Safe in the Sun: Balancing the Benefits and Risks of Sun Exposure

Dr. Tieraona Low Dog

Balancing the risks and benefits of sun exposure can be difficult when looking at the shocking rates of skin cancer diagnoses and soaring numbers of vitamin D deficiency. Not so surprisingly, the answer to this debate lies not in the sun, but in the way we live our lives.

— Tieraona Low Dog, M.D.

When was the last time you let yourself feel the sun on your face without worrying about the damage it may be doing? Before fear of skin cancer sent us all scurrying for the shade, people used to be outside all throughout the day, working in the garden or playing in the backyard. Now we spend most of our lives indoors, except when we choose to sunbathe during the hours of the day when the sun is most intense—a practice that actually increases skin cancer risk. Far from protecting our health, avoiding the sun completely can have serious consequences. As Robyn Lucas, an epidemiologist at Australian National University who led a study on sun exposure and disease points out in an interview with U.S. News & World Report, more lives are lost to diseases caused by a lack of sunlight than those caused by too much.


Importance of Vitamin D

Called the sunshine vitamin because it’s made when solar energy converts a chemical in our skin to D3, vitamin D’s importance to the body can’t be overestimated. In addition to keeping our bones healthy, it increases our resistance to infections, protects the heart, and may help prevent some types of cancer. This is why it’s so disturbing to consider how many people have vitamin D insufficiency—more than 66 million Americans, according to the CDC Second National Report on Biochemical Indicators of Diet and Nutrition in the U.S. Population. As I discuss in my blog about vitamin D and children, studies show that obese, minority children are hit especially hard. Why are we seeing such dangerously low levels of vitamin D? Compared to our ancestors, we get a lot less sun. While sunscreen protects us against the damaging effects of UV radiation, an SPF of 8 blocks the production of vitamin D by a whopping 95 percent.


Nature’s Healing Power

Growing up, I loved to play outside with the neighborhood kids. When I came home from school, Mom would say, “Take off your school clothes, then go outside and play. Be home for dinner.” How different would my life be if I’d spent my afternoons indoors staring at a screen rather than running free under the sun? I believe that for us to be whole human beings, we must be mindful of our deep and intimate relationship with nature. This is especially true for children. In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv uses the phrase “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the increasing separation kids have from natural spaces when they grow up in urban areas and/or spend a lot of time indoors. He cites a number of studies showing the positive effects of nature on the behavior and attention of kids with ADHD. This is confirmed by other research where the inclusion by schools of green space and environment-based education leads to improved test scores and a reduction in classroom discipline problems. Consider how peaceful you feel after soaking up the beauty of a summer day, and how well your little ones sleep after time spent tumbling around in the grass. A little sunshine goes a long way toward boosting our well-being.


Safe in the Sun

Knowing the benefits of being outside versus the risk of overexposure, how do we keep ourselves and our kids safe in the sun? Your needs will vary based on circumstances like skin color, geographic location, and time of the year. People with very light skin may require only ten minutes of sun exposure three or four times per week to make the necessary amount of vitamin D, while those with very dark skin might need one to two hours. If you’re close to the equator and/or it’s summer when the sun’s rays are strongest, you should modify accordingly. Also try to avoid spending too much unprotected time in the sun between the hours of 10 and 2 when its radiation is strongest. If you are out during this time of day or you’ll be in the sun for a while, use a safe, chemical-free sunscreen. The Environmental Working Group offers an excellent guide (see below), as well as tips like making sure to wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV damage. By using a commonsense approach, you and your family can play at the park, splash in the pool, or simply enjoy the sensation of sunshine on your shoulders without fear.


To Learn More: 

Interested in learning more about the healing power of nature? My book Life Is Your Best Medicine is a great resource:

For more information on vitamin D and other nutrients, see my book Fortify Your Life:



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