Serious about sunbathing
Sunshine is free – and completely safe if you take care. It is the natural way to get your vitamin D. Half an hour of summer sun without suncream two or three times a week wearing just shorts or a bikini will give you all the vitamin D you need. Then you can stop taking a supplement – so long as you can find enough sun and that can be difficult in northern Europe. If you are only able to have bare shoulders, arms and legs then half an hour of sunshine four or five times a week will probably be enough. It is important not to use suncream for the half hour or so of deliberate exposure because suncream blocks UVB and so prevents vitamin D synthesis.
I have developed some detailed advice for safe sunbathing which encourages people to enjoy the sun safely while safeguarding health and avoiding burning. Sunbathing can substantially increase your vitamin D during the summer putting you in the best condition to avoid chronic disease. And probably putting you in a position to survive the winter with fewer, or less virulent, infections. Basically the SunSafe advice tells people in the UK to sunbathe without suncream for a few minutes to an hour or more each day depending on time of day, season, previous exposure and skin type, and to enjoy the sun, but to take care not to burn.
However in the darker, winter months (October to April inclusive) the sun is not strong enough to provide any useful vitamin D and so it is advisable to take a supplement or go on a winter sun holiday – see below. The sun must be above an angle of 45 degrees for it to provide vitamin D. When your shadow, or the shadow of an object, is the same height as you or the object then the sun is at 45 degrees. The sun is strong enough when the shadow is shorter than you or the object.
The SunSafe advice
1. Sunbathe safely without burning - everyday if you can.
2. The middle of the day is a good time for sunbathing, especially at the beginning and end of the summer when the sun is too weak at other times of day to form any vitamin D. Also, midday is often the most convenient time to sunbathe.
3. If you have not sunbathed for a long time start by sunbathing for 2-3 minutes each side. Gradually increase from day to day up to 20 or 30 minutes each side depending on your skin and the strength of the sun.
4. Don’t use sunscreen while sunbathing because it blocks the UVB rays which make vitamin D.
5. If feeling hot or uncomfortable expose a different area to the sun, cover up with clothing, move into the shade – or use sunscreen.
6. When abroad, where the sun is generally stronger, stay in the sun for shorter times until you find out from experience how much is safe.
7. Children benefit from sun exposure, but need guidance to avoid burning.
8. A tan is natural and is generally associated with good health.
And finally - a word about embarrassment
A lot of people here in the UK have a problem removing a few clothes even in their own back garden or in the park. We live on a crowded island and are sensitive about offending others but we get little sunshine and need to take advantage of it when we can. So my plea is: don’t be offended by the naked torso – rejoice in the sun.
Winter sun holidays
One of the best things anyone living in northern Europe can do for their health is take a winter sunshine holiday. A couple of weeks of bright sunshine in midwinter can provide enough vitamin D to last until spring when the sun has gathered some strength in the British Isles. But to be sure of good sunshine you must choose your destination carefully because some countries which are far enough south for good winter sunshine have a cloudy or rainy season.
The sky must be reasonably clear and the sun must be above an angle of 45 degrees for enough UVB to penetrate the atmosphere and reach your skin where it makes vitamin D. Simple geometry tells us that the sun is high enough and provides some useful UVB when the shadow of an object, such as a bottle, is shorter than the object itself.
A rough rule for those searching for winter sun is to choose destinations below about 30° north or in the southern hemisphere. Wherever you go, take care if you have not had much previous exposure to the sun. Expose as much skin as possible but take care not to burn. A few minutes in the sun may be enough to begin with, especially for any areas of skin that have not had much exposure in the past – see our advice on Sunbathing above.
Southern Spain or Portugal, Malta, Cyprus and Crete are the most southerly destinations in Europe. They provide a very pleasant climate in winter but for two or three months the sun has too little strength to provide much if any vitamin D. In October and possibly the first week or two of November and in the last week or so of February and in March the sun will be beneficial in these southern parts of Europe, but only in the middle of the day. However it is generally warm in winter in these southern locations and so you can wear shorts and a short-sleeved shirt or an off the shoulder dress and enjoy the weak winter sun for an hour or so midday.
The sunniest spot in Europe is actually Faro, capital of the Portuguese Algarve which enjoys 3,170 hours of sunshine a year. Seville in Andalucia is the sunniest spot in Spain with 2,928 sunny hours a year – an average of eight hours a day. This compares with the sunniest spots in the UK, Eastbourne and Bognor Regis in Sussex, which have around 1850 hours of sunshine a year.
For certain sunshine from the beginning of November to the beginning of March you need to go further afield. The Canary Islands or Madeira are one of the closest and cheapest locations for reliable sun in winter. Take care choosing destinations in north African countries such as Morocco or Algeria which may be cloudy in winter, particularly coastal resorts. But the Algerian desert town of Salah gets eight hours of sunshine a day in December, and the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria has 3,500 hours of sunshine a year and might be a good bet in winter.
Florida and the Caribbean are classic winter sun destinations and Florida may be relatively cheap if you avoid the December holiday period. The sun is strong enough in these locations even in midwinter. The American south west is one of the sunniest regions on the planet and provides a variety of holiday possibilities. The sun will be rather weak in December and January but in November and February you should be able to pick up some useful vitamin D. Los Angeles and Las Vegas have all the attractions of the big city while Arizona and New Mexico provide startling scenery.
To escape the tyranny of the seasons go to the southern hemisphere and enjoy their summer during our dark days. But take care in selecting your destination. Northern Chile is one of the driest regions of the world and may tempt you. In fact the Atacama Desert has a climate that is often cool and cloudy even though it never rains. Cold ocean currents create low-lying cloud that lies between the coast and the mountains.
The Chilean town of Antofagasta has 11 hours of sunshine a day in January sinking to four hours a day in April. So check dates carefully. Mendoza in western Argentina averages 10 hours sunlight on summer days while southern Argentina offers a gentler more European summer together with exciting scenery. South Africa has long been renowned for its sunshine. Doctors used to recommend people with multiple sclerosis to go there for the climate. It can’t fail and has the added advantage of little change in the clock and so no jet lag. If you have enough time and can face the jet lag Australia and New Zealand offer a wonderful Antipodean summer during our coldest months.
There are many places in the Middle East that can offer good winter sun: Aqaba in Jordan, Eilat in Israel and Taba in Egypt get around seven hours of sun a day in December, more than enough to give you plenty of vitamin D. Sunniest of all is Muscat with about 3,700 hours a year. There are also plenty of destinations in Asia that provide good winter sun. Bali and nearby Lombok, for example, are renowned for their sunny weather and blue skies.