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Here Comes the Sun. And the Sunscreen.

If I were really rich, I would fund huge, well-designed studies, free of ideological or academic bias and commercial concerns, that would get to the bottom of the big health issues of the day. One of the first research projects I'd tackle would tell us once and for all how much sun exposure is safe -- and how much we in fact need to keep ourselves healthy.

The reigning notion, upheld by the American Cancer Society (ACS) and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), is that the best sun exposure is hardly any at all. The risk of deadly skin cancer is so grave, these organizations suggest, that we shouldn't spend much time in the sunshine -- or even the gloom of an overcast day -- without sunscreen or protective clothing.

But a few voices -- including Michael Holick, a professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at Boston University School of Medicine, whom I spoke to for today's "Eat, Drink and Be Healthy" column about Vitamin D -- argue that the health benefits of limited sun exposure far outweigh the risks. Holick and others point to a small but growing body of research suggesting that Vitamin D may protect us against conditions such as osteoporosis, hypertension, multiple sclerosis and even some cancers. Research also shows that many Americans are woefully deficient in Vitamin D, which our body produces when exposed to sunlight but which is otherwise available only from a few food sources and from dietary supplements.

Holick has raised institutional hackles by suggesting that we should allow ourselves a modicum of unfiltered sunshine once in a while, in addition to eating Vitamin D-rich foods and taking supplements, to produce enough D to protect us against disease. (While the ACS acknowledges that our need for Vitamin D may temper the no-sun edict, the AAD explicitly cautions not to "seek the sun" for Vitamin D but to get what you need from food and supplements.)

Skin cancer, and particularly deadly melanoma, is not to be taken lightly. I cringe when I think back to my own sunbathing days; remember when we thought coating ourselves in baby oil and baking in the sun all day was a good idea?

But I have to wonder whether the cancer-fighting community has determined that if it gives us an inch, sun exposure-wise, we'll all take a mile. If they allow that it's okay to take a walk around the block on a spring afternoon without slathering on the sunblock (which blocks Vitamin D production), maybe we'll take that as license to skip the sunscreen next time we go to the pool.

I also am cynical enough to wonder about all that sunscreen. The current recommendation is that we apply an ounce to our exposed skin 20 minutes or so before venturing outdoors and that we reapply every two hours or so. For a single summer weekend, I can easily envision using a whole 8-ounce bottle of sunscreen lotion -- not to mention the gallons I'd need to keep my kids covered, what with all their swimming and sweating and such. If I were in stock-buying mode, I'd sure consider investing in sunscreen. Expense and bother aside, though, it bothers me to be so slavishly devoted to a practice that could in part be responsible for our exposure-related lack of Vitamin D.

What's your take on sun exposure? How much is too much -- or too little? In the interest of preventing skin cancer, have we gone overboard in shielding ourselves from the sun?

Note: The Post's new health-care reform blog, the Daily Dose, debuted Monday. Check it out and join the national debate.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  May 12, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Cancer , Family Health , General Health  
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Comments

The Canadian Cancer Society recommended over 18 months ago that everyone take vitamin D to prevent cancer, few appear to know about this. Take a look at www.vitaminD3world.com for some good summaries of the data that led to this recommendation. The site also offers a good newsletter

Posted by: mbarnes012 | May 12, 2009 9:59 AM | Report abuse

Never having bought into the craze for suntans, I never bought into the sunscreen mandate either. A moderate amount of sun is certainly good for ths spirit, how can it possibly be bad for the body? Speaking as a fair-skinned person of northern European descent, my instinct has always been to avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. -- take your walks, do your gardening in the early morning or evening -- so far no skin cancer, and I've been around awhile. Before there were doctors telling us everything, there was common sense. It still wins for me every time.

Posted by: TracyAligDowling | May 12, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for bringing this up. I educate people at sun screenings and I tend to emphasize that people get a balance diet and use supplements. The human body has a natural ability to heal and protect itself if given what it needs. Also, according to the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) a study of 1,000 sunscreen lotions found that 4 out of 5 contain chemicals that pose health hazards or don't adequately protect skin from the sun's damaging rays. I think we need to know more about these products and one should be aware that companies of consumer products are most concerned with profits. Even when buying supplements, one needs to do some research. I caution people about getting too much sun. Here is a link to the study: www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/special/sunscreens2008/index.php?nothanks=1

Posted by: Americanlady18 | May 12, 2009 11:16 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the Vitamin D article. It has been awhile since Sally Squires story in April of 08. It would be helpful to let readers know they can have their blood levels checked by their doc. Ask for a serum 25(OH)D level test.

Thanks too for the "Exercise is Medicine" article last week. I continue to be amazed that we are on the cusp of a major change in health care and nothing is mentioned about the importance of EXERCISE in maintaining good health. Nor is it tax deductible except under circumstances that most people do not qualify for. There are health clubs everywhere, and the cost of a membership would be a drop in the bucket that could produce tremendous savings in health care costs.

Posted by: fastwayfitness | May 12, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

Head to www.grassrootshealth.org for info on the Vitamin D Action committee -- Dr. Holick is on the panel. For $40 you can join the group and get your Vitamin D blood level tested. Then send you 2 lancets and a paper to put blood spots on, then you mail it in. I have been supplementing with 5,000 IU/day, and I just got my test results back: 56 ng/ml -- perfect!

Posted by: mb129 | May 12, 2009 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I suspect Dr. Holick is closer to the truth than are the dermatologists. Also, the correct dose of sunlight, in terms of minutes a day, depends on your latitude.

-Steve
http://advancedmediterraneandiet.com/blog/

Posted by: SteveParkerMD | May 12, 2009 1:06 PM | Report abuse

You can minimize use of sunscreen and avoid a lot of midday sun exposure by wearing sun protective clothing, including fingerless gloves for driving and "rash-guard" type shirts for swimming or surfing. Take a look at:

http://www.sunprecautions.com/

Posted by: huanying510 | May 12, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

My 47 year old husband just went to the dermatologist. She found two spots on his face that are "pre-cancerous" so he has been putting a cream on it ($230) that makes the skin scab up and then fall off. He never wears sunscreen on his face, but I am making sure he does now! This really hit home for me and I am vowing to wear sunscreen as much as possible. I would rather take a vitamin D supplement every day. I work for a company in Ferndale, WA that makes a great liquid Vitamin D3 1000 IU supplement. It tastes really good and is so easy to take. My kids love it too! Walgreens is now selling it and very soon Costco. See www.wellesse.com. I'm still working on my husband. Vitamin D does so much - it's very important to get what you need and get your blood level tested!

Posted by: lellis1 | May 12, 2009 5:23 PM | Report abuse

I am an extremely fair-skinned person who lives in Hong Kong. I do like the Chinese women--use an umbrella, particularly w/ a UV coating. The bigger the umbrella the better. This has yet to take on in the U.S., and even caucasians in HK stare at me as if I just landed from the moon, but I'm cool, comfortable and functional in midday, if I have to be outside. There is no comparison b/w the protection offered by a hat and that offered by an umbrella. Let's get over our hang-ups already! I bet if Madonna were using one, the prejudice against this practice would disappear mighty fast.

Fair skin evolved no doubt to enable Vit D absorption to occur, so I don't think fair-skinned people need more than a few minutes a day on some less sensitive skin areas. Hence the amount of time you need sun exposure depends not only on latitude, but also on complexion.

I use sunscreen only as needed, since, as at least 2 dermatologists have assured me, it's got more toxins the higher the SPF. I have been told not to go above 30 SPF. The writer who is concerned about what's in sunscreen has good reason to be.

As one other writer suggested, use common sense.

Posted by: cookga | May 13, 2009 3:24 AM | Report abuse

Grassrootshealth.org have an excellent series of video's from the world's leading vitamin d scientists.

I would particularly urge people to watch

YouTube - Skin Cancer/Sunscreen - the Dilemma EDWARD GORHAM

But the others on cancer, heart disease diabetes are all well worth the time studying.

Posted by: tedhutchinson | May 13, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Have you ever read the label on a sunscreen bottle? Sunscreen is filled with toxic chemicals, and sunshine has gotten a bad rap. I refuse to use most sunscreens and will only put natural brands on my kids if we are at the beach. Rash guard swimsuits are the order of the day in our family. The "sky-is-falling" admonitions about the sun have gotten out of hand, and you have to ask yourself how much money chemical companies are making off of selling sunscreen.

Posted by: GrainofSalt1 | May 13, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

What annoys me about the admonitions about sun exposure is the same admonition about "if you don't drink now, don't start drinking wine just because it may help your heart". Such admonitions treat the public like children, as if we have absolutely no restraint, or common sense. Ten minutes in the sun is what I have read is what one needs. After that, put on the sunscreen or go inside. Enough of the paternalism already.

Posted by: Kat10132 | May 14, 2009 8:50 AM | Report abuse

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