Sun exposure is beneficial to our health, we know like plants we need a balanced diet, good hydration, rest and sun. Just even the benefits on our moods are clear to feel.
There is a vast amount of historical and contemporary scientific evidence to show how safe sun exposure is incredibly beneficial to human health. There is no doubt that unsafe sun exposure (burning and overexposure) can cause premature ageing and other health issues including certain types of skin cancer. Islam teaches us mizan – balance – this mizan must be adopted when practising safe sun exposure.
A 2016 study that assessed the risks and benefits of sun exposure, highlights insufficient sun exposure is becoming a public health problem– why? The language surrounding sun exposure caused a lot of fear and reactions to complete sun avoidance to slathering on copious amounts of suncream and preventing any good exposure.
Human life, plants, agriculture, wind, animals, clouds which transport water, ocean currents – all depend on the sun, Allah created the sun to benefit mankind and whilst excessive exposure can be dangerous there are great benefits which we will go on to look at.
Heliotherapy describes the therapeutic use of sunlight to treat health conditions.
The first scientifically identified benefit of heliotherapy (the therapeutic use of sunlight) was recorded in 1919 as a cure for rickets. In the 1960s, the association between reduced cancer mortality and sun exposure was identified in the United States. Unfortunately, much of the focus in scientific study was based on the health risks of sun exposure, rather than further inquiry into its benefits and thus, avoidance of sun exposure and use of chemical sunscreens remained as the standard advice to reduce risk of skin cancers.
Much of the benefit of safe sun exposure is associated with vitamin D synthesis. The South Asian demographic in the UK have particularly high levels of vitamin D deficiency due to avoidance of the sun and low sun exposure.
It is important to rethink our approach to sun exposure and learn to practice moderate, SAFE sun exposure. First, let’s see how safe sun exposure can be incredibly healing.
The foremost purpose of safe sun exposure is vitamin D synthesis, in other words, sun exposure our body makes vitamin D when the skin is exposed to direct sunlight through UVB rays.
Optimal vitamin D levels is essential for longevity and vitality. A few ways optimal vitamin D levels is protective of health:
How much sun exposure we require depends on many factors, including skin colour, UV index, time of day/year. A good place to start is by knowing your current vitamin D levels – get tested! Most GPs offer vitamin D testing, but if your GP does not, you can purchase a test online and do it from the comfort of your home if you don’t mind pricking your finger with a needle!
The second place to go is the Fitzpatrick scale which classifies 6 different skin types according to skin pigmentation and reaction to sun exposure. It is not a perfect measurement of skin type as our beautiful uniqueness can never be limited to merely 6 types, but it is a great starting point.
Next, and only if you don’t mind sharing your location, download an app called dminder which uses GPS to track the weather and UV index. It provides recommendations on how many minutes of sun exposure you need depending on skin colour and the amount of clothing you have on and estimates how many units of vitamin D you have synthesised in a period of direct sun exposure. If you do not want to share your location, you can check the UV index on the Met Office website.
This is a good UV index guide (image from: https://www.miamibeachbody.online/pages/why-sunscreens-the-uv-index)
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To get adequate sun exposure for vitamin D synthesis in the UK, you typically need to be outdoors with direct sun to skin exposure between 11am and 3pm during the summer months, where UVB rays are most prominent. The amount of time in the sun depends on age (as our skin’s capacity to synthesise vitamin D from the sun reduces as we age), skin colour, clothing, diet, health history, hereditary illnesses, and genetics. Our genetics matter because we have different capacities of synthesising vitamin D from the sun. The best way to understand your personal capacity is by testing your body’s vitamin D levels before and after sun exposure (for example, testing at the end of winter months and again towards the end of summer months). In addition, melanoma skin cancers may be linked with genetic factors so extra caution must be taken if there is a family history of melanoma. Burning must be avoided at all costs.
Based on this and ensuring you get direct sun exposure that is safe for you, without any burning, you can begin to consider safe sun protection. Before reaching for sunscreens (which should be a last resort!), opt for shade first. Think light coloured long-sleeves tops/dresses, big sun hats, sunglasses and maybe even a sun umbrella! Also, plan your day around the sun: go for your walk around 9am or have a picnic after 4pm where the UV rays will have reduced.
If thereafter you want to wear sunscreen, opt for mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide which is considered a safe and effective protective ingredient according to the Environmental Working Group (read here for more information). Check the Environmental Working Group’s guidance on sunscreens which measures the safety and efficacy of several popular sunscreen brands.
As we move into the winter months, while there is little to no UVB rays to stimulate vitamin D synthesis, natural daylight exposure is still incredibly beneficial for circadian rhythm balance, improving sleep quality and reducing stress.Why nutrition matters
Nutrition hugely affects how the skin responds to sun exposure.
Many natural biological processes in the body produce harmful compounds known as free radicals which are neutralised by antioxidants. However, an accumulation of free radicals and if the body’s capacity of scavenging these compounds is reduced, it results in oxidative stress which damages cells, proteins, and DNA. The body’s capacity to neutralise free radicals can be affected in many ways, including cigarette smoke, alcohol consumption, air pollution, excessive exercise, viruses, prolonged sun exposure, processed foods, and lack of antioxidant consumption, to name a few. Such oxidative stress is also involved in the development of melanoma and skin damage (i.e., prolonged sun exposure).
Here, we see how the body is always working as a whole and the skin is not separate from other internal mechanisms or external influences. This is why nutrition matters. Through nutrition, we can support our antioxidant capabilities, which then contributes to how we individually react to sun exposure. Of course, there are some things that we cannot necessarily control (air pollution, viruses), but what and how we choose to eat is a place we can positively influence.
A diet with a wide range of fresh fruits and vegetables, organic where possible (to reduce pesticide consumption), nourishes our body with a humongous variety of micronutrients and antioxidants: vitamins C and E, quercetin, lycopene, beta-carotene, resveratrol, tannins, flavonoids, to name a few! These antioxidants have anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and anti-melanogenic effects which can internally protect the body and skin from sun damage.
A 2014 study in rats demonstrated a diet high in trans fats (typically found in processed baked goods such as cakes and pies, microwave popcorn, fried foods, frozen pizza, and margarine) overtime can contribute to skin diseases related to UV radiation and may increase propensity for burning. Another study in mice showed a diet lacking in selenium (found in brazil nuts, shellfish and eggs) made the skin more sensitive to UV-induced oxidative stress. This could potentially indicate a diet high in bioavailable micronutrients can improve our skin’s tolerance to direct sun exposure without any clothing or sunscreen protection! Nonetheless, this illustrates the importance of diet and how taking care of our body through food internally provides immense external protection.
This brings us back to the practice of mizan – balance and moderation, especially for the sake of our health, a gift and trust from Allah.
We can (and should!) enjoy the sun in moderation sans sunscreen when we learn how to practice safe sun exposure for the incredible therapeutic effects. We must also equip our body’s antioxidant capacities with nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, and we can certainly enjoy the occasional French fries and samosas!
There is a great deal of nuance to this topic, especially regarding sunscreens (which ones to use, how often we choose to apply it, wearing sunscreen indoors, etc.) so please note there are a few things that are beyond the scope of this article. I also have not mentioned or discussed vitamin D supplementation as this really depends on blood levels (hence, the importance of getting tested) and supplementation should be taken under the guidance of a nutritional therapist, GP, and/or health practitioner. Furthermore, safe sun exposure during the summer months should be sufficient for most people to accumulate vitamin D to last the winter months, unless of course there is a genetic variation that prevents this or makes this difficult.
The goal of this article is to offer some food for thought on enjoying and benefiting from the sunshine. Heliotherapy should be implemented as part of our lifestyle in the similar way we hydrate with water throughout the day or schedule time for exercise during the week. It could be a daily 10-minute walk after dhuhr or sipping your afternoon tea in the garden. These small lifestyle habits reap the greatest rewards in creating lifelong health inshaAllah.
Disclaimer: This information does not constitute medical advice. Consult your doctor or healthcare provider for advice regarding any medical condition. Do not attempt to self-diagnose or treat medical conditions based on this information.
Ashiya Mendheria is a nutritional therapist, and works with women and children of all ages, to cultivate wholesome health by focussing on nutrition and lifestyle changes. Ashiya believes health and vitality can be elevated through practical actions found in the daily, small but consistent habits.