I’m writing this on a beautiful sunny day – the Sunday of the early May Bank Holiday in the UK, just as the UK has suddenly emerged from what has seemed like a long, cold, grey winter. Humans need sunlight to process Vitamin D, the vitamin that keeps our bones strong, amongst other things. During a British winter, we don’t get much sunlight, for three reasons: it’s further away (and therefore weaker), we are usually covered by clothes (and the sunlight has to be absorbed by enough skin) and it’s often hidden behind clouds.
Even if we do dare bare our skin in winter, from about October to April the sun isn’t close enough to give us enough effect. Our bodies store up Vit D from the summer months and that should last us through the winter but we are likely to be lacking those stores towards the end of the colder darker months and we really need to top it up now.
So, how to do it and how to do it safely? (Because, of course, too much sun is bad for us!)
I wrote about this in Positively Teenage – out on May 24th – and I’ve included the (slightly adapted) section here, with kind permission of Hachette Children’s Group:
Sunlight on your skin
Sunlight helps the body produce Vitamin D, essential for strong bones. That’s because calcium builds strong bones but without Vit D the calcium isn’t properly absorbed.
People who don’t have enough Vit D can have weaker bones and might develop a condition called rickets, where bones become softer and may bend outwards – “bowed legs”. Rickets was common amongst people with poor diets before we knew about Vit D and it’s still more common in colder countries and poorer communities. Vit D may also protect against serious illnesses later. Because of all this, it’s often added to “fortified” cereals. To see whether it’s in the cereal you eat, look at the list of nutrients on the packet. That’s one way to get Vit D but those cereals often also contain a lot of sugar so we shouldn’t have too much of them.
We get some Vit D from food but it’s hard to get enough that way because, apart from those cereals, it’s only in a small number of foods (oily fish, some red meat and eggs) so we really need sunlight. Besides, it feels great to have a bit of sunlight on our skin. It usually raises people’s spirits!
One problem, however, is that sunburn is dangerous, causing long-term damage to skin and extra risk of skin cancer later. So, how can you get the right amount safely?
First, spend enough time outside. (Looking through a window doesn’t help because the “UVB” rays don’t go through glass.) In a cold climate, this can be difficult, especially in winter months (and that’s also the time when the sun isn’t really high enough to have a big effect.) But try to go outside each day if you can.
Second, expose more than just your face, which is hard if you need to bundle yourself up in coat and gloves. When you can, roll your sleeves up and get that sunlight on your skin.
Third, go outside even when it’s not sunny. If you’re outside on a moderately dull day, there’s still some light coming through the clouds. When the sun is higher (between 11am and 3pm) you have more chance of getting enough sunlight.
Fourth, remember that everyone’s needs are different. If you have darker skin – Asian or African colouring, for example – you need to spend longer in the sun to make the same amount of Vit D, but even people with very dark skins can still burn, so still be careful.
How to make sure you don’t get too much and burn?
Different skin types make a huge difference to how much sun is safe. Younger skins tend to be more delicate, too. Here are some things which mean you have to be more careful than other people in the sun, as you are at greater risk of sunburn and skin cancers later:
- Skin that tends to go pink in the sun easily
- Lots of of moles or freckles
- Fair or light colouring – blonde hair, blue eyes and pale skin
- A history of skin cancer in your family
But people with darker skins can still burn and are at risk of all the same problems; it’s just that they can tolerate the sun for a little longer.
Sunburn risk isn’t only when the whether is obviously hot and sunny. It depends on some other things, too:
- Time of year: in the UK and northern Europe, the sun is closest between April and September; near the equator, it’s close to you all year round; in the southern parts of South America or southern Australia it would be closest between November and March.
- Altitude – if you’re up mountains, you’re closer to the sun.
- Whether the cloud is thick or thin
- If you are on sand, snow or water, some of the sun’s rays are reflected back at you, giving you more exposure
People very often get sunburnt when they are not sunbathing. They might be doing an activity, not feeling particularly hot, and just not thinking about the sun. Often, a breeze makes us feel nice and cool, but the sun can be doing its damage anyway.
Another useful thing is to look out for the “UV index” for the day. You’ll find this on the Internet, on weather Apps and on weather reports during the summer months wherever you are in the world.
Don’t take risks with the sun: use a high-factor sun-cream and don’t expose your skin to the sun for too long. You can still burn through light cloud and a cool breeze can stop you noticing how hot it is. Go outside for short periods at a time and don’t wait to feel tingling or redness before you cover up or go in.
A suntan is a sign of damage. So, what we’re aiming for is to get enough sunlight but without having any visible effects. Little and often is the key, as well as using suncream and covering up.
Do you need to take Vit D supplements?
During summer months, most people won’t need supplements, unless you are unable to go outdoors much or you cover your skin outside for cultural or other reasons. During the winter, especially if you spend most of your time indoors, or if there’s any reason why you don’t get much sunlight, it could be a good idea. Studies over the last ten years suggest that a significant and growing percentage of the UK population is Vit D deficient – anything between 25% and 70% depending on what measurements you use – particularly in the north of the country. It looks as though there’s a growing problem in the US, too, and that deficiency amongst young people is increasing in various countries.
Only an expert can confirm whether this is an issue for you: discuss with a health expert. It will depend on your diet, skin type, where you live and your individual health. There will be no harm in taking the recommended amount as a supplement but never take more than that unless advised by an expert. And remember that it’s always best to try to get the right amount from food, not supplements. Taking too much of certain vitamins can be dangerous.
Resources about healthy use of the sun
How to know whether your skin type is more likely to burn and the facts you need, from Cancer Research UK: www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/sun-uv-and-cancer/am-i-at-risk-of-sunburn
And a US site: www.senseaboutscienceusa.org/sun-risk-skin-cancer-different-groups/
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So, try to get some sunlight on your bare skin every day but make sure you don’t overdo it and burn. But if you do burn, don’t panic: it happens to everyone at some point. it does NOT mean you’re going to get cancer! Ask a pharmacist for something to help reduce the redness and try to learn for the next time that sunburn usually happens before you feel the pain: wear good suncream when you’re out in the sun for more than a few minutes.
Of course, if you want an image of sunshine, look no further than the cover of Positively Teenage! If you’d like to be in the running to win a signed copy or a signed copy of The Teenage Guide to Life Online, see here. And don’t forget the competition for schools.