Should You Ever Go Outside Without Sunscreen? Here’s What Dermatologists Say

Should You Ever Go Outside Without Sunscreen? Here’s What Dermatologists Say

By now, you’re probably well aware of the importance of slathering on sunscreen if you’re spending a day poolside or at the beach. But when it comes to brief exposure to sunshine, the rules might seem a bit fuzzier.

While the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) instructs people to “apply sunscreen every day on skin not covered by clothing if you will be outside,” mounting conversation online has made it clear that not everyone agrees with this strict approach.

Some people, such as reality star Kristin Cavallari, have raised the idea that we don’t need to use sunscreen at all. Then there’s others, like reporter Rowan Jacobsen, who’ve made the case that some people might not need to use it as often as U.S. guidelines suggest. His May 10 article in The Atlantic titled “Against Sunscreen Absolutism” largely centers on Australia’s sun safety guidelines, which were recently updated to align with the premise that some sunscreen-free time in the sun has benefits, primarily regarding vitamin D exposure.

In light of all of the conflicting advice, you might be wondering whether it’s always necessary to apply sunscreen every time you venture outside, as U.S. guidance suggests, or if it’s ever okay—or even beneficial—to spend time in the sun sans protection.

Here’s what dermatologists had to say.

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Before we dig into whether it’s ever healthy to skip sunscreen, it’s important to understand how sunscreen affects health to begin with.

Sunscreen works by forming a coating that absorbs ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation from the sun before it penetrates the skin. This radiation can permanently damage skin cell DNA, spurring the formation of a mutation that may become a cancerous cell. 

By blocking UVB rays, sunscreen also has another effect: When applied correctly, it may limit the body’s ability to produce vitamin D, which plays an important role in immune and bone health. You can get some vitamin D through your diet—and a supplement can fill in the gap—but the primary natural source of vitamin D is the sun.

Generally speaking, light-skinned people only need about 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure on the face, arms, and legs a few times a week to get all the vitamin D they need, Jonathan Ungar, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology and medical director of the Waldman Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center at Mount Sinai, told Health.

People with darker skin may require up to 30 minutes more. That’s because darker skin has more pigment, or melanin, which functions to protect against UV radiation.

However, Ungar said these estimates are “extremely simplistic” and could change depending on multiple factors. For example, UV rays are strongest in spring and summer, in locations closer to the equator, and between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Australia’s new guidelines are largely based on the notion that, for some people with darker skin tones, skipping a little sun protection may be worth it for the sake of vitamin D exposure. 

The AAD disagrees with this thinking, according to the article in The Atlantic. A spokesperson told Jacobsen that “because ultraviolet rays from the sun can cause skin cancer, the Academy does not recommend getting vitamin D from sun exposure.”

However, Diya Mutasim, MD, a professor in the department of dermatology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, told Health that there “is some advantage in getting exposed to a little sunlight for both vitamin D synthesis and for your mood.”

While he thinks it’s unnecessary to apply sunscreen before exposure to very short bursts of sunshine, such as a quick walk to your car, whether you should go outside without sunscreen for more prolonged periods is a more complicated question.

“It is ultimately a matter of finding a balance between risks and benefits, ideally one in which the benefits outweigh the risks,” Ungar said. “As I tell my patients, there are two main ways to get Vitamin D, sun exposure vs supplementation. Only one of these is known to increase the risk of skin cancer, but you have to choose for yourself.”

The idea is to reap the benefits of the sun without causing changes to your skin’s appearance, Mutasim said. Mild redness and even a tan indicate sun damage. 

Multiple factors, including cloud cover, time of day, and season, can influence how quickly you might experience sun damage. People with darker skin tones also have a lower chance of sun damage (though they can and do develop skin cancer).

“A very fair-skinned individual may not tolerate more than five minutes without some protection, while a darker-skinned person may tolerate 40 minutes,” Murasim said.

What’s clear, Murasim stressed, is that anyone who plans to be in the sun for an extended period should plan to protect exposed skin. Per the AAD, that means applying a water-resistant sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection and an SPF of at least 30. 

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