Unfortunately, due to decades of professional and media misinformation, the typical American believes they should avoid the midday sun and need to use sunscreen before, and several times during, sun exposure.
Unfortunately, this is a prescription for minimizing vitamin D levels and all its widely appreciated benefits.
The purpose of this article is to provide you with some practical guidelines on how to use natural sun exposure to optimize your vitamin D benefits.
Your Initial Exposure
The first few days, you should limit your exposure to the sun to allow your body's melanocyte cells to rev up the ability to produce protective pigmentation that not only gives you a tan, but also serves to help protect you against overexposure to the sun.
If you are a fairly light skinned individual that tends to burn, you will want to limit your initial exposure to a few minutes, especially if it is in the middle of summer.
The more tanned your skin will get, and/or the more tanned you want to become, the longer you can stay in the sun. If it is early or late in the season and/or you are a dark skinned individual, you could likely safely have 30 minutes on your initial exposure. If you are deeply pigmented and your immediate ancestors are from Africa, India or the Middle East, it is possible you may not even have to worry about the timing of your exposure.
Always err on the side of caution however, and let it be your primary goal to never get sun burned.
You can use a moisturizing, safe, NON-SPF cream to moisturize your skin, or use something as simple as organic coconut oil to moisturize your skin as this will also benefit you metabolically. Remember if the moisturizer you use has an SPF value, it will block UVB rays and will not allow your body to produce any vitamin D. The rest of the day, you can spend in the shade, wear clothes, and, if you still want to be in the open sun, use a non-toxic lotion with SPF15 for uncovered skin. Just be sure to be on the safe side of burning!
Protect Your Face and Eyes
The skin around your eyes and your face is typically much thinner than other areas on your body and is a relatively small surface area so will not contribute much to vitamin D production. It is strongly recommended to protect this fragile area of your body as is at a much higher risk for cosmetic photo damage and premature wrinkling. You can use a safe sun block in this area or wear a cap that always keeps your eyes in the shade like I do when I am outside seeking to increase my vitamin D levels.
Prepare Your Skin and Keep Your Vitamin-D Supply Constant
Before you travel, prepare your skin by having sessions (1-2 times per week) in a solarium with low-pressure UV-lamps that has a reasonable percentage UVB. This will also protect you against vitamin D deficit between your vacations. The time for each session depends on how strong the tubes in the solarium are. In countries that follow the EU-norm you probably will need 15-20 minutes, while in less regulated countries, 5-10 minutes might be enough. The operator of the tanning place should be able to advice you.
When NOT to TanFrom a health perspective it doesn't make much sense to expose your skin to the sun when it is lower than 50 degrees above the horizon because you will not receive any valuable UVB rays, but you will expose yourself to the more dangerous and potentially deadly UVA rays. UVA's have a longer wavelength than UVB and can more easily penetrate the ozone layer and other obstacles (like clouds and pollution) on their way from the sun to the earth. UVA is what radically increases your risk of skin cancer and photoaging of your skin. So while it will give you a tan, unless the companion UVB rays are available you're likely doing more harm than good and should probably stay out of the sun to protect your skin.
During the times of the year when UVB rays are not present where you live you essentially have two options: You can use a safe tanning bed or you can swallow oral vitamin D3.
After Sun Exposure, Be Careful about Showering!It's important to understand that vitamin D3 is an oil soluble steroid hormone. It's formed when your skin is exposed to ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun (or a safe tanning bed). When UVB strikes the surface of your skin, your skin converts a cholesterol derivative in your skin into vitamin D3.
However, the vitamin D3 that is formed is on the surface of your skin does not immediately penetrate into your bloodstream. It actually needs to be absorbed from the surface of your skin into your bloodstream. The critical question then is: how long does it take the vitamin D3 to penetrate your skin and reach your bloodstream? If you're thinking about an hour or two, like I did until recently, you're wrong. Because new evidence shows it takes up to 48 hours before you absorb the majority of the vitamin D that was generated by exposing your skin to the sun!
Therefore, if you shower with soap, you will simply wash away much of the vitamin D3 your skin generated, and decrease the benefits of your sun exposure. So to optimize your vitamin D level, you need to delay washing your body with soap for about two full days after sun exposure. Now, few are not going to bathe for two full days. However you really only need to use soap underneath your arms and your groin area, so this is not a major hygiene issue. You'll just want to avoid soaping up the larger areas of your body that were exposed to the sun.
Many will dispute this recommendation as "conventional" thinking teaches that vitamin D is formed in the skin, but this research is based on Dr. Michael Hollick's work, which is over 25 years old. New evidence suggests the current view on how vitamin D is formed is inaccurate. At this time no one has ever tested whether vitamin D is formed in human sebum, the fat that your skin produces. The only study that supports that vitamin D3 is formed in the dermal epidermal junction was done in humans where the sebum was removed from the skin.
However, this has been extensively tested in animals and that is precisely where the vitamin D3 is formed. In fact that is where most of the oral vitamin D3 in supplements comes from—the lanolin and the sebum-like material in the skin of sheep and cows.
Additionally, you can rub vitamin D3 on your skin and it easily penetrates into your bloodstream (assuming you don't wash it off for 48 hours). This is also likely the reason why surfers in Hawaii who are in the sun and water continuously don't have vitamin D levels comparable to lifeguards that don't go in the water. The surfers typically have levels in the 70s while the lifeguards and others who are in the sun as much without going into the water will have vitamin D levels around 100. The bottom line is that washing the sebum off of your skin is NOT ideal and should be avoided when possible. You were NOT designed to use soap on your entire body. It is fine to wash areas that are prone to bacterial overgrowth such as your axilla (armpits) and groin, but it is in your best interest to leave the sebum that was designed to be on your skin, on your skin.
Obviously you can do as you wish, but it is my STRONG recommendation to avoid soap on most of your skin.
Avoid Tanning through a Window as it Will Increase Your Skin Cancer RiskBecause the UVA has a longer wavelength, it penetrates materials more easily, such as the earth's atmosphere and window glass which will effectively filter out the majority of UVB radiation, but only minimally filters out UVAs. What's the significance of that, you ask?
It's important to remember that vitamin D3 is formed from exposure to UVB rays, whereas UVA radiation actually destroys vitamin D. This helps keep your body in balance; it's one of the protective mechanisms your body has to avoid overdosing on vitamin D when you're outside. However, when you're exposed to sunlight through windows -- in your office, your home or your car -- you get the UVA but virtually none of the beneficial UVB.
This can lead to significant health problems, because in addition to destroying vitamin D3, UVA's also increase oxidative stress. UVA is one of the primary culprits behind skin cancer, and it increases photo aging of your skin. It's also what causes you to tan. You can actually get vitamin D without significantly darkening your skin, because the UVB wavelength does not stimulate the melanin pigment to produce a tan.
Normally, of course, when you get tanned from outdoor sun exposure you're getting both UVA and UVB at the same time, so it's not a problem. But when you are indoors and expose yourself to sunlight filtered through window glass, you are increasing your risk of a variety of conditions, primarily skin cancer, because the UVA's are effectively destroying your vitamin D3 levels while you're getting none of the benefits from UVB, and this can significantly increase your risk of skin cancer. This is one of the reasons why many that drive long hours in their cars develop skin cancer on the arm next to the car window.