If you’re like most people, you spend about 90% of your days indoors. On the coldest days of winter or hottest days of summer, it can be even more. So what happens when we spend so many hours inside? We get less fresh air (and indoor air quality is typically 2-5 times more polluted than outdoors). We get less time in nature (which has been shown to have a multitude of benefits for health and well-being). And, we get less time basking in the rays of the sun.
Over the past couple of decades, the main public health message regarding sunshine has been focused on ensuring people don’t spend too much time in the sun in order to reduce the risk of skin cancer. However, an increasing body of evidence shows a litany of negative health effects when we don’t get enough. That’s exactly why sustainable home design (which focuses as much on the health of inhabitants as it does on the health of the planet) includes maximizing natural lighting. But that’s not the only benefit of inviting in some sunshine.
The sun radiates light to the earth, and part of that light consists of invisible UV rays. When these rays reach the skin, they cause tanning, burning, and other skin damage. UVA rays cause skin aging and wrinkling and contribute to skin cancer, such as melanoma (the most dangerous form of skin cancer). When UV rays enter skin cells, they upset delicate processes that affect the skin’s growth and appearance. Over time, exposure to these rays can make the skin less elastic. Sun exposure causes most of the skin changes that we think of as a normal part of aging.
Over time, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light damages the fibers in the skin called elastin. When these fibers break down, the skin begins to sag, stretch, and lose its ability to go back into place after stretching. The main risk factor for sunburn, premature skin aging, skin damage, and skin cancer is exposure to UV light from the sun. More than 90 percent of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. Using tanning beds and tanning lamps also increases the risk of skin damage and skin cancer.
The UV rays of the sun don’t just damage your skin. Ultraviolet keratitis is a generally temporary condition that can result from staring at the sun too long, causing a variety of eye issues. Long-term, unprotected exposure to ultraviolet light from the sun can damage the retina. The retina is the back of the eye, where the rods and cones make visual images, which are then sent to the visual centers in the brain.
Damage from exposure to sunlight can also cause the development of cloudy bumps along the edge of the cornea, which can then grow over the cornea and prevent clear vision. UV light is also a factor in the development of cataracts. Fortunately, the damage done by the sun burning your eyes typically isn’t permanent. Much like burns on your skin, it should heal itself in a few days. The risk of permanent damage is low if exposure to UV rays was limited to the front part of the eye, the cornea.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), heat exhaustion is the body’s response to excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. People working in a hot environment are at risk of heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion is a condition whose symptoms may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, a result of your body overheating. It’s one of three heat-related syndromes, with heat cramps being the mildest and heatstroke being the most severe. If heat exhaustion is left untreated, it can lead to heatstroke.
A heatstroke is a form of hyperthermia in which the body temperature is elevated dramatically. It is a medical emergency and can be fatal if not promptly and properly treated. The cause of heatstroke is an elevation in body temperature, often accompanied by dehydration. Heatstroke is the most serious heat-related illness and can be life-threatening. According to the CDC, heatstroke causes the body’s temperature to rise quickly and can reach up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit within 10 to 15 minutes. Heatstroke requires immediate medical attention because if it is left untreated, it can cause death or permanent disability.
If you notice heat stroke, call 911 immediately. Symptoms of heatstroke include:
Sunburns widely recognized as one of the most common negative effects of too much sun exposure. The maximum symptoms of sunburn do not usually appear until about four or five hours after the sun exposure occurs. Ultraviolet light is the cause of sunburn, which may come from the sun or even tanning beds.
General symptoms of sunburn include:
Flu-like symptoms, such as nausea, fever, chills or headache
If you notice a sunburn fever, it’s time to seek attention from a medical professional. Besides a fever, severe burns also involve significant pain and extensive fluid-filled blisters. Mild sunburn will continue for approximately 3 days. Moderate sunburn lasts for around 5 days and is often followed by peeling skin. Severe sunburn can last for more than a week, and the affected person may need to seek medical advice.
A heat rash is a skin rash that occurs when sweat ducts trap perspiration under the skin. Heat rash often takes place during hot, humid weather and, according to the CDC, often looks like red clusters of pimples or small blisters. Heat rash develops in skin folds, elbow creases, the groin or on the neck and upper chest. A heat rash can be treated by staying in a cool environment to prevent sweating and by keeping the affected area of skin dry. To help relieve the symptoms of heat rash, the CDC suggests using powder to increase comfort.
However, it is not advised to use ointment or creams. Bathe or shower in cool water with nondrying soap, then let your skin air-dry instead of toweling off. Use calamine lotion or cool compresses to calm itchy, irritated skin. Avoid using creams and ointments that contain petroleum or mineral oil, which can block pores further. They go away by themselves. If your heat rash doesn’t go away after 3 or 4 days, or if it seems to be getting worse, call your doctor.
The worst consequence of long-term exposure to the sun is the development of skin cancer. Too much UV radiation from the sun or sunbeds can damage the genetic material (the DNA) in your skin cells. If enough DNA damage builds up over time, it can cause cells to start growing out of control, which can lead to skin cancer. Because the sun damage to the skin develops over the years, the older you are, the greater the risk of developing skin cancer.
After years of exposure to the sunlight, providers look for three common types of skin cancer (in order of how often they occur): basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma. Cumulative sun exposure causes mainly basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer, while episodes of severe sunburns, usually before age 18, can raise the risk of developing melanoma.
This type of skin cancer almost always occurs on sun-damaged skin and is usually pink, shiny and raised. Doctors have noted that basal cell carcinoma is especially common in the beard area of men where they use a razor and take the top off cancer.
Although BCC doesn’t generally spread, it does get bigger and deeper over time and can become a problem if ignored. Basal cell carcinoma is a very slow-growing type of non-melanoma skin cancer. This type of skin cancer needs to be treated and has a high cure rate. If left untreated, basal cell carcinomas can become quite large, cause disfigurement, and in rare cases, spread to other parts of the body and cause death.
Squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs), also known as epidermoid carcinomas, comprise a number of different types of cancer that result from squamous cells. These cells form on the surface of the skin, on the lining of hollow organs in the body, and on the lining of the respiratory and digestive tracts.
In a small number of cases, SCC can spread to the lymph nodes and rarely to other organs. These can vary in severity and may require special surgical treatments, such as Mohs Surgery, for removal, if they are large or in difficult-to-treat areas. Squamous cell carcinoma of the skin is usually not life-threatening, though it can be aggressive. Untreated, squamous cell carcinoma of the skin can grow large or spread to other parts of your body, causing serious complications.
Melanoma is the least common of these skin cancers, but it is increasing every year, especially in young women between the ages of 18 and 29 because of the high rate of tanning bed use in this population. Melanoma is very dangerous and can occur in any place where there are pigment-producing cells, include the entire skin, moles, birthmarks and the eye. It does not have to be in direct sun-exposed areas, but sun exposure increases the risk.
It can spread to lymph nodes and beyond to other organs, including the brain, lungs, and liver. Melanoma is much more common in families with a history of abnormal moles or malignant melanoma. Those who have had melanoma have a significant risk of developing other melanomas, so doctors recommend regular skin checks.
23. Why are Tanning Beds More Harmful Than the Sun?
A common misconception, promoted by the tanning bed industry, is that tanning beds are safer to use for tanning than direct sun exposure. Many teens will tan before prom to look good in their dress clothes, but many doctors say, they aren’t doing themselves any favors. Tanning beds put out UVA light that is much more intense than what you receive outdoors because it does not work as efficiently as UVB light.
UVA goes significantly deeper into the skin than UVB and not only causes skin cancer, but it causes more leathery wrinkled skin. In the United States, research shows more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer each year are attributed to indoor tanning. Studies have shown the risk of malignant melanoma is much higher in people who use tanning beds.
One of the main environmental factors that ages our skin is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of skin aging is due to the effects of the sun! The sun causes proteins in our skin to deteriorate, leading to the loss of our youthful appearance over time. We associate wrinkles with aging, but sun exposure is a significant factor in their development and how early they appear. UV light damages collagen and elastic tissue in the skin, so it becomes fragile and does not spring back into shape, causing sagging.
The ultraviolet rays from the sun penetrate into the skin. There, they damage the elastic fibers that keep skin firm, allowing wrinkles to develop. Sunlight is also responsible for age spots or “liver spots” on the hands, face, and other sun-exposed areas. The only factor worse than UV light exposure for aging and wrinkling is cigarette smoking, which causes the skin to become yellowish and thick with deep wrinkles. Some people will also get white cysts and blackheads on the cheekbones from sun exposure and smoking. UV light exposure also causes white and dark spots on the skin, as it damages the surface cells.
Much of the damage to our skin caused by sun exposure can be prevented. If you are going to be outside for long periods, sit under a cover of a building, an umbrella or a tree that has dense shade underneath. The Kansa Medical Center says “The best way to get just enough sun exposure to get the benefits, but not so much to suffer the harms caused by sun rays, is just to expose your skin for the sun some time, and then cover the skin by clothes”.
Sun protection tips include:
Avoid the sun during peak hours of 10 am – 2 pm.
Wear clothing with UPF protection (ultraviolet protection factor) UPF 50+ helps block 98% of UVA/UVB rays.
Wear sunglasses with UV protection.
Wear a wide-brimmed hat.
Always apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outdoors, even on a cloudy day
While too much of the sun’s warm rays can be harmful to your skin, the right balance can have many benefits. When natural sunlight hits the skin it triggers the body’s production of vitamin D. It protects against inflammation, lowers high blood pressure, helps muscles, improves brain function and may even protect against cancer. Another important effect of sunlight in the early morning is the production of serotonin.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that, in moderately high levels, improves your mood and encourages a calm, focused mind. If serotonin levels drop, and melatonin levels are proportionately too high, feelings of tiredness, grogginess, and irritability are common and will only aggravate any feelings of stress you may be experiencing. Research has proven that natural lighting helps people be more productive, happier, healthier and calmer. Just be sure to use caution when enjoying the sun.