Conversations around sun exposure usually involve how best protect yourself from the evils of UV rays (skin cancer is scary as hell, y’all). While these are completely valid concerns, we’re here to shine a light—pun fully and proudly intended—on the other side of things: the benefits of sunlight.
It’s basic, really: we need sunlight to survive. If we didn’t, we’d be like those creepy see-through deep sea creatures. But we’re humans, not barreleye fish, and therefore we require a decent amount sunlight to not just live, but thrive. And it’s honestly pretty good for your bod—in moderation, of course.
I talked to the experts to understand the benefits of sunlight. Here’s what they said.
First things first: getting too much sun has its consequences—namely, skin cancer. Always, always wear sunscreen (at least SPF 30) before going outside to protect your skin from burns and future damage. Using sunscreen will not cancel out any sun benefits, especially vitamin D production (more on that in a sec), says Chirag Shah, MD, co-founder of Accesa Labs. In other words, no excuses to skip slathering on the SPF.
Now that we have that out of the way…time to learn all about the benefits of sunlight!
1. Sunlight = vitamin D
Sunlight giving you vitamin D is one of those wellness ideas that gets thrown about all the time without a lot of explanation to back it up. (See also: inflammation.)
Here’s the lowdown: “Vitamin D is produced using ultraviolet light from the sun and cholesterol in the skin,” says nutritionist Brooke Zigler, MPP, RDN, LD. Basically, UV light (specifically UV-B light) triggers a response in your skin that produces vitamin D.
And that matters—your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium and help with bone growth, says Zigler. It’s also important for muscle health and metabolism, says Shah. If you’re not getting enough vitamin D, Shah says, it can lead to a whole host of problems—decreased bone density, muscle aches, mood disorders, and a weaker immune system, to name a few.
The NIH recommends women aged 15-60 get 15 mcg per day of vitamin D. Thankfully, you can generally get it from five to 10 minutes of sun exposure two to three times a week, says Zigler. If you live in a place where there’s not a ton of natural sunlight for large parts of the year, you might want to try a vitamin D supplement, Zigler says. Take it with a meal that’s full of healthy fats like avocado or nuts, she adds, since fat can help your body absorb the mineral better.
And yes, you actually have to go outside to get vitamin D from sunlight. “Many types of windows block UVB wavelengths, preventing the synthesis of vitamin D,” Shah says. “As a result, it is unlikely that you will get enough UVB wavelength exposure through a window to lead to any meaningful vitamin D production.” Think of this as a great excuse to take a lunchtime walk.
2. Sunlight = better mood
And not just because it makes for a peppier Instagram backdrop than a gloomy day. “Past research has observed that sunlight is associated with the rate of production of serotonin in the brain, and that levels rise rapidly with increased light,” Shah explains. Quick refresher: Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps regulate your mood. Shah points to a study that found people’s mood improved in as little as a week, but notes that that will vary from person to person. Other studies have linked lack of sunlight to mood disorders, like Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).
3. Sunlight = instant energy boost
Raise your hand if you’ve liked countless memes on Instagram featuring some variation of being perpetually effing tired. Same. But sunlight can actually help with that. “When your eyes detect light, that tells your brain (the hypothalamus in particular) to wake up and release the cortisol you need to increase your metabolism and get through your day,” says Anna Cabeca, DO, hormone expert and board-certified ob-gyn. So maybe skip the blackout curtains you have in your Amazon cart.
4. Sunlight = potentially longer life
Again, conventional wisdom tells us to watch our sun exposure to avoid—very real, and very scary—dangers like skin cancer. But a 2014 study that looked at the sun habits of nearly 30,000 women in Sweden over the course of 20 years found that women who avoided the sun had a mortality rate twice as high as those who got a lot of sun exposure.
It’s worth noting, though, that the study was observational and needs to be reproduced. It also didn’t gather many details on other factors that could contribute to mortality rate, like the women’s exercise habits. That said, it’s still a pretty promising sign that getting a little more sun could help you live longer.
Brb, forwarding this to my boss and taking the rest of the day off to go lay out in the sun. It’s for my health!
Wondering how to choose a sunscreen sans harmful chemicals? Here are our favorite natural sunscreens for your face. And here’s exactly how much sunscreen you need to put on.