By the HELP Committee
and Havre Public Schools
Most everybody knows the basics when it comes to protection from the sun and its harmful rays: Limit time in the sun, wear sunscreen, dress properly and drink plenty of water.
What is less understood, however, is that controlled sun exposure is actually essential to good health.
So, how can a person be sure to enjoy the full benefits of sun exposure without suffering the damaging effects of overexposure?
Sunscreen for starters
Sunscreen helps prevent sunburns caused by harmful ultraviolet or UV rays. These rays are strongest and, therefore, most harmful between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is true even on overcast days. Thorough application of sunscreen with a sun protection factor, known as SPF, of 15 or greater will provide adequate protection for most people.
The SPF rating indicates how long the sunscreen will protect. A sunscreen with a 15 SPF will make it possible to be in direct sunlight, without burning, 15 times longer than if no sunscreen were used. So, if a person typically burns after 20 minutes in direct sunlight, a 15 SPF sunscreen will provide protection for 15 times 20 minutes, which equals 300 minutes or five hours.
Sweating and swimming will diminish a sunscreen's protection, even if the product claims to be waterproof. And, being on or near a reflective surface, such as water, snow or pavement, further intensifies the sun's rays and can lead to more rapid burning. For surest protection in these situations, reapply sunscreen every two to three hours.
Eight glasses are not enough
As a rule of thumb, everybody should drink half their weight in ounces of water each day. For example, a 150-pound person should drink 75 ounces of water daily. Do not to wait for thirst to signal the need for water. Thirst actually indicates the beginning of dehydration. At that point, drinking water will be even more important, as it will help prevent heat-related illnesses.
Not all beverages are created equal. Fluids that contain caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar should be avoided because these beverages actually cause fluid loss. At the same time, avoiding very cold drinks is wise, as they can cause stomach cramps.
What to wear for the weather
Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and sunglasses that are labeled to provide UVA/UVB protection. Too much sun exposure can ultimately lead to permanent vision loss and cataracts.
Sun's many health benefits
While it is important to avoid prolonged exposure to the sun's harmful UV rays, recent studies by the American Association of Cancer Research have shown that limited amounts of unprotected sun exposure can be beneficial in the prevention of certain cancers and even osteoporosis. This is because sun exposure is the body's best source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for the body to absorb calcium, and increased levels of vitamin D help protect against colon, stomach, esophagus, breast and prostate cancers.
This is not, however, a defense for unlimited sun exposure. Twenty minutes of sun bathing in a swimsuit provide between 10,000 and 20,000 units of vitamin D. The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is just 2,000 units. So how much time should a person spend in the sun to get the recommended amount? It all depends on the person's diet, skin color and age, but five or 10 minutes a day is a general guideline.
Sun exposure also provides mental health benefits and is extremely beneficial in the treatment of depression. This is because light influences various physiological and psychological functions and affects serotonin levels in the brain, which improve mood. Moderate sunlight can also influence fertility in women and lessens the incidence of premenstrual syndrome. Women receiving adequate levels of sunlight report less depression, fewer mood swings, better sleep, more energy, increased concentration and greater mental alertness.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of sunlight is the strengthening of the immune system. Fungal infections of the skin are cured or go into remission after sunlight therapy. White blood cells and antibody levels increase, and neutrophils - a class of infection-fighting white blood cells - are stimulated to engulf bacteria more rapidly with exposure to ultraviolet light or sunlight in amounts that do not redden skin.
Studies have shown that repeated short exposures to the sun also lower cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure and blood sugar. Sunlight speeds the elimination of toxic chemicals, reduces jaundice, and improves acne and psoriases. Lastly, sunlight has been found to be beneficial in the treatment of chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia and bulimia.
So, get out there and enjoy the sun - in moderation, of course.
The HELP Committee and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line is committed to promoting safe and healthy living for everyone in the community. For more information on this or related topics, call 265-6206.