By Gretta Monahan
Summer means one thing to many of us: sun. Even those of us who prefer cool spots in the shade still usually smile when we see a clear, cloudless blue sky. And there’s an evolutionary reason for that: humans need Vitamin D (doctors say that more than 40% of American adults don’t get enough of it), and our bodies make it from cholesterol in your skin when it’s exposed to the sun.
Vitamin D does all kinds of great things for our health, from helping maintain strong, healthy bones (by helping our bodies to absorb more calcium and phosphorus) to helping to boost our our moods by preventing Seasonal Affective Disorder. (Sunshine triggers the release of serotonin and endorphins, which they say has the same positive effect on our moods and energy levels as exercise.)
All that said, we all know that overexposure to the sun can also do serious damage to our dermis. It prematurely ages our skin by drying it out and causing (and exacerbating) wrinkles. And most importantly, it’s a known cause of skin cancers. And yet, we still need do need to get enough Vitamin D—and even food alone just doesn’t supply us enough.
Besides, who doesn’t love an afternoon at the beach or time on a sunny patio? So here are a few ways this summer too get enough Vitamin D to keep you healthy, without sacrificing your skin to the sun gods:
- To keep any skin damage to your face at bay, wear a hat and sunglasses while exposing other parts of your body to very short amounts of time in the sun. Experts say that for many people, 10-30 minutes of wearing a tank top three times a week in the sun is enough to create the right amount of Vitamin D for their bodies. If I’m at the beach, I’m wearing a wide-brimmed hat, shades, and plenty of SPF on my face. I’ll give my shoulders and legs a few minutes in the sun, and then they get covered up with SPF or a cover-up, too.
- Whatever you do, make sure to prevent burning. Depending on how sensitive your skin is to sunlight, try going without sunscreen for just the first 10 minutes or so. That way your body can get the direct access to the sun it needs to make Vitamin D, but without the negative effects of UV rays overkill. Just always, always apply sunscreen before you start burning.
- So no way to midday sun. That’s when its rays are the strongest, so that’s when it’s riskiest to try and get your dose of Vitamin D in, because you may wind up with a burn or skin disease instead. So your safest bet is morning before 10am or afternoon after 4pm. When I’m eating lunch with friends outside, I always go for a table in the shade instead of a sun-drenched spot. And then later in the day I’ll take the dog for a walk with my family under a much gentler sun.
- Learn your best SPF number (and then always remember to reapply). There’s no one perfect number for everyone, since all of our skin is different in pigment and genetics. Some of us make Vitamin D faster than others, while some of us burn faster than others, and the only way to know what your skin needs is to play it safe, protect it first with the highest number, and then experiment with small amounts of exposure. There’s a delicate balancing act to getting your right amount of Vitamin D and still protecting yourself, so listen to your body and how it uniquely reacts to both needs. Do that, and you’ll have a smart, safe, healthy summer—every year from now on.