Sunscreen blocks vitamin D absorption leading to all kinds of disease, including skin cancer. Building up a gradual tan acts as a natural sunscreen, protecting against burns and allowing us to soak up more of this life-saving vitamin.
The propaganda against sun exposure is intense. A quick google search on the words “healthy tan” will fetch you thousands of articles with headlines like “There is No Such Thing as a Healthy Tan.”
Countless public health announcements warn “fair-skinned” people to slather on SPF 50+ sunscreen every time they leave the house and cover their bodies from head to toe in hats, sunglasses and long sleeved suits at the beach.
Dermatologist Francesca Fusco writes for the New York Times that there is “no degree of tanning that can be considered safe,” and recommends that we essentially live like vampires, avoiding the sun at all costs.
But when you dig a little deeper into what Dr. Oliver Gillie of the Health Research Forum calls “high quality studies,” you find out that a “healthy summer glow” is not only cosmetically desirable, it’s essential to human health.
There’s a reason the phrases “healthy glow” and “sickly pale” exist.
Whether you are golden tan or ghostly pale is a pretty good indicator of how much vitamin D you’ve soaked up in recent months.
And one thing all the experts agree on is that lack of vitamin D is epidemic among people living in northern latitudes.
Vitamin D deficiency is linked with all kinds of disease, from all kinds of cancers (including skin cancer), heart disease, bone diseases and even diabetes.
And we only get about 5% of our recommended intake from our diets, says Gillie, whose research focuses on vitamin D and sunbathing.
While supplements are always recommended, they aren’t always absorbed well, and many scientists think getting it from the sun may be the most effective way.
Why the propaganda doesn’t make sense
Humans have been spending the majority of their days in the sun for millions of years. Whether hunting, picking berries or bathing in the ocean, as hunter gatherers we spent the majority of our time outdoors with an occasional break under the shade of a tree.
There is evidence that as we migrated out of Africa to northern parts of the world with less sun, our skin became whiter, and as a result, white people have adapted to absorb vitamin D in a much shorter amount of time.
While it takes white people only 30 minutes minutes of sun exposure to get the recommended daily dose of vitamin D, it takes black people up to 5 hours.
It logically follows, that the darker your skin, the longer periods of time you can spend in the sun without burning.
I’m not arguing that a white person can or should try drastically change their skin color, which took thousands of years to evolve.
I am arguing that pale white skin is an indicator of bad health, and that it may be worthwhile to gradually build up our pigment, to the point where we can get our recommended daily dose of vitamin D without burning.
Health benefits of sunbathing
A 2010 study showed women who sunbathe regularly live longer.
Another study found regular sun exposure cuts the risk of breast cancer in half.
Another study found that pregnant women should get more sun to increase several health markers for themselves and their babies.
Other studies have found links between low-vitamin D levels and Parkinson’s Disease, bone disease, blood clots, diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Living at higher latitudes increases the risk of dying from Hodgkin lymphoma, as well as breast, ovarian, colon, pancreatic, prostate, and other deadly cancers.
Additionally, regular, moderate doses of sun exposure actually helps REDUCE the risk of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the result of burning the skin, not gradually tanning it. And untanned skin is more likely to burn.
Continued sun exposure after melanoma is diagnosed is linked with increased survival rates, according to a 2005 study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, and occupational exposure to sunlight actually reduced melanoma risk in a 2003 study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology.
As humans migrated out of Africa to higher latitudes, they had less ultra violet radiation exposure and wore more clothing, according to a 2008 study on the health benefits of sunlight.
By the 1600s, peoples in these regions covered their whole body, even in summertime. By the late 1800s, approximately 90% of all children living in industrialized Europe and North America had rickets, a bone softening disease, which can cause bowed legs and seizures.
As awareness of the sun’s power against rickets and tuberculosis spread in the late 1800s, attitudes toward sun exposure shifted radically, the report says.
Doctors started recommending full-body sunbathing for these and other conditions, and the suntan became a status symbol that signified health and wealth, as only the affluent could afford to vacation by the sea and play outdoor sports.”
How not to burn
Its simple. Build up the melanin in your skin gradually. Start sunbathing in spring, for 5 minutes a day, then 10, then 20 and so on.
It takes white-skinned people around 30 minutes of mostly-unclothed sunexposure a day to get 50,000 IU of vitamin D. Black skin takes five times as long, while tan and brown skin takes two or three times as long.
The people most at risk for burning are those who hide under layers of sunscreen, clothing and shelter most of the time, and then spend one unprotected afternoon at the beach, Dr. Gillie says in a talk called Sunlight Robbery.
Building up a gradual tan is like giving yourself a free, non-toxic sunscreen, that never wears off or has to be reapplied, providing an SPF of up to 4, meaning for each darker shade you achieve, it will take you four times longer to burn than before.
When your skin starts feeling hot, get out of the sun. It’s that simple.
RELATED: Health Benefits of Sunbathing Far Outweigh the Risks, World Health Organization says.