How to Sunbathe Safely

UPDATE: Fundamentally, there is no safe way to sunbathe, a tan is not protective, it is not healthy, irrespective of the natural vitamin D boost you get through exposing your sun to the skin and regardless of the feelgood factor of sunbathing.

girl sunbathingThe UK’s Health Research Forum, a pressure group opposing the blanket ban on sunbathing that other organisations are attempting to implement, has just published its second report – Sunlight, Vitamin D, & Health (Edited by Oliver Gillie).

The report covers a conference held at the House of Commons in November 2005 and endeavours to devour some of the claims made by sunscreen manufacturers and cancer charities about the nature of sunlight and its effects on our health. The main argument HRF makes is that safe sunbathing is good for you, and more to the point, not getting enough sun exposure is actually potentially very harmful. Of course, it does not suggest getting sunburn.

“Dermatologists always say that tanning is bad because sunlight damages DNA of skin cells and kills them,” Gillie told me, “The way they say it makes it seem quite scary. But it doesn’t surprise me that skin cells die in the process of protecting us against the sun – bowel cells die protecting us against food.”

He adds that this process of cell death is a normal cycle of cell multiplication and death in the skin that
speeds up when the skin is exposed to UV. “I contend that a tan is part of a normal process and not pathological as dermatologists have been telling us,” he adds, “And having a tan is definitely associated with protection against cancer e.g. prostate cancer, and there is evidence for other cancers too.”

With this in mind, the HRF has come up with a how to on sunbathing so that UV users and sunworshippers can glean all the benefits with none of the harm:

  1. Sunbathe safely – WITHOUT BURNING – every day if you can
  2. In the UK, midday* is the best time to sunbathe
  3. Start by sunbathing for 2-3 minutes, each side, gradually increase from day to day
  4. Don’t use sunblock or suntan cream, when doing so
  5. If you get hot or uncomfortable expose a different area or use suncream
  6. When abroad, reduce exposure
  7. Children benefit too, but need guidance
  8. A tan is natural and is generally associated with good health

Why midday? The sun is strongest in the middle of the day and so maximum vitamin D synthesis occurs in the shortest time. This is important especially in the UK climate where it’s often overcast and UV intensity can be low. More to the point, one’s lunch hour is a great time to get out of the workplace on a sunny day (unless you’re a gardener of course, in which case you may want to sit in darkened room to eat your sandwiches), and that can have psychosociological benefits too.

Gillie adds, “Gardening is very good – you need to get as much sun/vit D as you can to see you through the winter,” he told me, “My suggestion is to protect your face with a hat much of the time because the face is otherwise always exposed – but be sure to take your shirt off and wear shorts whenever it is hot – and avoid burning.”

The full report is available as a pdf (912kb) here. I raised the issue of sunshine safety and cancer prevention in a previous write-up – sunshine, but organisations such as Cancer Research UK and RAFT (the Restoration of Appearance and Function Trust) contend that sunlight is the major risk factor for skin cancer.

UPDATE: New York Times and others are reporting on research this week that suggests that some types of sunscreen may do more harm than good, especially if they give users a false sense of security about sun exposure. Other recent work suggests that in the laboratory, at least, UVB (ultraviolet-B rays; 315–280 nm) do more damage to the DNA of skin cells (and so putatively lead to melanomas) than UVA (ultraviolet-A; 400–315 nm, lower energy per photon). The difference between UVA and UVB is simply a matter of wavelength/frequency of the ultraviolet electromagnetic radiation. The longer the wavelength (shorter frequency), the lower the energy.

10 thoughts on “How to Sunbathe Safely”

  1. UV ligtht is dangerous but if you dont get to much of it you are not likely to get burnt or get skin cancer,
    so just limit your times in the sun spread them out and you will be enjoying your holiday, all the time your there,

  2. Actually sunlight can even protect from cancer, with particular regard to skin melanoma, the most aggressive skin cancer. It looks like it’s a matter of the way you expose yourself to the sunlight: if you expose gradually and do not get burned, then the sun will be gentle on your DNA, otherwise if you get burned then you’ll be at higher risk of developing melanoma. I found a lot of information on this topic on a website dedicated to melanoma research ( I suggest everybody interested in this topic to have look at it !

  3. The truth is everyone is going to die of something. Even if you could shield yourself from the sun and get all your vitamin D needs from supplements, would you still enjoy life? If tanning makes people feel good, then far be it from me to stop people from doing it. Just recognize that the best evidence to date as judged by the most qualified researchers suggests that you’ll reduce your chances of getting cancer by avoiding UV exposure.

    How we personally feel about it doesn’t change the science. You could make all kinds of logical, reasonable reasons why sun tanning isn’t bad, but when you look at the scientifically controlled studies, the evidence is pretty compelling. UV causes skin cancer.

    But again, you have to die of something. If you like hanging out in the sun, feel free. At some point, living an enjoyable life has to trump living longer. Right?

  4. Thanks for you input on the sunbathing issue.

    As I understand it the people at Health Research Forum are basing their research on published studies, but I do think one thing they perhaps don’t emphasise adequately is that their recommendations don’t really apply to those of pale skin heading to sunnier climes where the locals tend to have higher intrinsic protection.

    My other guy feeling about sun exposure though is that we evolved over the course of millions of years under the sun, we didn’t suddenly emerge from under a rock and have to cope with a new threat. The same argument has been made about background, low-level radiation exposure, and that too usually receives little attention.

  5. It’s been demonstrated that UV exposure causes skin cancer. It also causes other undesirable skin conditions like wrinkling and spotting, etc. But UV exposure also helps stimulate vitamin D production which is good.

    Since I can’t be an expert on all the scientific studies out there I have to defer to the people that are experts.

    So, you ask yourself who are you going to believe?

    Sunscreen manufacturers? Probably not because they are biased to encourage you to buy more sunscreen.

    Health Research Forum? The work of 1 or 2 individuals who don’t actually do any research. Also doesn’t seem like a good choice.

    Cancer research groups? Connecting all of the scientists who do the actual studies and report first-hand knowledge. Seems like the best option.

    So, if the Cancer Research groups are saying you’d be better off to avoid the sun than to bath in it daily you’d need some pretty compelling evidence to go against that recommendation.

    For the recommendation on how to sunbathe safely, the steps seem arbitrary and don’t seem supported by any evidence.

    Where is the study that says sunlight exposure is more effective than the strategy of avoiding sunlight exposure and getting your required vitamin D from the food you eat?

    Where is the study that says reducing your exposure when traveling abroad is beneficial?

    I could go on but I won’t. Generally, I remain skeptical of “experts”. But in the case of UV exposure I’ve seen enough evidence that I’m convinced people should avoid sun exposure.

  6. My mother got skin cancer and when she sees the doc he’s always annoyed if she turns up with a tan! Isn’t there a link between skin cancer and getting a tan?


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