How to sun tan safely and get the benefits of sunlight daily
We have an issue…
All week we are indoors under fluorescent lights - at home, school, our workplace, in the store - exposed to hour upon hour of artificial light and, very little natural sunlight. Then comes the weekend (or days off work), and outside we go to make up for all that time indoors. Our skin hasn’t had time to prepare for the excessive sun exposure it is about to be subjected to.
So what do we do…we cover ourselves in man-made sunscreen, go outside in the midday sun, and bake. Or we take a vacation in a sunny climate, lie outside all day long ‘working’ on the tan, because we only have a week… Does that sound like a smart thing to do? It’s like thinking we can run a marathon without doing any training.
So, what should we do?
There is a healthy way to suntan. We are adaptable beings, but we need to give ourselves the time to adjust. And we have our own natural sunscreen, we just need to know how to activate it.
Melanin, nature’s best sunscreen
Melanin is a natural skin pigment that determines the color of your skin, hair, and eyes. The lighter your skin, the lower your melanin content; the darker your skin, the higher melanin content. It is also our inbuilt defense mechanism, protecting us from the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV). The content in our skin changes with the environment; increasing with sun exposure, declining without it. So, all we need to do is gradually increase the time we are in the sun, and our skin will adapt. By doing this, you will develop a natural ‘solar callus’ that will protect you without the need for manufactured, processed sunscreen.
How long should I stay in the sun?
Listen to your body. The length of time your skin can take without burning depends on the content of melanin in your skin. The lighter your skin, the less melanin and the shorter time it takes for your skin to burn. The darker your skin, the more melanin, the longer you can stay in the sun without burning.
To test this, watch your skin color change. Once it’s pink, go in the shade (preferably) or indoors. Pink doesn’t mean you’re burnt, it means blood is coming to the surface to absorb ultraviolet light. But if you go beyond pink, this is burning, and damaging. So, listen to your body…
When is the right time to be in the sun?
The sun provides different benefits at different times of the day.
One of the most important times to expose yourself to sun is at sunrise. At this time, UV is at its lowest but the sun performs another function – resetting your circadian rhythm. Do this daily and you’ll sleep better and have more energy and focus for the day.
Mid-morning sun (approximately 10am) is also an important time for sun exposure. Exposing your skin at this time, when UV still hasn’t reached its highest level, is the ideal time to build up your melanin content. Doing this will prepare your skin for the midday sun when UV is at the highest, but the optimal time for vitamin D absorption. But the key is to prepare your skin, so it’s protected naturally from burning.
Then the last time of the day for beneficial sun exposure is when the sun is setting. Like the sunrise, watching the sunset helps with setting the circadian rhythm, when the spectrum has high levels of red and yellow wavelengths, calming our bodies and our brain.
For those starting out
Start slow, in the mid to late morning sun, exposing as much skin as you can. For lighter skin start with 15 minutes then add 10 minutes a day. For darker skin, start with 30 minutes, adding 10 minutes a day. Continue this gradual increase, listening to your body tell you when it’s had enough, either turning pink or feeling too hot.
Not getting sun is a form of malnutrition
We evolved under the power of the sun. Countless bodily functions are directly affected and controlled by the solar spectrum and our body knows how to take advantage of this, if we let it. So, not going into the sun is absolutely a serious form of malnutrition, depriving ourselves of a critical nutrient. Instead of the message being, ‘avoid the sun’ the message should be ‘seek non-burning sun exposure daily’.
Want to listen and learn?
With Darin Olien, the superfood hunter, we discuss how you need to let the light back into your life. Not only does it directly fuel us and gives us energy, it's also critically important for mitochondrial health.
And another great interview is with Abel James, aka The Fat Burning Man. Get tips on how to reset your circadian rhythm with light, and the science of how light impacts your mitochondria.
Want to learn how to sun gaze every morning?
If you could only get sun once a day, the most important time would be at sunrise. You should learn the ancient practice of sun gazing to reap the most benefits of your early morning wake up. Read how to make this a daily routine in our article - What is sun gazing and how should I do it?
But hopefully you can get more sun than this, especially some midday sun too for Vitamin D levels.