“Oh Mr. Sun. Sun. Mr. Golden Sun, please shine down on me.”
That’s how the lyrics flow, but is it true? Your whole life you’ve been told to protect yourself from the sun – you’ll burn if you don’t and develop skin cancer. And if you’re too dumb to protect yourself, at least protect your kids.
In result, how many times have you witnessed the following scenario?
Mom and kids rush out of the family van at the park. The kids are ready to rush into their play zone just as Mom yells out: ‘Kids, don’t forget your sunscreen!!!’ She then takes a big gob of sunscreen and gives each kid a nice once-over, head to toe.
Chances are it’s exactly what you do. But hang on just a second…
Have No Fear, The Sun Is Here
Let’s get one thing straight: the sun is the source of life on earth, not death, and maybe there is something positive about it, more so than just the pleasant warmth on your face. Vitamin D is one example. You have probably heard that the sun is the only way to get vitamin D into your system without the use of supplements. You can’t get it from food. This vitamin is crucial to the healthy function of your body in so many ways. It regulates your genes (over 1,000 of them!), prevents a large number of diseases including various cancers, strengthens the immune system, and prevents depression (which, btw. is a significant disease of our times). Read up on Vitamin D and find out exactly how important it is – and we get it from exposing our naked bodies to the sun, and nothing else (other than pills, of course).
But there is more to the sun than vitamins. Sun exposure has been linked to the lowering of blood pressure, improvements in sleep quality, the prevention of breast cancer, increased growth in children, increasing oxygen levels in blood, limiting the effects of atherosclerosis by cleansing blood and blood vessels, improved psychological health… There is much more still, but you get the point. The sun is an integral part of our healthy existence and there is no reason to fear it to the extent that we do.
The Sun Is Healthy In Moderation
That said, consider the following: eating food is good, eating too much food is bad; drinking a glass of wine is great for your heart, drinking a bottle… not so much. So how much sun exposure is healthy exposure? There is no definite answer. It depends on the person as well as a number of other factors. Here are some of them.
People with light skin tone, red hair, or lots of freckles – often these are shared traits – react to the sun much more quickly than others. The same for people with blond hair or light colored eyes. These people must protect themselves more than others. Natural factors also play a role, the seasons, for example. Obviously most people associate the summer with strong sun and highest risk. True enough. But going for a winter hike in the snow can deliver a surprising amount of UV rays because the sunlight is reflected off the snow, so much so, that a winter hike can lead to sunburn more quickly than the same amount of time spent at the beach in the summer. You can even get sunburn when the sun is not shining because UVA rays (the ones that are more harmful to humans) can penetrate clouds and still burn you, even though you don’t see them. Time of day also plays a role. We associate mid-day sun as the most dangerous because that is when the sun is most intense. This, once again, is true. But the morning and evening sun produces more UVA rays while the mid-day sun produces more UVB rays, and UVBs lead to the body’s production of vitamin D (although it is important to mention that UVBs are also the rays primarily responsible for the development of skin cancer through overexposure). So a short stay in mid-day sun can actually be better for you than long exposure to morning and evening sun.
So go figure, it’s all a lot to think about. Most important, however, is using your common sense, your attention, and a little moderation.
How Much Time Can You Spend In The Sun? Pay Attention
Let’s return to wine for a second: you know that one person can drink a glass of red wine and remain sober while another will feel strongly ‘buzzed’ after the same consumed amount. Well it’s the same with the sun. One person can be out for an hour in the mid-day sun and be fine while another will end up with sunburn. Because of this it is not possible to give a safe amount of time for sun exposure. It differs from person to person, in seasons, times of day, etc. So it’s not possible to give the ‘right amount of time’, but it is possible to pay attention and monitor your family.
On summer days begin your adventures early when the sun is weaker and the temperature cooler. You may want to go as far as choosing routes that have Northern exposures. They receive sunlight much later in the day than Southern facing slopes. Start moving WITHOUT applying sunscreen. Contrary to popular opinion your family will not develop cancer and suffer a thermal meltdown as quickly as everyone thinks will happen. Throw on sun hats. Choose a wide brimmed hat for your kids that protects their entire face, ears, and neck such as this OR Kid’s Helios. Btw., the Helios also comes for adults and does the same job for them as it does for the kids. A bandana tied over your head is NOT a good solution because it leaves your face and ears unprotected. Have everyone wearing sunglasses that offer UV protection. It’s also a good idea to wear loose fitting, long sleeved, collared shirts. You can keep the sleeves rolled up but you have the option to lower them once the sun gets overburdening. You can also raise the collar to protect the back of your neck. Inspect the sun situation every 15-20 minutes or so. Check to see how your kids are doing and monitor your own condition as well. Try to arrange your trip so that you can take a long pause for lunch starting from noon when the sun is blazing. Find a shady spot to eat and then play a game with your kids, read, or just pass the time. Remember also to drink plenty of water throughout the entire day. Continue your journey from around 2:30pm onwards if possible.
Keep monitoring throughout the day. When you begin noticing the sun’s effects on the skin – when your skin begins feeling warm and turning very slightly pink (and that means very slightly!) – it’s a good time to put a stop to it. The best way is to cover and get out of the sun. Use clothing and shade as much as possible, and if you are left with no other options resort to sunscreen, which we talk about in our article: Safe Sunscreen That Works Against UVA And UVB.
Our Love Of Sunscreen
Reading this article it may seem that we are opposed to using sunscreen at TheHikingChild. This is NOT the case. In fact, if you’re out on the water or high in the mountains you should be wearing sunscreen from the get go. There is also undisputed evidence that long-term sun exposure has aging effects on the skin. But what we are opposed to is our society’s paranoia of the sun and the subsequent consequence: that the use of sunscreen is grossly exaggerated. Sunscreen products do have negative side effects that go largely ignored in the mainstream media, yet entire families literally bathe in the stuff. It is this excess that we’re opposed to, not sunscreen itself, which is a very useful product that we do recommend using as a last resort against the sun.
After a day outdoors your skin will be slightly damaged no matter what you do. It can be slightly sunburned, windburned, affected by salt (from your sweat, or the air if you were in a marine environment), and generally chaffed. Apply a natural, organic skin moisturizer to help nourish and replenish your family’s skin. We will talk about taking care of your skin in an upcoming article about after-sun skin care. But in the meantime, common sense and moderation will get you much further than the best sunscreen in the world.
We like the sun, long for it, and take every opportunity to be outside when the sun is shining. Call us mean spirited if you wish, but we wish you sunny trails as well. There are plenty that will agree.