A weekend of summery weather, and suddenly New Yorkers are outside in droves getting skin cancer.
Or at least that’s what my mom (and much of the US health establishment) would have you believe. UV rays are carcinogenic, so you should slather on sunscreen, wear a hat and stay inside. But like many health questions, the full story of sun exposure is more complicated than the basic soundbite.
For example, on the one hand, childhood severe sunburns are associated with an increased risk of melanoma. On the other, people who work outside with a lot of sun exposure (like farmers or fishermen) actually have lower melanoma rates than indoor workers, and better prognoses when they do have melanomas.
You can find a bunch of similar evidence in both directions, because there’s an inherent trade-off in staying out of the sun. UV rays damage skin cells’ DNA, making cancers more likely. But they also help your body create vitamin D, which protects against cancer, and is hugely important to your health in a slew of other ways.
Being healthy, then, involves a Goldilocks approach to sun: not too much, but not too little, either. And in recent years, the pendulum has swung far into the shade. Enough so that scientists behind a recent literature review concluded that we need more UV:
“The overall health benefit of an improved vitamin D status may be more important than the possibly increased [melanoma] risk resulting from carefully increasing UV exposure.”
So what should we do? According to the research, being tan is healthy, but getting tan is less so, and getting sunburned is terrible. So ease yourself into the summer. You want small, regular doses of sun initially, so you can begin to tan slowly and as safely as possible. Then make sure you’re out in the sun consistently throughout the summer. Use sunscreen and cover-ups sufficient to make sure you never burn, but not so much that you reach fall as pasty-white as you doubtless are right now.