A little sunshine every day can bring a glowing array of healthy skin benefits, says Amanda Riley-Jones

The sun has had a bad press for so many years you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s public enemy number one, to be avoided and protected against at all costs. But the latest research suggests a good dose of regular sunshine, taken year-round, offers a host of powerful health benefits.

Healthy skin in the sun

Get healthy skin in the sun (c)iStock

Stay safe in the sun

Cancer Research UK advises:

  1. Most of us can make enough vitamin D from short, everyday exposure to the sun without protecting our skin or risking sunburn – however, we can’t store extra vitamin D, which is why regular exposure is so vital.
  2. For longer exposure, even high-factor sunscreens can’t provide 100% protection. Cover up or take to the shade between 11am and 3pm. Generally, the more easily you burn, the higher your risk of skin cancer. Buy sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor of at least 15 (to protect from ultraviolet B rays). In the past, we might have thought SPF15 meant we were protected for 15 times longer than it would take us to burn. But Cancer Research UK does not recommend this formula.
  3. Use a sunscreen with at least four stars or the letters UVA in a circle (to show that it protects from ultraviolet A rays). Both UVA and B rays cause skin damage and can cause skin cancer.
  4. Make sure you cover hard-to-reach areas, re-apply often (even with waterproof sunscreen) and use enough. In your swimsuit, you need to apply around two tablespoons.

It boosts mood and energy

No wonder everyone gets a spring in their step when the sun comes out. Sunshine raises our levels of serotonin – the body’s natural ‘happy hormone’.

‘Sunshine can have a profound effect on mood,’ says leading nutritionist Dr John Briffa. ‘Lack of sunlight is thought to be the major factor in Seasonal Affective Disorder.’

Getting outside in the sun can help keep stress and moderate depression at bay, and exercising outdoors creates more feel-good endorphins than indoor exercise.

Dr Briffa suggests taking a 15-minute walk at the start and end of the day, as well as at lunchtime.  ‘Lunchtime is particularly important in the winter as this may be the only time you can get natural light exposure,’ he adds.

It powers our circadian rhythm

Exposure to sunlight affects some of the hormones and chemicals in our bodies and we need sunshine to maintain our circadian rhythm – the 24-hour cycle that regulates our physical, mental and behavioural changes.

For instance, when we produce the hormone melatonin, it makes us drowsy and helps us sleep at night. In the mornings, sunlight tells our bodies to stop producing it so we can stay awake and alert throughout the day.

Dr Irshaad Ebrahim from The London Sleep Centre advises, ‘Try to spend more time outside during daylight and keep curtains and blinds open during the day to help maintain your circadian rhythm.

‘Try going outside for 15 minutes at the same time every day, preferably in the morning. Leaving off sunglasses helps sunlight reach the brain’s pineal gland more easily.’

It protects against some cancers

We’ve all got the message that over-exposure to the sun increases our risk of skin cancer.  What’s less well known is that sunlight can help reduce the risk of other types of cancer.

‘There are two sides to every coin and sunlight is no exception,’ says Dr Briffa. ‘There is evidence that vitamin D has the ability to combat the development and spread of cancerous tumours.’

People exposed to high levels of sunlight were significantly less likely to die from breast and colon cancer according to a US National Cancer Institute study. Cancers of the bladder, womb, oesophagus and stomach were less likely, too.

The theory is that vitamin D revs up our immune systems by activating T cells that recognise and attack cancer cells.

It strengthens our bones

Here’s one that we’ve all known  since school. We need vitamin D to help us absorb calcium from our food to keep our bones and teeth strong; it’s thought we need the vitamin for our muscles, too. But with our increasingly indoor lives, The National Osteoporosis Society’s Sunlight Campaign is reminding us to get some sunshine.

‘Most of us should be able to get enough vitamin D just by being out and about. Adults should try to get 10 minutes’ sun exposure on bare skin, once or twice a day, depending on skin type,’ says senior osteoporosis nurse Sarah Leyland to boost healthy skin.

It may help control asthma

Researchers at King’s College London say that vitamin D calms an over-active part of the immune system in asthmatics.

‘We know that people with high levels of vitamin D are better able to control their asthma – the connection is quite striking,’ says researcher Professor Catherine Hawrylowicz. ‘We think treating people with vitamin D could make steroid-resistant patients respond to steroids or allow those who can control their asthma to take fewer steroids.’

It’s good for your heart

Cardiac health is worse in the winter and in countries further from the equator.

‘Lack of exposure to sunlight can increase the risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease,’ warns Martin Feelisch, Professor of experimental medicine at the University of Southampton.

Even a modest drop in blood pressure cuts our risk of heart attacks and stroke. So it was good news when researchers found that time under a sunlamp reduced volunteers’ blood pressure significantly.

They think that the rays triggered healthy skin to release a compound that relaxed blood vessels, causing blood pressure to fall. Research is ongoing.

It could reduce diabetes risk

11.5 million of us in the UK are at risk of getting type 2 diabetes and we’re always hearing that being overweight is the biggest risk. But researchers from the University of Málaga think that sunshine may play an even bigger role.

Although the dynamics are complicated and further research is needed, in February this year, the researchers announced that their studies had indicated that people with low levels of vitamin D are more likely to be both overweight and have type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.

The sun-powered vitamin

There has been a huge surge of interest and research into vitamin D, the ‘sunshine vitamin’, in the last few years. We can’t simply eat our way to good vitamin D levels – most of it is made under our skins, in reaction to sunlight.

Only a small amount is found in a few foods such as oily fish and eggs. One in five adults in England is low in vitamin D, according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, and as we age, our healthy skin becomes less efficient at forming it, too.

It helps skin complaints

People with eczema or psoriasis often find the sun improves their skin.

‘These inflammatory diseases usually improve in sunlight – or with artificial phototherapy,’ confirms Dr Richard Weller, senior lecturer in dermatology at Edinburgh University.

‘The mechanism is not fully understood, but dampening down aspects of the immune system is probably at the heart of it.’