Four Ways to Stay Safe in the Sun

Posted on 05/17/2018

We've turned into the "Indoor Generation." And it's killing us.

A new survey conducted for the Danish window and skylight company Velux found that on average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors.

There are several problems with this. The first is that air quality in the home can also cause problems – things like mold or mildew put us at risk for breathing trouble, for example. But moreover, we aren't getting enough sun exposure.

Remember, vitamin D produced by the body from sunlight is important in preventing several diseases – such as multiple sclerosis and depression. It's also associated with lower rates of pancreatic cancer... one of the deadliest cancers out there. There's even evidence that sun exposure lowers blood pressure and reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes. One study in Sweden even saw that people who spent more time outdoors in the sun lived longer.

We even know that spending time in the sun boosts our endorphins, making us feel happy and calm. That's important in an age of increasing anxiety, depression, and overall stress levels.

I encourage my readers to go out and spend time in the sun... in fact, it's on my list of top health tips every year. If you're afraid of getting sunburn or other problems, read today's issue. With warmer weather finally here, we want to focus on what you need to know about sun protection...

1. Know your skin type.

An important first step to protecting your skin from too much sun is to figure out your skin type. The best method is to use a simple guide called the Fitzpatrick Skin Type system. The questionnaire breaks down into genetic components (your eye color, hair color, etc.) and reactivity (how quickly you burn). Adding up the points you receive, you then determine your skin type. It ranges from Type I (you always burn) to Type VI (never burn).

Your skin type helps determine how long you can be in the sun until you start to burn. The lighter you are, the more quickly you will burn. You can figure out your type right here.

But just because you rate as an easy burner doesn't mean you should ladle on the sunblock with a trowel. A much better option is managing your exposure – covering your skin and minimizing time outside when the sun is strongest.

For example, if you have Type I or Type II skin, going outside without sunblock and with arms and legs exposed for about 10 minutes is enough to produce all the vitamin D you need. You can calculate it more in depth with something called the UV index.

2. Know the UV Index.

A good way to measure sun exposure is to look at the UV index. It tells you how strong UV radiation is during the day. You can search by zip code here on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website. For days when it's very high, staying inside or in the shade is a safer option, particularly for seniors and those who burn quickly.

You can use the UV index to calculate the "standard erythemal dose" (SED). This is the amount of sun needed to produce enough vitamin D.

To calculate a single unit, take your UV index level and divide 60 minutes by that number. So as of this writing, the UV in Baltimore is 8. That means we get seven-and-a-half minutes. That's one SED.

Then, find your skin type and figure out how much time you need to spend without sunscreen. If you're "very fair" or about a I or II on the Fitzpatrick scale, that means you need 1 to 2 SEDs, or about seven to 14 minutes.

Here's a basic guide from Consumer Reports:

Skin Type

SED Needed for Burn

Very fair






Moderate brown


Dark brown or black


Consumer Reports, On Health. June 2018.

3. Don't waste money on high SPFs.

Sunscreens with SPF 8 block 87% of UVB rays (the ones that burn your skin). SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93%. SPF 30 blocks
97%. SPF 100 sunscreens block 99%.

So you are slathering on more toxic concentration for only marginally better protection if you use SPF 100 versus SPF 30.

And despite that high SPF, you're still not protected against UVA rays, which reach deeper levels of skin and increase your risk of developing certain types of skin cancer.

I prefer using SPF 8 when I can... It takes me about 20 minutes before I burn in strong sunlight, so with SPF 8, I get 160 minutes of protection. That's my burn rate (20 minutes) times the SPF (8).

And if your concern is skin cancer, make sure your sunscreen protects against UVA rays. UVA rays damage our DNA because they penetrate farther. These are the ones that also cause you to tan. If you want to protect against them, look for a broad-range sunscreen (one that protects against UVA and UVB).

4. Use common sense.

When I go out for longer than my usual lunchtime walk, I practice common sense to avoid damage. For instance, I avoid going out too long between about 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. during the hottest part of the summer or on very sunny days.

What's more, if you do go out then, wear hats, particularly wide-brimmed ones. That helps protect the sensitive parts of your face, ears, and neck. Invest in cover-ups, hats, and light jackets for the summer, too. Some companies like Sunday Afternoons even make sun-protective swim shirts.

And always wear sunglasses. Sun exposure damages your eyes. It promotes the development of cataracts, too.

Also, if you have a family history of skin cancer, take extra precautions. That includes checking yourself for skin cancer and going every few years for a skin cancer screening. Make sure you keep an eye on any strange moles and marks. You can read up on the ABCDEs of skin cancer right here.

Getting vitamin D from sunlight is the most effective way to get your daily amount. Don't become part of this Indoor Generation... Take the proper precautions and get outside and enjoy yourself.