Is sunlight addictive?

Kay Cahill Allison

Former Editor, Harvard Health

It doesn’t make sense: If sunlight causes cancer, why are human beings so drawn to it, flocking to sunny beaches for vacation time and hoping for sunshine after a rainy spell?

One answer, says David Fisher, chief of dermatology at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, may be that humans are literally addicted to sunshine so our skin can make vitamin D. New evidence suggests that we get the same kick out of being in the sun that we get from any addictive substance or behavior. It stimulates the so-called “pleasure center” in the brain and releases a rush of feel-good chemicals like endorphins.

So there may be more than a desire to look good in a tan behind the urge to soak up the sun’s rays. This craving may be a survival mechanism that evolved over thousands of years because humans need vitamin D to survive. Skin makes this crucial vitamin when it is exposed to sunlight. There isn’t much vitamin D in food (except in some of today’s fortified foods) so the human brain rewards us with a rush of pleasure when we seek out the sun and get vitamin D.

Seeking sunshine can be downright dangerous. As Fisher points out, the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunshine is “the most ubiquitous and common carcinogen in the world.” Skin cancer is the most preventable form of cancer simply because we know what causes it: sunlight. Yet despite this knowledge, skin cancer is on the rise, increasing faster than any other form of cancer. (You can watch Fisher’s presentation here.)

Avoiding D-ficiency

A simple blood test at your doctor’s office can determine if you are deficient in vitamin D. New guidelines from the Institute of Medicine recommend 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D a day for everyone between the ages of 1 and 70, and 800 IU for those over age 70. Some experts argue that this isn’t enough, and that five to 10 minutes a day outdoors without sunscreen is a reasonable way to get some natural vitamin D. (If you live north of a line connecting San Francisco with St. Louis and Richmond, Virginia, don’t bother doing this between November and March—the amount of ultraviolet light hitting your body won’t be enough to generate vitamin D.)

If you’ll be out longer than five to 10 minutes, cover up. Use sunscreen but understand that the evidence for its long-term protection against skin cancer is “changing rapidly,” says Fisher. Some newer studies show no benefit, some even show elevated risk for people who use sunscreen. More effective protection is a full-brimmed hat and long sleeves and pants. Best choice, says Dr. Fisher, “Stay in the shade.”

For more on caring for your skin, treating age-related skin conditions, and skin rejuvenation, check out the Harvard Health Publication’s Special Health Report: Skin Care and Repair.

Related Information: Skin Care and Repair


  1. Heather Smith

    This is an interesting article, sunlight is good for the body, it gives vitamin D but if over exposed, it could lead into cancer,so we must moderate our exposure to sunlight.Thanks for posting this.


    What a pity this article still took an anti-sun message.

  3. Dermatal

    This is a very interesting post
    Thank you

  4. Paul

    I have never been a ‘sun lover’ and have actively avoided sun exposure. I have a typical north European skin type and had a large basal cell carcinoma on my forhead which has now thankfully been treated. I recently read and article from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, that said “people who use sunscreens don’t necessarily have fewer skin cancers” which was a surprise!

  5. Anonymous

    The skin is a mirror of your internal health. The glow on your face reflects good health. The Lady Hospitals takes a step forward to provide good health internally and externally

  6. Peter

    I’m going to be real upfront here. I’m a guy who needs help keeping his face clear and clean. What the heck I need all your girls‘ help. What do you girls eat, wear to keep your skin so beautiful and clean? I just want to be more attractive to girls. My face is not that bad actually I just have a few blemishes here and there nothing serious. What do you girls recommend to wash your face, any soaps, food, any tips please.[url removed by moderator]

  7. Anonymous

    Totally agree with this post. What amazes me is that people who already have serious conditions such as eczema, previous skin cancer treatments, or psoriasis still sunbathe when they know the risks! Thoughts on how to educate better?
    [URL removed by moderator]

  8. Gia

    I think there is a lot of people out there that do not pay a lot of attention to their skin, or think anything about skin care at all. I just read where skin bleaching, and people attempting to lighten their skin color is increasing all over the world, including places like China, Japan, and India. In Jamaica it has become such a problem that the government started an educational campaign that basically says if you are going to do it then learn how to lighten skin naturally instead of using potentially dangerous skin bleaching chemicals. I know anything to do with skin color is going to be a highly sensitive issue but I think these people are doing it for all the wrong reasons.

  9. Hikari Kisugi

    I keep a lot fresh vegetables and fruits included in my everyday diet since they are stuffed with vitamins. Now why do you would like vitamins? Because they’re essential both for your health and skin condition. It is found that Vitamins are effective to heal skin aging and keeps you skin well protected against external and internal harmful elements that constantly makes an attempt to ruin your skin.

    Vitamin D is one in all the most dedicated warriors that facilitate your skin to stay protected below its protect. Now here I can speak concerning totally different types of skin conditions and the way Vitamin D can solve these issues. [URL removed by moderator]

  10. Trim

    In tropical country, do not soak yourself under the sun between this time: 9:00 – 3:00.. The UV concentration is very high.

    [URL removed by moderator]

  11. Shawn Collins

    It is very addictive because it gives an immediate satisfaction. Not only that, being tan is the fad right now but beware of the harmful side-effect like skin carcinoma.

    Shawn Collins
    [URL removed by moderator]

  12. Matt Carter

    Why sunlight is addictive? Why it is like white people wants to darker on the other hand people with fair complexion wants to be whiter? And so the story goes. When doing this, be sure you have all the SPF creams to about too much skin damage.

    Matt Carter
    [URL removed by moderator]

  13. Arina

    Really enjoyed your blog on the dangers of sun exposure. Funny how times change – white skin used to be the all the fashion because having a tan showed that you were poor because you were working outside. Now having a tan shows that you’ve got the time and money to fly off to exotic places. People need to be properly educated how to look after their skin properly. I’ve written a few blogs about natural sunscreens and why we all should be taking better care of our skin in general by using products which are natural and toxin free. [url removed by moderator] Thanks again for the artilce.

  14. Alfian Harris

    The article is useful, how about the conditions in the tropical climate state?
    whether the sun in the morning until 7:30 AM pretty good for the body condition?

  15. Jael

    Though it over exposure in sunlight can cause cancer it can give you the skin color you want and also it has vitamins. 😀

  16. thestats

    vit d deficiency is now being related to cancers-is it really correlated , its a very nicely done article,Thanks

  17. Sean

    I have read elsewhere that vitamin D deficiency is a major cause of many illnesses, including cancer. I truly enjoy being in the sun and, as a runner, often get over 30 minutes per day of sun exposure. As a result, I stay fairly tanned most of the time. (I live in central Texas, so lots of sun and heat).

    At the same time, I am a Rosacea sufferer and sun exposure seems to exacerbate my condition. For me, it is a catch-22.
    I am in my late 60s and after a life-time of sun exposure, I have not developed any serious side-effects addressed in this article. That is not to say they don’t exist, just my experience.

  18. Anonymous

    Seeking sunshine can be downright dangerous. As Fisher points out, the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from sunshine is “the most ubiquitous and common carcinogen in the world.” Skin cancer is the most preventable form of cancer simply because we know what causes it: sunlight.

    I am hearing this for the first time, I think one has to be extra careful not to get skin cancer. Thanks for this educative article.

    [URL removed by moderator]

  19. DHEA Labosante

    The feelings of pleasure we get from sunlight may be part of a survival mechanism to get us the vitamin D we need.

  20. Cammy

    I also don’t agree with the post. Peoples works in the sunlight as workers or others has strong bodies because of Vitamin D. And can face the extra heat as sun easily. Extra heat may cause many problems as toe nail fungus.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  21. Vitadigest

    However this topic is very unique. I have never read this kind of stuff.

  22. Vitadigest

    i do not agree with this view that sunlight is addictive how can it be possible sulight is a natural source of vitmain D and because everyone goes out he or she consumes vitamin D automatically so there is nothing to worry about it.

  23. shanpollak

    Sun can affect your skin but it is also helpful for Vitamin D.
    [URL removed by moderator]

  24. elenin

    People still don’t seem to mind shriviling up like a prune witj wrinkles if they can just get a little tanner?

  25. david carter

    Everything in moderation – we all need a certain amount of UV exposure but of course everything must be in moderation


    [URL removed by moderator]

  26. Goran

    Of course sunlight is “addictive”! And of course this can be a problem if you don’t know the facts about tanning and how to avoid any potential damage from UV-light.
    The “sun-scare” lobby has been very successful but their goal is not to make us more healthy. Their goal is to increase the sales of sunscreen cosmetics.
    Read my report “30 years of Sun-scare” and find out who wants to “keep you in the dark”.

  27. Lou

    Lack of sun leading to lack of vitamin D causes significantly higher risk of getting one of any 18 different cancers including melanoma skin cancer.

    Be careful of what you say Kay Allison. You could potentially cause far worse damage than what you intend to prevent.

  28. Cars Dublin

    This was a very interesting post. I do feel so much better when the sun is shining, it lifts your spirits and is addictive, like you say like other things we crave.
    I have a child with albinism he is on the low spectrum but we do have to be careful about sun exposure and when we are away I insist that he wears a sun protective rash vest. However reading that suncream can be shown to be ineffective is very worrying for me considering I cant cover his face and legs all the time.

  29. Birgit Calhoun

    Sorry! The whole population

  30. Birgit Calhoun

    It’s been a no-brainer since Vitamin D was first discovered that outdoors is good for your health. What is absolutely and near criminal is the lack of the medical establishment’s understanding of the importance of Vitamin D. It is even more troubling that the finer points of this matter, i.e. the role of the kidney and the role of Vitamin D receptors in general, are ignored. Recently a Japanese study on mice showed that 1,25 (OH)2 D3 seems to flush out beta-amyloid from the brain thus potentially preventing Alzheimer’s. I could go on. I have personal experience fighting in favor of more Vitamin D. Only in the last few years has it become possible to test for Vitamin D. Why is it taking so long to see the benefits of testing the who population?

  31. George D

    What a pity this article still took an anti-sun message. “Best choice, stay in shade”. Bodies crave because it is absolutely necessary, and when they’ve had enough, most people know. Cultural messages telling people to go brown have been a problem, but the anti-sun message has been too successful. D deficiency is on the rise and nearing epidemic proportions, even in states like Florida.

    Sickness associated with Vitamin D deficiency was one of the reasons why it was unfailingly prescribed as a cure until the mid 20th century. There are possibly other benefits to sunlight exposure – a raft of chemical reactions are likely to be produced by exposure to light.

    There is an increasing body of evidence linking insufficient sunlight exposure and vitamin D deficiency with cancers.

    • Robert

      Quite agree with you. If you don’t go out and let the sunlight produces Vitamin D for you, your immune system will become weaker.

      However, I don’t know that sunlight can be addictive like this. Although these evidents seems to be true, I can’t think that how people can feel like using endorphin when they sit under the sun?

      Best Regards,
      [URL removed by moderator]

Commenting has been closed for this post.