For us living in a tropical country, we have a culture of avoiding the sun whenever it is possible. It's not a rare sight in South East Asian or East Asian countries to see women using an umbrella under the sun. Is this fear of the sun justified or simply a cultural quirk?
We all know the sun can damage our skin. Most people have experienced sun-burn after a beach holiday or a long day under the sun. Turns out, UV rays from sunlight is the leading cause of skin aging. UV rays damage elastin, a type of fiber in the skin. This causes skin to be sag, stretch, and lose elasticity, all signs of aging skin.
secret of youth?
However, this is not the full picture! Sun exposure is essential for our bodies to produce Vitamin D. Vitamin D is a bit of a unique vitamin that functions like a hormone. Every cell in your body needs it in one form or another. Lack of vitamin D causes a weaker immune system (getting sick often), weak bone density (osteoporosis), and even depression. Insufficient vitamin D is very common, and is in fact a world health concern, with it affecting up to 50% of the population worldwide. The leading cause of this? You guessed it, not enough sunlight.
This leaves us in a bit of a conundrum. How much sunlight do I need to produce enough vitamin D but maintain youthful skin? To answer this, you need to consider the following factors:
How strong is the sun where you live?
If you live in Malaysia or any other tropical country, the sun is likely going to be really strong, and you won't need much exposure to produce vitamin D. In contrast, if you live in a climate where it is cold and cloudy, or in a country where winter is cold and dark, you might need to spend more effort going in the sun and/or taking vitamin D supplements/food rich in vitamin D.
How dark is your skin?
The pigment that causes dark skin is called melanin. Melanin blocks the harmful effects of UV rays, but it also blocks out the vitamin D potential of sunlight. This means that, the darker your skin, the more protected you are from sun damage, but you are also more prone to vitamin D deficiency. Those with darker skin might need to consciously spend more time in the sun.
having tanned skin from sun exposure is your body adapting to increase protection against the sun
A practical answer for the tropics
Generally, in a tropical country like Malaysia, if you have fair skin, you'll need about 10 minutes of sun exposure per day to produce enough vitamin D. For moderate skin tones, it is about 15-20 minutes while those with dark skin tones should strive for 20-30 minutes a day.
These are some general guidelines that you should adjust depending on your lifestyle. For example, in the Middle Eastern countries, even though the sun is very strong, culturally women don't go outdoors often, and among those selected for this study, more than 90% of them have Vitamin D deficiency.
Those work/spend most time in an office or indoors environment for most of the day and only head back as the sun goes down in particular should pay attention to get more sunlight to prevent vitamin D deficiency.
even though Malaysia is a very sunny country, lifestyle factors could still lead to vitamin D deficiency.
Some tips for a tropical climate:
- Use sunscreen all the time if you go outdoors.
- Avoid the direct sun during the HOT hours. (11am-4pm most days)
- If you work in an office with long hours, sneak in some sun time during lunch, or get some valuable sun time in before the commute home!.
- Go out and get your daily sun quota during the early mornings and the evenings when the sun isn't as intense. A 30 minute stroll during the comfortable morning/evening sunlight is great for vitamin D and general health, without being too exposed to damaging UV rays.