Summer is my favorite time of year.  I’m a sumer baby.  As a child I grew up in sunny Atlanta. I played outside, went water skiing and spent long lazy summer days floating in an inner tube with friends in North Georgia.  As an young adult, living in the gorgeous mountains of beautiful Idaho, I spent my summers out in the sun hiking through fields of wildflowers to Alpine Lakes and laying out in the yard with my buddies. The simple solution…Sunscreen.  Right?  Well, as it turns out, not quite.

Back in the 1980s, when sunscreen manufacturers recruited marketing experts to develop brilliant campaigns “educating” consumers on the importance of using sunscreen they didn’t exactly give us all the facts, probably because they didn’t know them – yet.  In fact, for the past few decades, the medical industry has been screaming that “sunlight is dangerous for your health” and telling you to cover yourselves with sunscreen.  And BOOM, the sunscreen industry took off and we, as a nation, became deficient in the vital Vitamin D.

Well, thank goodness current research has discovered some very important information about the sun, vitamin D, and sunscreen.

The reality of our situation is that many of us are going around deficient in vitamin D and our health is taking a serious toll as a result.  According to recent reports in the American Journal of Public Health an estimated 85% percent of Americans are vitamin D deficient. And based on numerous studies that have shown D’s crucial role in strengthening bones, fighting depression, and boosting immunity it’s integral that we be pro-active in maintaining healthy levels of vitamin D.

This is why I’m taking the time to share this info with you, so you can be informed and pro-active.

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is actually a fat soluble hormone, but for convenience sake we call it a vitamin.  The two major forms are Vitamin D2 and D3.  Vitamin D2 is found in fungi, plants, and fortified foods or supplements.  Vitamin D3 is synthesized in our skin when our skin is exposed to UVB light from the sun.

Vitamin D synthesis starts in the skin.  Then the liver and kidneys process Vitamin D to it’s final, active form.

What Causes Vitamin D Deficiency?

• The main cause is lack of sunlight. This may be due to your geography (living above latitudes of 35 degrees – north of Los Angeles and Atlanta), skin color (darker skinned people need more time in the sun), application of sunscreen (SPF 15 sunscreen can block 99% of Vit. D synthesis), or avoiding the sun for fear of sun damage.

• Inadequate Vitamin D intake (from fortified foods or supplements) and diseases of the liver and kidneys (which may affect conversion of vit. D to its active form) also promote deficiency.

• Obesity promotes Vitamin D deficiency because vit. D is a fat soluble hormone that is sequestered into fat cells, and as a result is not available for circulation.

• Age contributes to Vitamin D deficiency, because it’s more difficult to synthesize vitamin D as you age. After equal doses of sunlight exposure, a 70 year- old produces 25% less vitamin D3 than a 20 year-old. That’s why people 50 or older may benefit by doubling their unprotected sun exposure time on the sun exposure chart below.

Maybe you’re thinking, “If this is such a big problem, why haven’t I heard about it in the news?”

Great question.  The reason why you haven’t heard about all this recent research is simple: you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to get your hands on vitamin D. Luckily, your body produces vitamin D with unprotected sun exposure during certain times of the day and certain months of the year (depending on your geographical location).

What are the Health Benefits of Vitamin D?

• Vitamin D is an essential hormone for healthy bones, immune function and blood cell formation. Regular exposure to sunlight allows our skin cells to use ultraviolet-B rays to synthesize vitamin D, which has multiple health benefits.

• Vitamin D is essential for the your body to function properly. It regulates cells all over your body – including the brain, heart, kidneys, bones, intestines, skin, gonads, prostate, breasts, parathyroid gland, and immune system.

• Vitamin D is important for bone health-it regulates calcium and phosphorus in the blood. It can suppress the immune system, to fight against conditions like Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, and Multiple Sclerosis.

• Vitamin D can activate the immune system, to fight cancer and infections like TB, Pneumonia, and Flu, and decrease the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Vitamin D helps prevent diabetes by modifying the release and response to insulin.

• Receptors in your brain need Vitamin D to keep hunger and cravings in check, as well as to pump up levels of the mood-elevating chemical serotonin.

How Much Vitamin D Do We Need And Where Do We Get It?

According to Carole Baggerly, who is the owner of the Baggerly research lab, most people who are experiencing various health issues might find that their vitamin D levels are very low – usually in the range around 20 and below.  She suggests that it takes 8,000 IUs (international units) per day to get your serum level in the safe zone for the majority of the population, which she says is above 40 nanograms per ml.  This information is in a published study that was conducted on 8,000 people through   Many educated health professionals now believe that optimum levels should be between the 50 to 80 range.

We need up to 10,000 IU of Vitamin D daily to maintain adequate levels in our bodies. However, Vitamin D levels fluctuate with geography as mentioned above.

The Best Source of Vitamin D is Sunlight
When the UV (ultra-violet) index is 3 or higher. Most people can make up to 10,000 IU of Vitamin D per day with maximum UVB exposure according to the chart below.

What is the UV Index?

UV Index is an international standard measurement of UV (ultra-violet) radiation from the sun for a particular place and time. It takes into account UVA and UVB rays, with values ranging from 0 at night to 17 in areas where the ozone is depleted. It predicts how strong UV intensity will be at the sun’s highest point – 2 to 4 hours either side of solar noon. The UV Index helps people protect themselves from UV light.

One hour of sun exposure at UV Index 10 is about the same as two hours of sun exposure at a UVI 5.

How and When Do We Get Vitamin D?

Vitamin D3 is synthesized in our skin when our skin is exposed to UVB light from the sun. Ultraviolet B rays are not available from the sun in the early morning and late afternoon, or during months of the year when the sun is below 50 degrees to the horizon, which is different for different geographical locations.

When is the Sun above 50 degrees to the horizon where you live?

There is a great website that is produced by the U.S. Navy that has a simple user-friendly calculating table to determine the times and days of the year that the sun is above 50 degrees from the horizon. All you have to do is plug in your city and state, choose a date and click on the calculation button.  The table then gives you the hourly calculations for that date.  It’s a very handy tool.  You want to look for the times of day when the sun is 50 degrees and above, which is usually between 10 am and 2 pm.

Visit the U.S. Navy Observatory Azimuth table website to calulate when the sun is above 50 degree to the horizon in your geographic location:

For example:
I did the calculations for Atlanta, Georgia (where I live) and discovered that UVB rays are only available in this area between April and October (approximately 7 months per year).  The remainder of the year it’s a good idea to take a vitamin D3 supplement to maintain healthy levels of vit. D.

Adequate sun exposure for each individual depends on two important factors:

1) The UV index (UVI)
2) Your skin type.

• It means that approximately 60% of your skin must be exposed to the sun between 10:00am and 2 pm (when UVB is available).
• about 3-4 times per week when your local UV index is 3 or higher.
• With no sunscreen protection (shorts, sleeveless T-shirt, or swimsuit).

Check the chart above for the approximate amount of time to spend in the sun based on the UV index and your skin type.

Remember that early in the day and late in the day, sunlight provides only UVA, which doesn’t help us make Vitamin D, but can still cause skin damage.

What if you can’t get enough sun?

Then the next best strategy would be to use a Vitamin D3 supplement (and to a smaller extent foods such as cod liver oil) to maintain optimum levels, boosting calcium absorption, protecting your bones and improving your overall health.

What about Cancer from Sun Exposure?

Ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) are the two types of sun rays that travel through the earth’s atmosphere and shine directly on your lovely skin. You just learned that a little unprotected fun in the sun is good for you, but what about longer stretches of time? UVA and UVB rays are responsible for the golden tan so many people try to attain each year. You might think that this sun-kissed tone is healthy. Once again, in part we have all those old suntan oil marketing campaigns from back in the 70s to thank for that. Think again. When your skin darkens, it’s actually a warning sign that your body is trying to prevent further DNA damage. This is just one example of the ways UVA and UVB impact your health. Let’s explore the difference between the two, so that we know why it’s important to protect our skin from both.

UVA rays penetrate beneath the top layer of your skin. They’re mostly to blame for wrinkles, leathery skin, sagging skin and sun spots. These UVA rays can bust through clouds on a gloomy day, seep through your car windows, and they can even sneak through some clothing. Although UVA rays are less likely to give you a sunburn, they’re still linked to increasing your risk of skin cancer because they can damage your basal and squamous skin cells.

UVB rays impact the top layer of your skin. They’re the main contributor to skin cancer and your worst enemy when it comes to sunburns. UVB rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm, especially during the summer months. Clearly UVA and UVB rays are nothing to take lightly.  So it’s imperative to know how much unprotected sun exposure is safe for you – and vital for you to get.

* Keep in mind that a sunburn is probably cancer promoting, but so is no sun exposure!

How well does sunscreen protect your skin?

If you’re relying on that bottle of sunscreen to protect you from all the risks of sun exposure, you’re not seeing the big picture. Sun protection is two-fold – think safe sunscreen plus safe sun habits. Just any ole’ sunscreen once a day isn’t the sure fire fix.

What do the letters and numbers mean on sunscreen bottles?

Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

SPF only protects you from sunburn (UVB rays). When you see the SPF number on a bottle, think of it as a measure of time. The math is pretty simple. If your skin would typically burn after 10 minutes in the sun, a sunscreen with SPF 15 should allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer (150 minutes [or 2 hours 30 min.]) before your skin would start to burn. But that number doesn’t take your activities into account. Sweating, swimming and other physical exercise can lower the effectiveness of your sunscreen’s SPF, which means you may need to apply it more often.

UVA & UVB Protection

Your sunscreen may be protecting you from sunburn by blocking UVB rays (if you’re re-applying it often enough and using a sufficient amount), but you’re still vulnerable to skin damage if you’re not protected from UVA rays as well.

People should get enough sun exposure for Vitamin D synthesis, based on the UV index and their skin type (see chart above). After that, use a sun block or cover up with shirts, hats, etc. Sun blocks are great at protecting us from burns and skin damage, but they don’t prevent cancer.

How to select a safer sunscreen

When choosing any personal care product, be your own health advocate. There are chemicals in the many of the products on your drugstore’s shelves that have been linked with cancer, birth defects and a variety of other health issues. Sunscreen is not exempt.

For starters, here are a few red flags to look out for when scanning sunscreen labels:

• Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or “retinol”): Linked to increased cancer cell growth.

• Oxybenzone: Hormone disrupter—experts caution against using it on children.

• Powder or spray mineral-based sunscreens (usually on ingredient label as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide): These ingredients are typically safe in lotion form, but can cause internal damage if inhaled.

The EWG Guide to Sunscreens 2014 is chock full of research and product information. Check it out to get the scoop on more than 1,800 products including sunscreens, lip balms with SPF, moisturizers and makeup.

And here are some of EWG’s top-rated sun care products in the beach and sport sunscreens category, for adults and kids:

How to have a healthy relationship with the sun

Now that you’re a sun aficionado, here are six steps to creating a comprehensive sun protection plan without sacrificing the benefits and joy those radical rays offer us each day.

1. Get your D. Spend unprotected time in the sun a few times per week to meet your vitamin D needs: follow the sun exposure chart.  Learn which months of the year UVB rays are available from the sun in your geographical location by checking the US Naval Observatory Azimuth table.

2. Buy safer sunscreen. Check labels for toxic chemicals and use EWG’s guide to choose the best sunscreen for you. Look for broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) coverage and a SPF of at least 15 and no more than 50.

3. Use sunscreen responsibly. Apply the recommended amount (usually about 1 shot glass per application) 30 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply according to the SPF or even more often if you are sweating or swimming.

4. Cover up! The best protection from the sun is complete protection. Hats, clothing, a shady tree or an umbrella are some of the easiest ways to help prevent sun damage.

5. Always be prepared. Carry sun protection and sunscreen with you at all times. You never know when you or your children will need it.

6. Get your vitamin D levels checked at least once a year, so you can be sure to maintain adequate levels for optimum health benefits.

A Helpful UV Index Tool

I downloaded a FREE app onto my iPhone called, Ultraviolet – UV Index.  It tells me the current UV index for my location, as well as the current temperature.  Then it has a nifty “Time To Burn” feature that allows me to plug in the current UVI, select the type of environment (desert, city building, grassy, ocean), select my skin type, and what number SPF sunscreen I’m wearing in order to calculate the amount of time I can spend in the sun before I start to get a sunburn.  When I hit the start button it starts a timer that sends me an alert to remind me I’ve been out in the sun long enough – it’s either time for more sunscreen or get out of the sun!  I use this tool every day when I go out into the sun to get my daily dose of Vitamin D.  The Weather Channel lists the UV index on local weather reports. Visit the EPA Sunwise Index to find your local UV index for an hour each side of solar noon. This webpage warns you to cover up, use sunblock or stay out of the sun during that time, to avoid sun burns. Use the chart above for safe exposure times, and get your Vitamin D before you cover up!

Bottom Line

Vitamin D supplements can’t replace our human need for sunlight! For those who can, you can do things like make it a daily practice to eat your lunch outside when UVB light is available from the sun in your geographical area. And, of course, be sure to head outside for some plain ol’ fun in the sun from time to time-  Just be smart about it!

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