Summer is officially upon us – the season of beach vacations, outdoor sports, barbeques, and stocking up on sunscreen. Most of us have been raised with the notion that sun exposure is dangerous for us, and that we must do whatever we can to protect ourselves from the harmful rays. We buy the highest SPF sunscreen that money can buy, don wide-brim hats and extra dark sunglasses, and even shell out the big bucks for clothes that are UV-proof. But how much benefit are we really getting from taking all of these measures?

Cancer is a scary thing, and certainly nothing to take lightly. Nearly 100,000 cases of skin cancer occur in the U.S. each year, and aggressive melanomas can be deadly. However, we have to think about how much of the marketing around “sun protection” products is purely fear-based, and how much we’ve been buying into the idea that the life-giving sun is actually a serious threat to our health.

Americans are spending more time inside than ever before, and yet we are getting sick at the fastest rate we’ve ever seen in history. We can be pale and pasty, hidden away from the sun’s rays, but we still come down with a myriad of other diseases, especially those of metabolic and immune dysfunction. Some scientists are beginning to find correlations between the amount of sunny outdoor time one enjoys and the rates of things like depression, heart disease, cancer, and colds/flus. Not surprisingly, those who go out into the sun more frequently are shown to be happier, more optimistic, catch fewer colds, take fewer sick days from work, and have lower incidence of major diseases.

Now, you can draw many correlations from these kinds of studies, citing that fresh air and exercise are playing a role in these sunbathers’ health, and you’d be right – they certainly are. But if you focus your lens on one particular compound, the pro-sun evidence becomes even more compelling. Vitamin D, technically a hormone, is something that our bodies cannot manufacture all by themselves, but is something that is crucial for several major metabolic processes. You probably know that UV light is required for Vitamin D production, which is why it’s often dubbed, “the sunshine vitamin”. So what happens when you block UV rays from penetrating the skin, like when you wear sunscreen? That’s right, your body can’t make it!

While I’m certainly not advocating for everyone to throw out their sunscreen, I do think it’s time for a serious readjustment of our expectations of what it can do for us. Several major studies conducted in the last decade have repeatedly failed to find a link between SPF usage and cases of skin cancer. (You’ll never read that on a bottle of Banana Boat!) And, depending on the type of sunscreen you use, you may be at greater risk for cancer from the ingredients themselves, than any sun exposure might give!

As a society, we are suffering from a serious deficiency of Vitamin D, and our fear of the sun (and lack of time to access it) is actually making us sicker. Here are just a few of the major functions of this wondrous little molecule:

  • This hormone acts as an escort, to shuttle calcium and phosphorous into our bones, and regulates the levels of calcium in our blood, which is important for the functioning of all of our cells.
  • It helps out the immune system and improves immunological resilience by assisting white blood cell production and the recognition of “self” cells, preventing autoimmune conditions.
  • It smoothes out intercellular communication, which is needed for proper gene expression and protein building.

There are millions of Vitamin D receptors on our cells in every corner of our body, and when there is not enough Vitamin D to go around, physiological functions may weaken. Some symptoms of deficiency are:

  • Unexplained depression
  • Tendency to catch colds
  • Slow wound healing
  • Brittle, weak, or achy bones
  • GI upset or trouble absorbing nutrients
  • Splotchy skin, dark circles under the eyes
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue

Even if you don’t recognize any of these symptoms in yourself, there are certain risk factors that may make you more susceptible for a Vitamin D deficiency. These can be clues to help you increase your sun time or pay close attention to any health imbalances in the future:

  • Living in a highly polluted area
  • Chronic use of sunscreen
  • Spending a lot of time indoors or in a car
  • Living in areas with limited access to sunlight (tall buildings or overcrowding, especially)
  • Working long hours in an indoor office

Our bodies are designed for some sun exposure on a daily basis, even if it’s just for 10-15 minutes. If we expose just 20% of our skin to the sun for just 20 minutes, we can easily make all the Vitamin D we need for the day – pretty incredible, right? We just need to get over the fear that the sun is dangerous! But even for people who live in the northern latitudes, live in cloudy climates, or simply don’t have much access to sunlight, there are lots of delicious foods that contain high amounts of Vitamin D as well, such as:

  • Fresh, wild-caught salmon
  • Pastured egg yolks
  • Grass fed beef liver
  • Cod liver oil

Regardless of where you live and how you eat, it’s time to change our conversation around sun exposure, especially when it comes to the importance of Vitamin D to our health and vitality. You can supplement with it and eat foods rich in it, but nothing is as efficient as sunshine itself! Don’t be afraid to skip the sunscreen once in a while and wander outside – all of your cells with thank you!