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Is there a safe way to enjoy sun exposure?

Sunlight on the Skin – Friend or Foe?

By Kathie FitzPatrick

It feels so warm and inviting. Some say sunlight is healing. Others say, “Grab the sunscreen!  Wear it every time you leave the house.”  So wherein does the truth actually lie?

In ancient times, before the time of Christ, the mighty men of old such as Herodotus and Antyllus believed in the beneficial effects of sunlight in promoting physical fitness. They believed that the sun actually fed the muscles.

Amazingly enough, there seems to be conclusive evidence that moderate sunlight produces a metabolic effect in the body that is very similar to physical training itself. Tuberculous patients have been observed to have well developed muscles with very little fat, even though they have not exercised in months.

The beneficial effects which apparently are the same as those of an endurance exercise program can be achieved by a series of exposures to sunlight.

Sunlight seems to also increase the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen and deliver it to the tissues. A large spike, and increase in the oxygen content in the blood has been shown to follow a single exposure to ultraviolet light. This effect acts for a good span of days, about 5. Acutely ill people found unusual relief with explore to ultraviolet light.

Patients with bronchial asthma were able to breath freely and the color of their skin returned to normal pink following an ultraviolet light treatment. Other patients suffering from peritonitis, paralytic ileus, and bronchial pneumonia, returned to a normal pink following an ultraviolet treatment.

The mechanism whereby sunlight increases the oxygen content of the blood and its utilization in the tissues may not be the same mechanism by which exercise accomplishes the same goal, but one thing becomes clear: both exercise and sunlight increase the oxygen in the tissues. These finding were found in observations and studies by Zane Kime, MD, MS, and author of the book, SUNLIGHT.

Dr. Zane Kime also discovered how sunlight effects the resting heartbeat, respiratory rate decreases, lactic acid decreases and cellular oxygen increases. He discovered that it had been demonstrated that after a patient had been on a good endurance program for several months, his resting heartbeat began to decrease, then return to normal.

Through study and observation. Dr. Kime also found the following to be true:


It has been observed that after a patient has been on a good endurance exercise program for three months or so, his or her resting heart rate begins to decrease.  It has also been demonstrated that the same patient’s resting heart rate will decrease and return to normal much more quickly following exercise, if the individual includes sunbathing in his physical fitness program.


According to Dr. Kime, similarly he observed a patient’s respiratory rate not only decreased following an endurance exercise program, but also decreased following sunbathing, and the patients breathing was observed to be slower, deeper and seemed to be easier.


Also observed was that there was less lactic acid accumulation in the blood during exercise following sunbathing, another effect which usually follows a course of physical training.


The ability of the lungs to absorb more of the ideal oxygen, and the ability of thee muscle cell to utilize more oxygen, comes as a result the continuance of endurance exercises sustained at least for a for a few weeks. Increased exercise also helps the body to endure stress more successfully.  Once again, it was found the sunlight also seems to increase the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen and deliver it to the tissues. So, it has been observed scientifically, that both exercise and sunlight increase the oxygen in the tissues.


Although fatigue is a common complaint today, more rest is not always the answer.  Increased energy has been observed after a series of sun bathing sessions, even as short as 15 or 20 minutes on a regular daily basis, or at least 3 times a week.


It has been observed in patients that sunlight seemed to increase the blood supply to the deep internal organs and muscles. Another point in relating to sunlight’s ability to increase muscle strength is the relationship that sunlight has in males increasing testosterone in the male sunbather. Sunlight exposure also has a cholesterol lowering effect in both men and women. In a patient followed by Dr. Kime who was a regular sunbather, it was discovered that he experienced a healthy drop in his cholesterol of 30%.

“He looked well, tanned and happy, and was enthusiastic about the progress he was achieving with his muscle building, for his muscles had increased in strength and bulk on the new program.  He was particularly pleased with the fact that he had lost subcutaneous fat and now each individual muscle could be clearly seen under the skin.”


Exercise can be of great benefit in successfully lowering high blood pressure.

Dr Kime shares in his book, “Sunlight,” a study done at Tulane University on the effect of ultraviolet light on blood pressure, showed that men, who had normal blood pressure, had a slight lowering that lasted one or two days following a single sunlight exposure. At the same time, a group of men who had high blood pressure had a definite marked lowering of the blood pressure that lasted 5 or 6 days.

It would definitely seem that a good regular exercise program combined with sunbathing program, would go a long way toward eliminating any hypertension condition.


A good endurance exercise program will not only lower the pulse rate, but will also increases the efficiency of the heart allowing it to pump more blood at each beat, and also allowing the heart to rest in between beats.

Sunbathing can also increase the efficiency of the heart, according to studies by Dr. Zane Kime.


We know that exercise will lower the blood sugar in the diabetic and enable the diabetic to require less insulin.

However, diabetics should sunbathe with caution, and should be in touch with their physician on their need for insulin before and after sunbathing.  A long sunbath combined with insulin can give a hypoglycemic effect.  Dr. Kime recites an incident of a friend of his who had had diabetes who wound up in a hospital emergency room with severe hypoglycemia because he had overestimated his insulin need and then made the mistake of taking a long sun bath. Because sunlight combined with insulin can have a very powerful hypoglycemic effect.  Diabetics should sunbath with caution and be in touch with their physicians on insulin doses and time spent in the sun safely.

Exercise also helps those people with hypoglycemia by stabilizing their blood sugars and keeping them from dropping to the point where they experience dramatic and alarming symptoms.

Exposure to sunlight appears to have an insulin-like effect in that it causes a lowering of the blood sugar. This is minimal in individuals with normal blood sugar, but dramatic in in diabetics.  When the blood sugar drops in diabetics it is noted in the reduction of sugar in the urine. Blood sugar is lowered by a process in which some sugar is removed from the blood and stored in the muscles and liver in a substance known as glycogen, thus by increasing glycogen storage the human body can reduce its blood sugar.

This process can apparently be achieved the sun’s stimulating enzymatic reactions in the human body.  First initially, the sunlight stimulates an increase of the enzyme phosphorylase. According to Dr. Kime’s studies, phosphorylase decreases the amount of stored glycogen. After a few hours an enzyme called glycogen synthetase starts to increase. This enzyme increases glycogen storage in the tissues while decreasing blood sugar levels. This effect continues and reaches its maximum level in about 10 hours. As you can see, sunlight has many beneficial effects on health, but moderation, balance and common sense play a key role in appreciating and benefiting from natural sunlight


Do sunscreens really protect us the way we expect?

Increased sun exposure that goes beyond the norm, such as for hours—diminishes collagen, elastin and causes unwanted wrinkles and lines to appear. The public has been led to believe by media sources that the answer is to wear high factor sunscreen lotions.  Studies regarding sunscreen preparations are actually somewhat alarming. Although the use of sunscreens are promoted as a good public health measure as a prevention of skin cancer, there is very good sound evidence for avoiding them altogether.

Perhaps sunscreens give their users a false sense of security for how long they can safely stay out in the sun.  The idea is that sunscreens enable sunbathers to stay out in the sun for much longer periods of time than would be the case if their skin was not protected. There is marked evidence that prolonged periods prolonged unprotected sun exposure can increase risk of melanoma and non- melanoma skin cancer.

Currently, sunscreens are categorized by a sun protection factor or SPF. In other words, a sunscreen product with an SPF of fifteen allows a sunbather to stay in the sun fifteen times longer before burning than if they had no lotion on at all.  In normal terms, if someone normally started to burn twenty minutes after being in the sun, theoretically a sunscreen lotion with an SPF of fifteen would allow them to delay the process of sun burning for some 5 hours. In reality, the effectiveness of the sunscreen would diminish effectiveness long before five hours and would have to be re-applied repeatedly, needing to put on generous amounts on  the skin at regular intervals to achieve a high effectiveness of protection.  Also the SPF only refers to the amount of protection that is given against UVB radiation, not UVA.

The pure science of the matter is that sunlight which reaches the earth’s surface contains two wavelengths which can damage the skin. These wave lengths are ultraviolet A, or UVA and ultra violet B or UVB.  The UVB ray is known to burn the skin more rapidly than UVA, but does not penetrate the skin as deeply according to studies.  Both can promote tanning and burning, however, UVB is known to  be implicated in all kinds of skin cancer, whereas ultraviolet A was thought to be prominently linked to malignant melanoma and to premature aging. Until a few years ago the UVA was thought to be relatively safe. However, now upon further study is now known that these rays penetrate deeply into the skin where they can cause damage to collagen and elastin and cause wrinkles to appear.


The association between UVA and melanoma has been offered as on explanation for the rather awkward fact there have been reports of an increased risk of the disease among sunscreen users.  One theory put forward for this fact is that until recently sunscreens were far more effective at blocking ultraviolet B than ultraviolet A because UVA was thought to be safe. So the ratio of UVB to UVA that was absorbed by the skin of someone using sunscreen was different from the relative proportions that is present in the natural spectrum of sunlight. A sun bather using one of these predominantly UVB sunscreens would risk exposing themselves to a disproportionate higher dose of UVA  than would be the case if they had no sunscreen protection on their skin at all. They would then be at increased risk of a UVA induced disease such as melanoma. Now whether this is an entirely correct conclusion or not it serves to illustrate that sunscreens can give the user a false sense of D

Two epidemiolgists have been responsible for some impressive studies on this topic. Drs Frank and Cedric Garland have come to the conclusion through their research that vitamin D from sun exposure may help protect against a number of serious cancers including malignant melanoma.  These two doctors have also put forward the hypothesis that vitamin D may help protect the skin against UV damage and that in the absence of Vitamin D, large amounts of UVA may promote the development of cancers which were originally initiated by accumulated sunlight exposure during childhood.

As the skin actually makes vitamin D when exposed to UVB but UVA radiation their theory becomes a more serious argument against the use of predominantly UVB sunscreens

Frank and Cedric Garland made the following observation as far back as 1992 about malignant melanoma in the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH:

“Worldwide, the countries where here chemical sunscreens have been recommended and adopted have experienced the greatest rise in malignant melanoma, with a contemporaneous rise in death rates. In the United states, Canada, Australia, and the Scandinavian countries, melanoma rates have risen steeply in recent decades with the greatest increase occurring after the introduction of sunscreens .  Death rates in the United states from melanoma doubled in women and tripled in men between 1950s and the 1990s. The rise in Melanoma has been unusually steep in Queensland, Australia where sunscreens were earliest and most strongly promoted by the medical community.  Queensland now has the highest incidence rise in melanoma rates in the world. In contrast, the rise in melanoma rates was notable delayed elsewhere in Australia, where sunscreens were not promoted until more recently.”

Damning evidence, don’t you think?

The Garland’s hypothesis presupposes that regular sunscreen use prevents the synthesis of healthy vitamin D in the skin, and while there is evidence it can, some experts maintain that it does not.

Are Sunscreens really enough to protect children playing in the sun for prolonged hours?

Evidence of the potential dangers of prolonging sun exposure through sunscreen use comes from a research study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 1998. The report showed that children who were frequent users of sunscreens had  a significantly higher chance of developing moles and freckles than children who were not.  Scientific  researchers from the Eureopean Institute of Oncology counted the number of ‘naevi’ (moles and freckles) on 613 children of ages between six and seven years old from four European cities.. Parents gave each child’s history of sunscreen use, sunburn, and any physical protection the children had used on holiday outings.  The researchers found the children who were high sunscreen users  were spending more time in the sun, and had a higher incidence of developing moles on their bodies than non-users. Children who wore clothes in the sun, instead of sun screens avoided the sun induced development of naevi.  Since high a naevi count is a strong predictor of malignant melanoma In adulthood, it was determined that children who use sunscreens, stay out of the sun and develop more moles as a result would be at greater risk of skin cancer in their later years.

baby in bright sunlight
Baby in bright sunlight at the beach.

As a rule sunscreens usually contain one or two types of protection: either a chemical sun filter to absorb ultraviolet radiation, or a physical  sun filter.  The latter is an inert material such as titmium oxide, zinc oxide, or talc and works be reflecting ultraviolet rays away from the skin.   These active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include p-aminobenzoic acid, methoxycinnamate, benzopheone and other  agents which absorb certain wavebands of ultraviolet radiation while letting others through.  Sunscreen preparations undergo very rigorous testing before being released on the market, but from time to time ingredients still ultimately have to be withdrawn because they either cause adverse reactions or are potentially carcinogenic.


The doctors who used sunlight as a medicine during the first half of the 20th century were well aware of the positive influence of a good diet on the recovery of their patients.  Nourishing meals were an integral part of the treatment and it seemed reasonable to conclude that well-nourished skin would respond better to sunlight than skin that is low in minerals.  It seems obvious that certainly there is more than an adequate amount of evidence to support the view that many of our current problems stem from the deficiencies of our very refined western diet lacking and adequate amount of raw and steamed vegetables, and other plant based foods eaten in more of a natural state. 

When sunlight burns the skin it excites free radicals in the skin itself.  Free radicals can lead to a destructive type of oxidation.  These free radicals become highly reactive molecular fragments that can combine very destructively with other with other molecules in the body  and create this internal oxidation.  They are formed in a variety of ways besides exposure to the sun, as by-products of rather normal  metabolic processes such as from cigarette smoke, alcohol consumption and various types of environmental pollution. Free radicals often cause damage to cells—including their generic material (DNA) and are linked to a wide variety  and range of diseases including  cancer, heart disease, arthritis and the aging process in general.

Interestingly enough, many of the attest sunscreens contain antioxidants which are supposed to neutralize any sun damage as it happens on the skin. However, vitamins A, B, C and E  in the diet, together with selenium, bioflavonoids, beta carotene (a pre cursor of Vitamin A in the body) zinc and a number of other minerals and compounds are known to be capable of either preventing free radicals from forming, or protecting the body from damage once the free radicals have formed. Vitamin A has been used to treat skin malignancies, and scientific studies suggest that Vitamins A, C and E protect against some cancers. A recent study of the effects of taking vitamins in the journal of the American Academy of Dermatology in 1998, has shown that 2 grams of vitamin C combined with 1,000 IU of vitamin E. provides a protective effect against sunburn. Additionally, beta-carotene in the diet is known to have anticancer properties and is supposed to be particularly good at preventing free radical formation in the skin which in turn delays the onset of burning.  Additionally, since beta-carotene is known to have anti-cancer properties it is advisable to take a beta-carotene supplement in the weeks ahead before spending prolonged time in the sun or sunbathing. However if you have to go out in the sun for a  prolonged period of time, a high factor sunblock on the exposed areas of skin not covered by clothing might be advisable, one with physical protection rather than a chemically active ingredient should be preferred.


One of the primary drawbacks of using a sunscreen is that they inhibit the natural protective response of the skin to sunlight in such a way that they would be a hindrance rather than a help to anyone practicing sunlight therapy. It would make it very difficult to monitor the natural progression of tanning or the response of the patient to sunlight.  The physicians who used sunlight to treat tuberculosis or war wounds achieved their cures by exposing their patients gradually over many weeks to the full spectrum of the sun’s rays, and therefore slowly building up the skin’s natural protection to the sun.  If their tuberculosis patients didn’t tan, then they didn’t get better.  They certainly were not allowed to burn in such a way that some people do who spend 50 weeks a year indoors, then go on vacation at a beach resort and suddenly spend 7-10 hours in the sun using tanning products. It is better for such people not to spend time in the strong sun at all, even with sunscreens.


It is estimated that lack of sunlight probably kills many thousands of people in countries like Great Britain, and others in similar latitudes (where there is a lack of sun) than skin cancer. At first glance this may seem like an outrageous statement.  But there are facts.  In 1995 almost 1400 men and women died of malignant melanoma. While in the meantime, coronary heart disease killed 139,000 of their fellow citizens in the countries of England and Wales. If sunlight had only been a small protective part of a health regime against heart disease, the  number of lives saved by moderate exposure to sunlight  would greatly outweigh the number lost to malignant melanoma. The same argument can be raised against the prevention of any number of degenerative and infectious diseases that together claim hundreds of thousands of lives in Britain each year, and which appear to be associated with sunlight deprivation.

Researchers know healthy levels of Vitamin D are very important to overall health and even in the prevention of cancer. Regular and moderate exposure to the sun can help provide healthy vitamin D levels.  One recent study by Dr. Clifford Rosen has suggested that even as brief as 10- 15 minutes a day exposure to sunlight can give adequate levels of vitamin D to most people.  The trick is in the short exposures which are safe and effective.

The really good news is that sunshine may even be linked to longevity. A Journal of Internal Medicine study that monitored nearly 30,000 Swedish women for about 20 years found that those who spent more time in the sun lived six months to two years longer than those who took in less sun exposure. “More research is required to replicate this work, but if it’s a real effect, it’s very important,” Lucas says.

But the UVB rays that help our skin produce vitamin D are also the same type of sun rays that cause sunburn, and it is known that getting burned is a major risk factor for skin cancer. That’s why it is so important to find the right balance in receiving sun exposure.


While too much sun exposure can be harmful, regular moderate exposure to sunlight has many positive health benefits. Consumers  need to be aware that putting too much confidence in sunscreens to protect them during prolonged sunlight exposure can be seriously misleading, and may not adequately protect them from melanoma dangers. Studies have shown both in the past decades, and up until the present time, moderate but regular sunlight exposure is the wisest approach for the most beneficial results from sunlight therapy.

Woman sunbathing by pool-canva



Kathie FitzPatrick, a lifetime resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, is currently a resident of the Northwest United States. As a former TV Producer-Researcher of ACCENT ON HEALTH, (a 1980's series with a viewing audience of 240 million people worldwide) hosted by Maureen Salamon, Kathie has had a life time interest in trending health and beauty advice. This most recent site is dedicated to high tech skin care, especially for aging skin, exercise and Pilates machines for that in home gym, and creative ways to relax including massager chairs, massage tables and foot spas! In the day in which we live this has never been more relevant!

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