How to avoid Vitamin D deficiency and skin cancer

When I was growing up in New York, I craved the hot weather and longed for tanning time in the sun. John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s song of Grease’s “Summer Nights” was my prelude for the season. Well, that was until I moved to the South and realized what summer was really like – LOL!

With summer naturally comes a lot of bright, sunny days and rays. Each year, we’re reminded to stock up on sunscreen, and many of us might opt for the higher SPFs to protect ourselves and family from harmful rays.

Protection from harmful sun exposure isn’t as simple as a higher number on the bottle, however. Even more so, we need some sun exposure to ensure we’re getting all the vitamins and nutrients we need to stay healthy and well. Today, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of sun exposure do’s and don’ts, with practical tips for how you can stay safe in the sun this summer.

What are the benefits of sun exposure?

Spending adequate time in the sun each day is key to getting enough vitamin D. One of vitamin D’s core functions is assisting with cell division and proliferation, allowing our skin to stay healthy and repair itself when damaged or aging. A vitamin D deficiency has been connected to lower endurance, muscle weakness, and stress fractures, which can be expected from the decreased ability for cells to repair and reproduce.

There are more negative effects of little time in the sun, however; low levels of vitamin D have also been connected to increased depression in women, chronic pain, mood issues, fatigue, decreased immune function, and more. Getting sun exposure each day is important to unlocking your overall wellness; the trick is finding the balance of just enough sun exposure to get what you need in vitamin D.

It is generally recommended that folks with darker skin need more time in the sun – anywhere ranging from 30-45 minutes a day – as their skin is more protective against the sun’s rays. This is great for avoiding melanoma and skin cancers, but requires more time in the sun to get adequate vitamin D. If you are very pale or light skinned, less time in the sun is recommended per day (about 15-20 minutes), as lighter complexions are more susceptible to sunburn and skin cancers but require less time to absorb vitamin D.

How can the sun be harmful?

As we’ve been commonly taught, there are a number of risks with excessive sun exposure, namely painful sunburns and various forms of skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute has reported that the rates of skin cancer have nearly tripled since the 1970s, and the CDC reports about 8,000 people will pass away from some form of melanoma each year. Though skin cancer’s exact causes are hazy, it is clear that sun exposure contributes to its development.

There are two main rays from the sun that contribute to sunburns and skin cancer: UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays move into the more superficial layers of skin, and these are also the rays that provide vitamin D to our bodies. UVB rays are actually the main cause of sunburn, and consequently, most sunscreens are designed to protect mostly against these rays.

UVA rays, on the other hand, go into deeper layers of the skin. Research suggests that UVA rays are predominantly responsible for skin cancer, even though they don’t give you the uncomfortable sunburned splotches like UVB rays do. We run into trouble here because most sunscreens, especially in the United States, are not formulated to protect against UVA rays nearly as much as UVB rays.

When we don’t adequately protect ourselves from UVA rays, we put ourselves at risk of taking in too much of the harmful stuff from the sun, and potentially develop skin cancer down the line. Below, we’ve listed four tips to help you strike the tricky balance of avoiding vitamin D deficiency and skin cancer.

How can I enjoy the sun and protect myself?

Avoid high SPF sunscreens & sprays

SPF stands for sun protection factor, and if you’re shopping at Walmart on your way to the beach, chances are you’ll be inclined to buy a higher SPF sunscreen to feel more protected.

The number on your bottle of sunblock is not as reliable as it seems, however. A recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found that, on average, most sunscreens provide around half (42 – 59%) of the UVB ray protection that their SPF suggests. In other words, they’re only about half as effective as they market themselves to be.

Even worse, the UVA ray protection was typically only 25% of the SPF on the bottle. As a recap, to prevent skin cancer, UVA protection is especially important, as those rays go deeper into the skin and have the potential to cause cancer over time.

With the lack of effective sunscreens, it’s important to avoid the ones which tout themselves as most effective, which is typically high SPF sunscreens. As the EWG outlines in their recent report on sunscreen, high SPF products, specifically 50+, give users a “false sense of security” for a variety of reasons. With higher SPF, there’s typically a lower level of UVA protection, a minimal reported increase in protection from sunburn (as little as 1% increase from SPF 50 to SPF 100), and overall increased health risks, as higher SPF sunscreens typically have much higher concentrations of chemicals. Sunscreens with SPF between 30-50 provide the protection you need.

In addition, the EWG recommends avoiding any spray sunscreens. They’re incredibly convenient, I know – I’m sad to let them go myself! But these aerosol sprays often include benzene, which is a recognized carcinogen by the FDA, CDC, and International Agency for Research on Cancer. Take your time and spread the screen rather than spray it!

Use different forms of sun protection

Another simple tip is to use a variety of forms of sun protection. If you’ve already been out for a few hours, go ahead and take some time in the shade. Opt to wear hats, beach cover-ups, or get shady under a beach umbrella. Getting out of the sun after substantial time in it is generally more effective than sunscreen, and exposes you to less side effects and chemicals!

Use EWG researched and recommended products

Before we dive into some product recommendations, if you want the full story on SPF, sunscreen, and skin cancer, check out the EWG’s 2022 Guide to Sunscreen, linked here.

We’ve gone through and picked out a few of their research-based recommendations, and have shared their link on Amazon (though they should be available through a wide variety of retailers). Opt for one of these more effective and less chemically concentrated products this summer!

Sport Sunscreen:

365 Everyday Value Sport Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30
EWG Rating: 1/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Baby / Kids Sunscreen:

Pipette Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 50
EWG Rating: 1/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Babyganics Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+
EWG Rating: 2/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Non-Mineral Sport Sunscreen:

Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen Lotion, Aloe Vera, SPF 30
EWG Rating: 2/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Facial Moisturizers with SPF:

Cocokind Daily Facial Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 32
EWG Rating: 2/10 (1 Best, 10 Worst)

Buy on Amazon Here

Don't miss out

Subscribe now for access to exclusive content.