Every summer we hear the same warnings about avoiding exposure to the sun. Be careful when you go outside, make sure you use a high SPF sunscreen and don’t stay out in the sun too long. In recent years, however, that advice has been brought into question as research has clearly indicated that there are some very real benefits to sun exposure.

The sun is not our enemy; in fact it provides us with essential nutrients that the body needs to remain healthy. So now the entire idea of sun protection has been turned sideways. Just how much is too much and what are the best practices when it comes to enjoying the outdoors?

The Vitamin D Factor

Though excess exposure to the sun’s harsh rays can have a detrimental effect on the skin, staying out of the sun entirely or covering up with high SPF sunscreens can actually do more harm than good. That’s because we need some amount of sun exposure on a regular basis in order to get the necessary amount of Vitamin D. And make no mistake about it, Vitamin D is about as essential as any vitamin could be. Look closely at almost any major disease you can think of and you’ll find that Vitamin D deficiency plays a big part in its development.

While we can get some Vitamin D from our diet, it has been proven in studies that came out as recently as this year that consistently covering the body with sunscreen can actually reduce Vitamin D production by as much as 97%. This is because most sunscreens are designed to block UVB rays, the rays responsible for promoting Vitamin D production, whereas few sunscreens actually block the more harmful UVA rays. So what is a health conscious sun lover to do?

Choose Your Sunscreen Wisely

The one thing you don’t want to do is avoid the sun entirely, since that would greatly diminish your production of Vitamin D. Instead, you want to limit the amount of time you spend in the sun and when staying outdoors for extended periods of time, you need to choose your sunscreen wisely. The Environmental Working Group conducted research recently that provided eye opening results in regard to sunscreens with a high SPF factor. Not only do most of these products not offer adequate protection against cancer causing UVA rays, they also contain a higher concentration of chemicals that can themselves do more damage than the sun’s rays. So by slathering on all that lotion you’re actually exposing your body to a number of different toxins.

The EWG recommends using a sunscreen that specifically blocks UVA rays or, even better, using all-natural sunscreens made from ingredients such as jojoba oil that prevent skin damage without exposing the body to toxic chemicals. You can also help avoid damage by minimizing your time in the sun. Most experts agree that up to 20 minutes of sun exposure a day is more than enough to provide the full Vitamin D benefits the body needs.

It’s Not All About Sunblock

Because of its proven shortcomings, you should never rely solely on sunscreen to provide sun protection. There are other steps you can take, including moving into the shade and most importantly, relying on protective clothing to help guard you from dangerous UV rays. A wide brimmed hat, sunglasses and long-sleeved, tightly woven clothing can help to block out most of the sun’s rays. Some fabrics are better than others, with cotton and linen being the best choices. There are also clothes made from fabric specifically designed to provide SPF protection. These are especially helpful for babies and small children, whose skin is particularly delicate.

How Much Is Too Much?

So how do you know when it’s time to get out of the sun? Your body will usually give you all the warning you need. If your skin is pinking up, you begin to feel overheated or start to sweat excessively, or if you start to feel lightheaded, those are all pretty good indicators that you’ve had more exposure to the sun’s heat than you should. Move to the shade and make sure you stay properly hydrated by drinking lots of water. Not only will this combat the effects of heat exhaustion, it can also help to soothe distressed skin. You can also help reduce risk by avoiding those hours when the sun is directly overhead, generally from about noon to 4 p.m., as this is when it does the most damage. But remember that the sun can cause damage at any time, even on cloudy days.

Cool That Burn

If you do get a little more sun than you should, it is important to treat sunburn as quickly as possible to minimize long term damage. For a mild sunburn, cool compresses and Aloe Vera gels are usually enough to provide relief. For moderate burns, you may need to take an over the counter pain reliever to help lessen the burning. If your skin looks bright red or begins to blister or if you have other symptoms accompanying a sunburn such as nausea and chills, you should seek medical attention as these are signs of a serious burn.

Getting out in the sun and being active is not a bad thing; in fact it’s an important part of a healthy lifestyle. The important thing to remember is how to effectively protect yourself while you are enjoying the great outdoors. Take the right precautions and the sun can be your best friend!

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