Sunbathing – the good, the bad and the ugly

Sunbathing – the good, the bad and the ugly

In Spain this month, and across Europe, there has been a heat wave. Many people have been enjoying relaxing in the sun. Personally, I like to rest and recuperate by lying in the sun reading a book. Sunbathing has lots of benefits, but also some downsides. In this article I will explore some of these briefly and also share some top tips for safe sunbathing.

Health benefits of sunbathing

One of the key benefits of sunbathing is the production of Vitamin D. Vitamin D is actually a prohormone (a precursor of a hormone) that is produced by the skin, and or can be ingested as a supplement. It is difficult to get enough Vitamin D through diet, although a good diet does increase the positive effects of safe sunbathing. Sunlight provides 90 to 95 percent of Vitamin D for most people.

Low levels of Vitamin D have been associated with a wide range of diseases including cancer, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, obesity and cognitive impairment. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium, which in turn helps make strong, healthy bones. It influences all parts of our body, for example by boosting our immune system and neutral muscular functioning (how the bodies nerves and muscles work together). Despite the importance of Vitamin D, studies have shown that for a variety of reasons many people do not have sufficient Vitamin D.

Many experts agree that an ideal range for vitamin D in healthy individuals is between 1,000 and 2,000 IU per day. For people with fair skin in mid-winter this is equivalent to about 20 to 30 minutes of sun exposure (without sunscreen) three times a week. By mid-summer that time can reduce to just 4 minutes. Of course this will very much depend on where you are located, time of day, the ground cover and various other factors.

Sunlight has many other benefits, beyond the production of Vitamin D. Exposure to sunlight, combined with eating greens, has been shown to lower blood pressure and improve the functioning of our arteries. Morning sun exposure can help people with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), by increasing our melatonin levels, which in turn improves circadian (daily) rhythms. Safe sunbathing can also increase serotonin and endorphins, which can impact diseases such as depression.

So now we have briefly explored the benefits, lets move on to how we can sunbathe safely.

Top tips for safe sunbathing

Safe sunbathing is very much an individual matter. How safe it is for you to sunbathe will depend on various factors, such as the climate you are in, your skin type and colour, previous exposure to the sun, and use of sunscreen and other protection from the sun.

Timing. It is important to consider the time you sunbathe. Depending on the country you are in, and the levels of sun, you might decide to vary the times and duration of sun exposure. In this external link there´s a simple chart you can use to determine how much exposure to the sun you need to get enough Vitamin D. After this length of time it is advisable to stay out of the sun or cover-up. There are also now some helpful apps (external link) on the market to help ensure safe sunbathing. Do your research and find one that works for you.

Avoid sunbeds (the tanning bed). You may think using a sunbed is a good way to work on a pre-holiday tan, but sunbeds have been shown to have all the negative effects of UV exposure and none of the positive effects.

Think about your base tan and skin colour. People with lighter skin tones, and redheads, will need to think about building up sun exposure very gradually. For example this might include having a short period in the sun in the early morning and late afternoon.

Remember to turn over so you expose various parts of your body to the sun, rather than ending up with a painful burnt back!

Protect exposed parts more. Certain parts of the body, such as the forehead, bridge of nose, chest and shoulders will naturally get more sun so you might want to consider protecting these with a hat, or a sun block.

If it is very hot and you are sunbathing by a pool or beach, take regular dips in the water, or combine lying in the sun with cold showers. Alternating hot and cold can have a positive effect on our lymphatic system.

Too much sun exposure can dehydrate your body. Drinking lots of fluids, such as lemon water, or green tea can both help cool us down and rehydrate your body. You can also nourish your skin by using an after sun lotion or natural aloe vera. For more tips on how to stay hydrated see this article from Lisa.

Too much sun exposure can damage your skin, by aging the skin and increasing wrinkles. It can also cause skin thickening and can increase the risk of cataracts. Sun exposure can also cause skin cancer such as melanoma. In fact UV rays in sunlight are considered to be highly carcinogenic (cancer causing). Therefore keep to safe limits of time in the sun and ….

Cover up! Once you have had enough sun to produce your required Vitamin D, cover up. There are many ways to cover up. I personally have a 100 per cent UV proof sun umbrella I like to take to the beach with me, but there are also options of lightweight shirts or hats or sunscreen.

Chose an appropriate sunscreen. There has been quite a bit of debate in the media recently about the affects of sunscreen on our own health and the environment. Some sunscreens have been shown to contain harmful substances, which could adversely affect our hormones and the environment. However, these potential harmful effects need to be balanced against skin damage and cancer risk from the sun. There are also now more and more different types of ecologically minded, sometimes mineral based, sunscreens on the market which you might want to look into.

If you are spending a lot of time in the sun it is recommended to protect your eyes with good quality, UV and polarised sunglasses. It is important to realise that not all sunglasses will block 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays, particularly if they are cheap fashion sunglasses. In addition, poor quality plastic lenses can distort our vision and cause headaches.

I hope you have enjoyed this month´s article, and have lots of safe outdoor fun this summer. If you want some more ideas on how to have fun this summer check out this article by Amanda. It is sunny almost 70 per cent of all days here on the Costa Blanca, so if you are looking for some summer or winter sun, consider joining us on one of our retreats.

Enjoy your summer sun!

About the author

Tania is one of our programme team, who loves teaching yoga, mindfulness and other programme activities.