Dear Mark: Sunglasses and Sunlamps

Dear Mark,

We’re heading into the winter months (it’s chilly even here in Atlanta!) and the days are getting shorter. As “Lights out: sleep, sugar, survival” taught us, we’re wired to handle seasonal patterns of sunlight exposure. What are your thoughts on maintaining a tan year round? Would you be better off letting your tan wane in the winter and switching from regular fish oil to cod liver oil to compensate for the vitamin D? To maintain a tan in the winter months would probably require a tanning booth, and I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on using those, even very occasionally. I’d love to see an article discussing this topic if you can get around to it. If you’ve already written one, could you point me in the direction of it?

Thanks to Keenan for the timely question. Old Man Winter has spread the chill to just about every corner of the country this past month. (Some of you obviously bear the brunt, I know. My condolences…. Having come from New England, I feel your pain.)

First, let’s take the suntan element out of the equation and focus purely on vitamin D deficiency, which has been associated in population studies with certain cancers, MS, Parkinson’s and rheumatoid arthritis. Although time in the sun offers some added color (particularly to the fair-skinned among us), it’s not really the tan itself that’s healthy.

There are two kinds of ultraviolet rays at play here: UVA and UVB. Essentially, UVA rays penetrate more deeply, allow the skin to tan, and are the main (sun-related) culprits behind skin aging. UVB rays don’t penetrate as deeply, are responsible for sunburns (when we overdo it on those mid-winter beach vacations) but have more to offer health-wise, particularly the triggering of vitamin D production. (UVB rays are considered the guilty party in most skin cancer; however, UVA ray exposure is associated with melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer. Note: wise antioxidant supplementation goes a long, long way in reducing or eliminating any damage caused by sun exposure.) While the sun offers a generous dose of both kinds of rays, tanning booths generally favor UVA rays (as much as 95% of the calibration – not even close to the UVA/UVB ratio of sunlight) because, well, they’re “tanning” businesses. Their customers are paying for a tan, and that’s what the salons are going to give them.

I’ve never really been a big fan of tanning beds, but I realize the business has over the years changed somewhat. Some “health-conscious” salons now calibrate their beds to offer less UVA and more UVB rays for their customers during the winter months. If you can find such a salon then it might be worth your money. Still, I’ll admit, there would likely be that nagging question in the back of my mind: am I really getting what’s advertised?

A better bet, I think, is just getting outside whenever possible. I also believe it’s safe to say that Grok would agree. Though our Northern ancestors didn’t spend as much time lounging in the sun as their more Southern counterparts during the winter months, they also weren’t the indoor hermits we moderns often are. They had work to do, wood to gather, animals to hunt, skin or cook. Only so much could be done in the confines of their “indoor” shelters. (With the advent of attached garages, parking ramps, skyways, underground pedestrian tunnels, we on the other hand have the ability to avoid virtually any time outside.)

As unappealing as it may sound some days, I suggest getting out on all but the most blistering cold days for 15-20 minutes. Ideally, go out at mid-day when the sun’s position allows you the most benefit for your efforts. If you make it an active time, of course, you’ll have the advantage of some added exercise and a warmer experience. The warmer you are, the more eager you’ll probably be to bare additional skin for some rays.

I always suggest upping your vitamin D nutritional intake during the winter months, particularly if you live in a colder area of the country. I don’t consider it a substitution for the real deal (sunlight), but it’s a help – a supplement to your other efforts.

“Light boxes” or full-spectrum lights (the authentic ones that truly include UV rays) are another option. The studies I’ve read have shown some moderate gains with the use of these lights in terms of vitamin D production, but it’s clear they aren’t as effective as good, old-fashioned sunshine. In extreme situations (submarine assignments, Arctic living, etc.) or for certain conditions like depression, they seem to be a good option. Obviously, light boxes would also be the main alternative for the few who don’t respond to nutritional D supplementation.

Dear Mark,

I took a road trip a couple of weeks back without sunglasses after my sunglasses broke and I backed off from buying another one thinking that it may be primal to drive around without them. Since then I have been holding off buying one. At one point I was thinking of buying some even for my regular runs during the weekend. What are your thoughts on sunglasses? Didn’t our forefathers go out in the sun and survive without sunglasses?

Thanks to Jayadeep for this question. It’s true that Grok et al didn’t go around in Ray-Bans. Some people talk like you’ll fry your eyes if you so much as step out to get the mail without them. Not so. Bright light exposure is important for regulating circadian rhythm. That said, we generally live longer than Grok did thanks to medical care, safety from animal predators, etc. (The guy had the genetic potential, but the saber tooth tiger down the road had other plans.) The main concern is the healthy aging of the eyes – avoiding retinal damage, advanced macular degeneration, and cataracts, which affects nearly half of people between the ages of 70-80.  With longer life expectancies comes the wise alteration of certain practices. I’d include sunglasses in that category. But let me add that research here again supports the importance of high antioxidant levels for sun exposure and eye health.

Additionally, there’s the issue of a waning ozone layer and the resulting increased UV exposure, particularly in certain parts of the world like Australia and Southern Chile. (Another example of balancing what fit in Grok’s day with what has changed in ours.) Those with lighter eyes (blue, gray) are more sensitive to light and should take the most precaution.

As always, thanks for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

Daniel Greene Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Don’t Let “D” Stand for Deficiency

Getting Back to Nature

Grok Didn’t Take Supplements So Why Should I?

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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30 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Sunglasses and Sunlamps”

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  1. Great post! I need to look into antioxidant supplementation. Mark, what do you think about wearing sunscreen every day if you live in a place like Florida where melanoma runs rampant?

  2. I had always heard that above 42 degrees latitude (or below, presumably, in the southern hemisphere) the winter sunlight is simply too weak for your body to produce Vitamin D, no matter how much sunlight you get. The NIH Vitamin D facts sheet backs that up: “The UV energy above 42 degrees north latitude (a line approximately between the northern border of California and Boston) is insufficient for cutaneous vitamin D synthesis from November through February.” (link)

  3. I’m against sunglasses mainly because it’s hard to talk to people wearing them (I need to look someone in the eyes!). Though I guess I do see the benefit in preventing eventual retinal damage.

  4. Great article Mark. I have 2 points.
    People who live in different latitudes than their ancestors may have more trouble in the winter than others. For example, those with African ancestry may need more sun than those with Scandinavian ancestry.
    It’s wise to keep a pair of sunglasses in the car for safety reasons. Glare from the road is probably something Grok didn’t have to worry about.

    I’m curious on your opinion of the quality or necessity of modern cod liver oil.

  5. Lauren – Mark has a great vitamin supplement that contains all kinds of amazing antioxidants. You should check out the website at Primal Nutrition also has a product with omega-3 fatty acids from fish oil. I’ve been a loyal user for years now and love these products.

  6. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more active outdoors. Yesterday (hey no reason to wait until January 1st!) my wife and I went snowshoeing on Mt. Evans in Colorado. We soaked up tons of sunlight and got in a good workout climbing some ridges. You definitely want to wear sunglasses when there is a lot of snow around though or you’ll be blinded by the glare.

  7. I try to soak up some sunlight at every oppurtunity I get. Always remember the main absorbtion of vitamins through sunlight comes from your shoulder griddle area so make sure to expose it when you can….
    A good natural Cod Liver Oil supplement is also something worth looking into if you live somewhere with a lack of sunlight throughout the winter. Great post Mark and thanks for giving your opinion on light boxed….

  8. As someone who struggles with Seasonal Affective Disorder every winter, I found this article particularly interesting. To the first letter I would like to point out that while medical grade “sunlight” lamps are rather pricey (About $400) you can get a prescription from you doctor for one and then many medical insurers will chip in for part of it. The sunlight lamps are formulated to be much more effective than a tanning bed. Just look for one that is at least 10,000 LUX or a narrow-band LED of at least 368 LUX.

    As far as sunglasses – bright sunlight makes me sneeze. (What’s up with that, Grok???) So I wear them to avoid spraying strangers. Or myself.

  9. I’m recalling this from memory, but I think I basically have it right. Health Canada recommends you should have 200 IU (international units) of vitamin D a day. However, if you’re in the sun for 20 minutes, your body will produce something like 10000IU of vitamin D. This indicates to me that your body is crying out for vitamin D, otherwise, why would it create so much in so limited a time? I’m going to have to look into this more. If I learn something else, I’ll repost.

    Another issue for us in more Northern Climates is that the sun doesn’t rise as high in the sky. Therefore, the suns rays come in at more of an angle, have to go through more atmosphere, and are less potent as a result. Interesting stuff, and I appreciate everyone’s thoughts on this.

    – Dave

  10. Well, there are various forms of Vitamin D, some from diet and other from sun. What I wonder however, will D from the diet be supplemented with sufficient sun exposure? Checking Fitday I get about 50% daily recommended from diet alone, but the sun down here in Colombia is very powerful, and I get some exposure every day. Should I supplement?

  11. That dog is awesome! I try to get a good amount of sun, but I feel like I’m always in doors. It’s just something that we should all be cognizant of, get more sun!

    All the Best,

    Andrew R

  12. I thought my husband was kidding about sun making him sneeze…until we rounded a bend bringing our infant daughter home from the hospital and the sun hit her face and she sneezed! They both do it, and apparently it’s genetic. I tend to get headaches in sunlight, so the sunglasses hang from a leash incessantly. And since I’m north of that magic lattitude, I take time off work to head south from Oregon to California with my mountain bike often in winter!

  13. Lutein and Zeaxanthin are two carotenoids found in both the retina and lens of the eyes that act as both powerful antioxidants, as well as like a having pair of “internal sunglasses” as they help filter UVA/UVB and blue light.

    One or both of these nutrients can be found in such foods as green, leafy vegetables, orange and yellow peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, corn and eggs.

    A number of peer review research studies have shown that supplementing with lutein and zeaxanthin can significantly reduce the changes of getting macular degeneration. Taking fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) daily is also proving invaluable in helping prevent the onset of Macular Degeneration. These nutrients are also essential to take for those with macular degeneration in helping preserve vision as has been shown on the recent AREDS2 study.

    For more related research studies, see the “Research” section at Natural Eye Care for Macular Degeneration

  14. Interesting. We get more than our share of time outdoors here in sunny california. Even with sunscreen and a hat, I think the winters are harder on my skin.

    As for the sunglasses, if they weren’t glued to my face, I’d be lost and crying. Bright sunlight and blue eyes cause my eyes to run.

  15. Re are you getting what’s advertised in tanning booths, I’ve recently had the same problem having bought a home tanning machine and fitting bulbs which are meant to replicate sunlight and produce vitamin D from the UVB rays.

    It’s virtually impossible to tell from inspecting the bulbs if they are mimicking sunlight and, if the bulbs are old, how potent are they still?

    The answer (for peace of mind)is to possibly invest in a UVB meter – the Solarmeter 6.2 is available but costly (£120.00 + here in the UK)and can be put in front of the tanning bulbs or real sunlight when outdoors. Plenty of details from reptile websites where the pet owners use these meters to ensure their reptiles are getting vitamin D from their bulbs.

    Also, plenty of further info on Vit D and tanning booths can be found on Dr Eades blog…type in Vitamin D and check out the postings from his readers. As with this site Mark, the blogs and readers’ comments are superlative.

  16. This is so strange. I was just watching a big warning from the New Zealand Cancer Association on TV tonight against sunbeds. They were really gungho and said that going on a sunbed can increase your chances of getting skin cancer by 133%. Thats scary enough to put me right off!!!!!

  17. My last fishing trip in the boat i had my sunglasses on my head and looked up and my sunglasses fell in the water. Well, that didn’t stop me, i got another pair, but this time i got “floatable” sunglasses, won’t lose this pair!
    I have to wear sunglasses because i wear contact lens and going fast in the boat, i need sunglasses for protection.

    LOVE THE DOG!!!!

  18. Good post Mark. I do find it hard to get myself outside when the weather is so cold but I have been making the effort over the holiday period. I’ve been doing 30 minute sessions of sprints between the goal posts in my local park and I find that it does warm you up quite quickly.

    Charlotte & Danielle – I’m so glad I’ve found someone else who experiences this. The sun makes me and my Dad sneeze. I’ve been told it’s an inherited gene. However, no one else I know reacts to sunlight in the same way. Everytime I sneeze at the sun no one else believes me. They think I’m joking. It’s really frustrating. I know how your husband feels Danielle.

  19. My Sympathies, Tom, Charlotte and Danielle. I have the oposite condition – if I’m in the sun and go in the shade I sneeze! My grandfather was the same but worse! Luckily, only happens occaisionlly in not-so-sunny UK. I only use sunglasses for driving (low sun, road glare etc.)but have brown eyes, so that might help.

    I’m a baby grok with a hip and knee problem, so I’m having to go carefully, but I enjoy the newsletters and comments a lot.

    As for Vitamin D, both Mercola and the Weston A. Price Foundation have issued statements based on the most recent findings. They may be worth checking out to inform yourselves and make up your own mind.

  20. Mark, thanks for the reply! I think you’re on the right track here.

    For what it’s worth I approach sunglasses the same way I approach sun exposure in general: 15-30 minutes of unprotected exposure (depending on my tan), then I’ll cover up afterwards. I think bright sun exposure in the morning is a great way to start the day; I would never want to take that away with sunglasses. If I’m outside all day, I’ll put em on.

    And I want to party with that dog.

  21. Thanks Mark for answering my question – I still haven’t picked up new glasses because I am commuting by bus these days and do little driving around. But I am planning to bike to work and may be I need one to protect my eye from the dust on the roads.

  22. I went 15, 20 years w/o sunglasses. In that time I only wished I had them infrequently. Sunny winter days in the snow mountains of Colorado could sometimes test my iris, or low sun on the water in Florida.

    I bought some polarized glasses a year ago so that I could better see into the water, especially to see manatee in the bayou. I took to wearing them often to, well, look cool. And they hid my eyes when walking on the beach so that my pervitude wasn’t so obvious.

    Just today I decided to ditch them again. OK, handy if really bad glare but not routine.

  23. True, our ancestors had far more sun exposure than we do, but they probably also looked a hot mess. As a licensed esthetician, I have seen the damage that UVA/UVB can do to one’s skin. UVA rays break down your collagen and elastin, leading to wrinkles and saggy skin…UVB rays contribute to hyperpigmentation (dark spots). The development of wrinkles etc. is not part of the natural aging process, and can be prevented by a healthy lifestyle and protection from the sun’s damaging rays! People spend thousands of dollars trying to reverse the damaging effects of the sun, and more than anything it is the gradual exposure to these harmful rays over the years that contributes to this destruction. I wear a UVA/UVB protective sunblock (on my face), a topical Vit C serum, and take 6,000 IU Vit D3 supplements EVERYDAY (as I am strictly paleo and do not drink fortified milk etc). I am certainly for health and longevity, but would never encourage unprotected exposure to UVB/UVA rays.

  24. For metering UVB for exposure times, I would suggest the Solarmeter 6.4 Vitamin D UV meter over the 6.2 UVB only version.

    This particular unit also comes with an Excel spreadsheet program to change variables according to your exposure time, specific skin type, SPF applied (if any), % body exposure, facultative tan, and of course, age.

    With that said, I can tell you that all current tanning beds produce UVB and stimulate Vitamin D production in those people that can achieve a tan, even the newer HP-style equipment. Tube style beds will have more UVB and of course, more potential for reddening.

    The actual ratio of

    Tanning beds are restricted by FDA to provide a maximum of 4 MED’s rated for a skin type 2, no matter what lamp is used, while outdoor exposure can easily reach the same 4 MED’s in 40-60 minutes by April at 40° at solar noon, and increase to 1/2 that time frame by summertime.