The social and physical mirage suntanned skin presents helps explain why so many cannot resist the sun, despite the health risks and warnings. Still, in some ways, sunlight (not sunbathing) actually does aid physical and mental health. Sunshine regulates energy levels by setting our circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that directs sleep or arousal states. Sunlight also wards off “seasonal affective disorder”, that foggy, depressed feeling that clouds many moods during gray winter months.

By promoting the body’s production of vitamin D, the sun aids in the absorption and utilization of calcium, one of the key minerals responsible for helping to create sturdy bones and straight bodies.

Completely avoiding the sun, then, shades you from the sun’s advantages, but too much of the sun’s radiation does have a dark side for health. Fortunately, there is a middle ground.

The sun’s role in the age of anti-aging

Although the sun gives life to earth, and life to life itself, the sun’s rays can wreak havoc on beautiful skin. As much as 90 percent of older-looking skin is a result of continuous unprotected sun exposure.

Initially, sun exposure dehydrates skin. As skin dries out, it also loses elasticity, toughens, and wrinkles faster. Free radicals, the unstable chemicals that activate and multiply when exposed to light and oxygen, also cause prematurely-aged skin and contribute to damage of the immune system. To form a protective barrier against assaults from the sun, skin thickens.

A tan develops as the skin reacts to absorption of ultraviolet radiation, causing an increase in the number of melanocyte cells – epidermal cells that produce melanin, the dark brown pigment in the skin. The tan, then, is evidence that the skin is trying to protect itself from the sun, which your skin can do only for a short time.

Surely, the most painful sun damage – blistering, red skin – comes from ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that cause the blood vessels to dilate, resulting in sunburn. These short UVB waves of light hit the strongest between 10 a.m. and – p.m. Researchers once thought UVB rays caused the most damage to skin, leading to cancer, but this belief is no longer widely held.

Longer wave lengths, ultraviolet A rays (UVA), present potentially more serious dangers. Unlike UVB rays, identifiable by their intense light, UVA rays go undetected, but are lasting and intense from dawn to dusk. These rays penetrate clouds, making even dark days dangerous. UVA rays can also slip through glass, plastic, and many sunscreens.

Sun-care is skin-care outdoors

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) claims that the ozone layer dissipates at a rate of 4 to 6 percent per decade. As more rays hit the earth, all skin shades and types need more and better sun protection.

Don’t be fooled by the label “sunscreen.” These products contain ingredients that help deflect or scatter sunlight, but do not truly block the rays. Look for “sunblocks” that contain invisible barriers to defend skin from radiation. Choose “full (or broad)-spectrum” products; these sunblocks protect against both UVA and UVB radiation.

Remember, UVA rays can permeate water. Apply “waterproof” sun products before swimming or other water activity. Waterproof sunscreens also stay on better if you perspire during outdoor activities. Note, however, that even water-resistant sunblocks should be reapplied every two hours.

Because the sun dehydrates the skin, use extra moisturizers after sun exposure and during hot, dry days. Look for new moisturizers containing antioxidants, such as vitamin C, which some experts believe can reverse damage caused by free radicals. One form of vitamin C is esterified – a less acidic source. You can find a full line of natural moisturizers and antioxidant creams at your health food store.

Avoid products that can irritate skin. Watch out for those with para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) – a water-soluble B vitamin found in many foods and skin-care products, and one to which many are allergic – and artificial colors, which also cause allergic reactions in some. Stay away from sun-care products with skin-drying alcohol. If you do burn, apply a cream or moisturizer containing aloe vera to help soothe skin.

Ask at your health food store for products that protect your type of skin. With a few healthy precautions, you can enjoy moderate sunlight without excessive worry.