We know that too much sun is a recipe for skin cancer. But trying to avoid the gaze of that flaming ball in the sky isn't doing us too many favors either, according to a new study. The study, published online this week in the Journal of Internal Medicine, explored a consistent paradox in sun exposure studies: People who get more sun tend to live longer — despite the increased risk for skin cancer those extra rays pose — possibly thanks to a little extra vitamin D. To get to the bottom of it, the researchers looked at data for 29,518 Swedish women. All the women were between the ages of 25 and 64, and were asked detailed questions about their sun exposure, other related lifestyle habits (like smoking), and overall health. Then, the researchers used advanced modeling techniques using modern survival statistics to estimate when the participants would die.
Acccording to the statistical model, those who were avoiding sun exposure had higher risks for death in the next 20 years than those who got at least moderate sun exposure. In particular, those who got more sun were less likely to have died of heart disease. However, the study cannot show conclusively that sun exposure caused these participants' longer life, only that the two factors are associated. What could be going on? "I think this has a lot to do with people's habits and their behaviors," explains Jennifer Stein, MD, PhD, at NYU Langone Medical Center, who wasn't involved with the study. "If you're the kind of person who's running, swimming, and biking and you have a very active, outdoor lifestyle, you're probably going to wind up in that group with the most sun exposure. And a lot of those behaviors are very healthy." On the flip side, those who spent more time indoors could have had pre-existing conditions that both kept them out of the sun and shortened their lives. Of course, this doesn't mean you should go out of your way to get even more sun exposure if you're already getting plenty. According to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you can start to expect skin damage after just 15 unprotected minutes in the sun. But there are some easy ways to protect yourself — aside from wearing sunscreen. For instance, Dr. Stein recommends sticking to the cooler ends of the day rather than midday when the sun is at its most intense. And she suggests wearing sun-protective clothing, like hats and long-sleeved shirts, which the current study did not account for in its participants. "You don’t have to be a vampire to protect your skin from sun damage," says Dr. Stein. If you're getting outside (and being active!) a bit every day, you're probably fine. But — sorry, basement dwellers — that does mean you need to get out there.