5 Major Misconceptions on Sun Exposure


Farmer Paul's son Noah enjoying some naked time in the sun!

Farmer Paul’s son Noah enjoying some naked time in the sun!

I’ve gotten into my fair share of friendly discussions with friends and family members about sun exposure. Aside from the many myths and falsities surrounding which foods are and aren’t healthy to consume, this seems to be one of the most widely misunderstood and debated topics out there.

The sun has garnered a pretty a bad wrap in the last decade or so. We are taught to avoid it at all costs. And if we really must venture out into the sun’s dangerous rays of death, we are taught to slather sunscreen all over ourselves so that no patch of skin remains exposed — or risk the possibility of developing skin cancer.

The media has demonized and scrutinized the sun more than Miley Cyrus, turning us into a bunch of overly cautious solar-phobes.

But with sun protection awareness and sunscreen use at an all-time high, one would think that skin cancer rates have declined. Nope. Not even close. On the contrary, skin cancer rates have skyrocketed in recent years, despite people spending more and more time indoors.

So what gives? Where are the gaps in the conventional “wisdom” that we’ve been fed surrounding sun exposure?

Top 5 Sun Exposure Misconceptions

  • #1: You don’t need sun exposure to be healthy. Baloney! Getting adequate amounts of sunlight (for your skin type) is a vital piece of achieving an optimal level of health. And one of the most important benefits it offers is Vitamin D — proven to positively affect everything from happiness level to blood pressure. Low levels of Vitamin D were linked to a higher likelihood of dying from cancer and heart disease in two major recent studies.

    Because exposure to sunlight accounts for 90% of most individuals’ Vitamin D intake, it’s no wonder that 41.6% of adults in the U.S. are deficient in this important vitamin — we aren’t getting anywhere near the amount of sun that we need!

    In addition to providing us with cancer-fighting Vitamin D, the sun’s UVB rays also produce melanin. Melanin acts as an antioxidant and protects us from sun damage by scattering solar radiation across the surface of our skin.

    But there’s a catch. We’re only able to produce certain amounts of melanin (that vary from person to person) at a time — if time spent in the sun exceeds melanin’s ability to protect us, sun damage or sunburn will occur. The upside? It’s possible to take in all of the sun’s natural health benefits without incurring any sort of damage. Individuals with darker skin require greater amounts of sun exposure to get enough Vitamin D, while fair-skinned individuals often times only need a few minutes of sunlight at a time to get adequate levels!

  • #2: Sunscreen will protect you from sun damage. This might be the worst (and most harmful) myth of them all. Yes — sunscreen is great at blocking the UVB rays that cause us to burn (and produce cancer-fighting Vitamin D). But it does almost nothing to protect against the UVA rays that penetrate much deeper than UVB rays, damaging skin cell membranes and the DNA inside. And sunscreens that claim to protect against both UVB and UVA rays simply can’t be trusted. According to Liz Wolfe in her book Eat the Yolks,

    So-called broad-spectrum sunscreens, which claim to protect against both UVB and UVA rays, attempt to combine SPF-based UVB protection with chemicals meant to absorb or disperse UVA rays. However, the Environmental Working Group cautions that broad-spectrum sunscreens sold in the United States are protected according to FDA criteria that are “the weakest in the modern world.” In Europe, broad spectrum sunscreens must provide UVA protection at least one-third as potent as its UVB protection. In the United States, not a single broad-spectrum sunscreen meets even this minimally effective criterion.

    Sunscreen provides us with a false sense of protection by blocking UVB rays (sparing us the temporary discomfort of sunburns) while letting UVA rays penetrate deep into our skin to do the more serious, lasting damage. Sunburns aren’t necessarily the enemy here. Our bodies are equipped with mechanisms to alert us when enough is enough of any given thing. In this case, our skin’s ability to burn is a warning signal for us to get out of the sun.

    And sunscreen gets in the way of that.

    Yet, we’ve been told over and over that using it is the healthy and smart thing to do. So without giving it much thought, we spray ourselves and our children down in misty clouds of chemicals before spending hours upon hours in the sun (and reapplying every 60 minutes, of course). When instead, we should be practicing responsible sun exposure by covering up or retreating to the shade/indoors when our bodies have had enough (more on that later).

  • #3: Sunscreen is 100% safe to use. A few years ago, Banana Boat recalled a number of their popular spray-on sunscreens due to, “the potential risk of product igniting on the skin if contact is made with a source of ignition before the product is completely dry.” In other words, people were literally catching on fire when they used it.

    This is an extreme example. But it does point to the fact that many of the chemicals used in conventional sunscreen are harsh and dangerous. Retinyl Palmitate (a chemical known to cause reproductive toxicity and increase the growth rate of skin tumors) is practically a staple in most sunscreens. Oxybenzone (another common ingredient in sunscreen) is equally destructive, causing hormone disruption and allergic reactions. These harmful ingredients play no part in offering any sort of real sun protection to the user.

  • #4: What you eat does not affect how your body reacts to the sun. Rates of skin cancer (as well as other cancers and diseases) have risen dramatically in the past few decades, “coincidentally” coinciding with the SAD (Standard American Diet) evolving to include more processed foods, an increased use of chemical additives, and a higher consumption of Omega-6 fats like vegetable oil.

    Since taking up a paleo/primal type of diet 3 years ago, sunburns have become a rare occurrence for me (and it wasn’t always that way). Real, natural, and unprocessed foods can do wonders in terms of allowing the skin to burn less and tan better. The following three basic tips can also help to improve the way our bodies respond to the sun:

    1) Consume more Omega-3 and less Omega-6: Healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, and avocado oil are essential to our skin’s tissue regeneration abilities. When these healthy Omega-3 fat sources are not available in our bodies, highly processed Omega-6 fats (canola oil, soybean oil, etc.) will be used instead — potentially leading to cancerous mutations.
    2) Stay away from grains: Grains cause more inflammation in the body than just about anything. Inflammation is known to contribute to the development of cancer. ‘Nuff said.
    3) Eat more antioxidants: Antioxidant-rich foods (like berries and dark chocolate) reduce inflammation in the body. Individuals who don’t consume grains and chemical-laden processed foods on a regular basis will have less inflammation to fight off in the first place, but can still benefit from a diet rich in nutrient-dense antioxidants that help to fight against and prevent cancer-causing free radicals.


    photo (7)

    It always comes back to the trucker. The picture above shows the face of a man who spent many years driving a delivery truck. The sun-facing side of his face clearly shows an abundance of wrinkles, while the other side appears to be in much better shape. This image has been widely used (and often abused) by dermatologists and sunscreen enthusiasts alike as ammo to encourage society to “wear sunscreen constantly,” as suggested by this article in the Huffington Post.

    But here’s the thing. We’ve already established that overexposure to UVA rays can cause serious skin damage at the DNA level (while UVB rays cause temporary sunburns but also offer many health benefits). There’s no denying that. But similar to how most sunscreens only protect against UVB rays, the same is true for car windows.

    This driver’s car windows were more than likely blocking the UVB rays that would have triggered a sunburn. Without ever getting a sunburn to clue him in, this driver probably had no idea that any sort of UVA-induced sun damage was taking place. Had his windows let UVB rays in as well as UVA rays, he would have also reaped the benefits of Vitamin D and Melanin. It’s a harrowing picture, but the facts behind it present more of a case for responsible sun exposure than anything.

A Smarter Approach to Sun Exposure

I am in no way suggesting that we should practice any sort of wreckless sun worshiping. I am, however, against living in fear of something that offers so many health benefits (and makes us happy). So instead of erring on either extreme, let’s try to be responsible about this whole thing.

Our bodies are much smarter than we give them credit for. It’s time we started listening to them! When we see or feel ourselves starting to burn (and hopefully before that happens), it’s probably a good idea to get out of the sun. Go inside, retreat to the shade, or cover up with a hat or some other article of clothing. For those who have fair skin or aren’t used to getting much sun, take it slow. There’s no need to force an overexposure that could potentially result in serious damage.

It doesn’t take long to learn how much sun your body will be able to handle at a time. Like I said earlier, it may only be a few minutes. Or it may be a few hours — this varies for everyone.

For days when there’s no getting around spending hours upon hours in the sun (family beach days, long hikes, etc.), choose a sunscreen that doesn’t contain dangerous chemicals. My natural DIY sunscreen recipe contains non-nano Zinc oxide (which protects against UVA rays as well as UVB) and other safe ingredients.

Non-nano (or non-micronized) Zinc oxide is made from particles that are too large to be absorbed into the skin and ultimately into the bloodstream — but still offer excellent broad spectrum protection. The downside? Because of the larger particles, it can leave a white pasty film on the skin — not such a bad price to pay in my opinion! Because Zinc oxide blocks virtually EVERYTHING, it also (unfortunately) blocks the cancer-fighting Vitamin D in UVB rays from penetrating the skin — which is why I only use it when I’m outside for extended periods of time.

What’s your stance on sun exposure? What tips and tricks have/haven’t worked for you? Let me know!


  1. laura fletcher says

    Ah I’m so thankful for this post! I am very allergic to some sunscreen brands. And I’m very light skinned. I agree with every word you said. I cannot wait for your homemade sunscreen recipe! I was going to ask if you’ve heard of putting coconut oil on, I think I heard it has spf of 4. But anyway I’ll be looking forward to the homemade recipe post :) thanks for this! Love love love this blog :)

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Laura, I’m so glad you enjoyed the post! I have sensitive skin as well and have had allergic reactions to all sorts of sunscreens and lotions with nasty chemical ingredients. And yes – I’ve used coconut oil in the sun before and it works as a pretty decent sunscreen for short periods of time. Have you tried it? I use it as lotion every day as well!

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Thanks Julie! It’s such an interesting topic, mostly due to how misunderstood it is by most of society! What did your nutritional therapist have to say?

  2. says

    Great and informative article. I was out surfing yesterday and this was the topic of conversation in the water. Now I have some more specific information to share with the pack. Thanks!

  3. Megan says

    I’m an avid gardener, spending many hours a day in the sun. I stopped using sunscreen years ago. A big sunhat is my main protection. I start my gardening early in the morning, stay inside during the most intense sun hours of the day, and then go back outside during the evening. I’ve used coconut oil and found that my fair skin does turn a bit pink after a few hours in the sun, but returns to normalcy shortly thereafter with no signs of sunburn. This method seems to work for me, and I always feel better after having spent time in the sun.

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Megan, hats are the way to go! And coconut oil is incredible as well. Glad your method is working for you!

  4. Judith says

    Great and timely topic. Living in socal all of my life and receiving my share of sunburns has not changed my mind about being in the sun. The sun is so important in so many ways, why would we avoid it? The sun question aside, the old adage “you are what you eat” always applies. Thank you again for another well thought out and well researched topic.

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Hey Judith! I agree with you 100%. I’ve received plenty of sunburns as well and attribute that to being irresponsible more than anything. Now, I listen to my body when I feel like it’s time to cover up or head indoors. I still manage to get plenty of sun but hardly ever burn anymore. Glad you enjoyed the post!

  5. Alyssa says

    Great blog Bethany! My thoughts exactly! Oddly enough, this was a topic on my first date with Daniel :) Falling in love talking about natural deodorant and the ineffectiveness of sunscreen. :)

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Alyssa! Thanks for reading and checking out the blog! How funny that you and Daniel discussed this on your first date! What are you using for deodorant these days? I’ve been making my own for awhile now and find that it works so much better than the chemical crap I used to apply daily.

      • Alyssa says

        Of course! You are super! Awesome that you make it – we use the salt crystal. Still have the same one I bought over 3 years ago!

        • TheManFromTaco says

          It’s great that the salt crystal works so well for some people.

          I got one from a natural market, but found that when I use it, even right after showering, I start to reek within four hours.

          So I continue to use the commercial chemical stuff because it actually works.

          And the natural crystal deodorants often contain potassium aluminum sulfate, anyway.

  6. Kim says

    I’ve had terrible PMLE (Polymorphous Light Eruption) for almost a decade. I’ve had allergic reactions from sunblock with titanium dioxide. It sucks being this sensitive to the sun. I’m considering switching from Paleo 80/20 to AIP to see if that helps, but with a family of 5 to cook for (plus our love of nightshades), I, honestly, don’t think it’s doable.

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Hi Kim, I’m sorry that you’ve been suffering from PMLE. After doing some research, it seems like an Autoimmune Protocol would be a good thing to try, but I understand that it’s extremely difficult! What are you currently using for sunscreen?

      • Kim says

        My kids and I use Badger Sunscreen Lotion. We have the Sunscreen Creams as well, but I find it too thick to use on a regular basis for me. The kids use the creams in the summer when they have swim class a few times a week.

  7. Laura Flack says

    Great post Bethany. You gave me much to think about. I use sunscreen on my face and chest area, but I’ve never really been good at putting it on all the time unless it’s in my makeup. I’d prefer to use natural sources and do what I can instead of putting chemicals on my body.

    Thank you for this :-). I look forward to your homemade recipe for sunscreen soon :-).

  8. Joyce says

    Would love to get your homemade sunscreen recipe! Of course, living in the rain forest of the PAC nw, it’s rare we get sun that causes that kind of damage. But,when it finally does come out, we all play stupid and stay in it as long as possible. That causes a lot of damage I’m sure. It’s just sooo hard to come in when we finally get good weather!

    • Bethany McDaniel says

      Hey Joyce!! I know what you mean – I’m sure I would do the same thing if I lived up there! I think you’ll like the recipe – it’s super easy! I’ll post it within the next week or two :) Hope all is well with you!

  9. Gen says

    Coconut oil has an spf of 8. This means it blocks 87.5 of the suns rays. I can personally attest to it, I haven’t tanned in 2 years and I used it during a day with many hours of direct exposure. I did not tan or burn. That was my goal, so I am happy.
    The spf rating has been proven by a government study. Olive oil has a similar high rating.
    Like I said, I haven’t tanned for 2 years. I like how it looks to have a little color, but I don’t think it’s worth it. I have high levels of vitamin D from taking a tiny supplement pill every day. It’s not hard to do.
    I have a friend in his 50’s who wears a glove on one hand for golf. On the opposite hand the skin is looks like crepe paper, is very thin, and has liver spots.
    I think the reason you want to believe the sun is good for your skin is because you are too young to realize how bad it is for you, regarding your eventual signs of aging. I did the same thing, but I changed my mind. Although I agree it does have positive effects on mood, which may be a better trade off in the long run for some people.
    It is worth noting that UVB exposure only does not provide a good-looking tan. It looks very shallow and fake, and lacks the natural glow of a UV balanced tan. It also does not last as long. That is not a hard fact. This is my opinion and the opinion of the tanning salon employees that I have met over the years. They do have beds that produce mainly UVB rays, and I believe they have some they claim produce only UVB rays.
    Besides all of that, it seems the new popular thing to do is be natural, including embracing natural hair texture, so I’m in favor of being pale because it’s fashionable (along with the other reasons). I just wear bronzer on my
    The downside is I have to wear sun protection all the time. Especially because I use vitamin C on my skin daily to help rebuild the collagen I have lost. Vitamin C makes the skin burn more easily.

    • Gen says

      “I just wear bronzer on my”…forehead and cheeks when I go out. It looks natural enough for me.

      I cut myself off. Oops.


  1. […] I’m talking about harsh acne creams, unnatural tanning oils, and…dun dun dun — sunscreen. “But you NEED sunscreen! Without it, you’ll get skin cancer and die!” That’s what I thought too. So I spent the majority of my life covering myself in misty clouds of chemical-laden aerosol sunscreen spray in an effort to prevent sun damage and skin cancer. Back then, I had no idea that everything I had been told about sunscreen and sun exposure was wrong. […]

  2. […] 1)The best and most efficient way is through the Sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. As the sun hits your skin, it triggers vitamin D syntheses. This is when your body begins converting the cholesterol in your blood into vitamin D. Studies have shown that a healthy adult can get most of their vitamin D needs met from 15-60 minutes of direct sunlight while the sun is high in the sky. This varies greatly depending on your body and skin type. Remember, we’re wanting a healthy, natural amount of sun exposure here. Lathering on a bunch of sunscreen and spending hours in it is not healthy or safe. The sun gives of both UVA and UVB rays and most sunscreens block the UVB vitamin D synthesis promoting without protecting against UVA rays which are the actual harmful rays. More on this here. […]

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