exposed as possible (within the limits of what is legally and socially appropriate). Roll up those sleeves!
However, most people don’t get to choose how much time they spend outside during the peak Vitamin D hours. Some people work in a closed office during all the daylight hours, and some people work outside during all the daylight hours. (I won’t even deal with the folks who only come out at night – e.g., graveyard shift employees. That’s entirely another set of health concerns.)
So, if you’re one of those who doesn’t get to set a timer for sun exposure, you need other ways to manage how much sun you get.
Don’t worry if you’re getting confused. I’ll summarize in a minute.
Then there is the matter of what is in the sunscreen. There are over 600 brands on the market, so it’s reasonable to assume that some of them are of higher quality and some are of lower quality. If you want to wear sunscreen, The Environmental Working Group has done all the hard work of picking out the good ones for you. I suggest you study their list before shopping for sunscreen. Some brands will actually contribute to skin cancer, instead of preventing it.
NOTE: By the way, if you do choose to wear sunscreen, do not multiply your time outside by the SPF number on your sunscreen. If you multiply 15 minutes in the sun by SPF 30 (7.5 hours!!), you will hate yourself the next morning.
Tips For Making The Most Of Your Sun Time
I like to be outside as much as I can. I always have. And since I live in South Florida, I have to be all the more careful about my sun exposure. So here are a couple of sun management tips that I have picked up over the years (in no particular order):
If you’re not accustomed to spending time outside in the heat of the day, don’t start with a long exposure. You can acclimate your skin gradually, but be wise. It’s better to start in the spring with 10 to 15 minutes at a time and work your way up to 30 minutes twice a week.
Harvest Vitamin D at Lunchtime
The best hours of Vitamin D harvesting are typically when the sun is highest in the sky (between noon and 1:00 p.m.). You should go out in it and receive the benefits as often as you can, but don’t spend more than 10 or 15 minutes in it at a time unless you have spent some time acclimating yourself.
Wear A Hat
If you’re going to be outside for longer than 15 minutes in the heat of the day, wear a wide-brimmed hat to cover the more delicate skin on your face and neck. It’s also a good idea to wear a light, long-sleeved shirt and pants. There are a ton of brands available that provide well-ventilated coverage for your arms and legs.
Go Early, Go Late
If you’re going to the water park or the beach, avoid the middle of the day. Go early in the morning and leave at lunchtime, or wait until after 3:00 p.m. and stay for the sunset. If you have to be at the beach or the pool during lunch, find a shady place to rest during the hottest part of the day.
Watch The Clues of Burning
If your skin feels hot, go in. If you’re turning pink, you’re already burning.
Drink Plenty of Water
Then have a little more.
Coconut Oil for Sunscreen
Coconut oil is a safe, clean, and moderately-effective sunscreen, but it won’t extend your time in the sun much.
Build Your Internal Sunscreen
You can build up your internal sunscreen by eating antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables, like berries and healthy fats, like avocado, coconut, and krill oil. Free radicals are broken cells floating around your body, looking for places to cause trouble. They contribute to premature aging of your skin and the development of cancers. Antioxidants help to round them up and flush them out of your system. I’ve seen some pretty good research about the skin-health benefits of astaxanthin lately, too.
Know Your Skin Color
Having a sexy, dark Brazilian tan stops being sexy about 10 seconds after you get a melanoma diagnosis. It’s not worth it, especially if your skin doesn’t naturally have a high melanin count. If your heritage is Northern European, embrace your ivory glow – don’t try to go darker than God made you.
The Thing To Remember
Remember, the goal is health, not color. Give your body the sunlight it needs, and then go back in the shade. Your skin is an organ, just like your heart and your liver, and you have to take care of it. Skin cancer is not usually a death sentence, but it is important to take it seriously.
If you know someone who is planning to spend any time in the sun this summer, take a few seconds to share this article on your favorite social channel. I think it will end up being a resource to a lot of people who have questions about sun protection for their skin.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas