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