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The Sun and Your Health: Hero or Helper?

The visuals seem to defy the ages. The little Coppertone girl running down the beach, a dog pulling at her bathing suit to show white skin under a deep bronze tan. The 60's photos of beach-going teenagers with the infamous aluminum screen under the face to reflect more sunshine. The scarred faces of former beauties with sun damaged and wrinkled skin, making them look years older than their actual age. So is sun a villain? With proper exposure - not necessarily. The key word is proper, as moderation and caution allows us to get the necessary sunshine we need for production of essential vitamin D in the body without harming our skin.

There's no question we need vitamin D. It promotes the absorption of the essential minerals calcium and phosphorus and keeps our skeleton healthy and strong. Additionally, vitamin D protects against osteoporosis, heart disease, and cancer of the colon, prostate, and breast. Newer studies from the Archives of Internal Medicine show that extremely low vitamin D levels can double the risk of dying of heart disease.

The body produces vitamin D when the sun's ultraviolet rays stimulate the skin to synthesize it. Since it's not always sunny everywhere at all times, and winters make this a challenge in many climates, foods, milk, and vitamin supplements are convenient ways to boost our intake. Given the general sun avoidance that most people have come to practice, the number of people walking around with low to borderline vitamin D levels is at an all-time high. So, is there a way to get some amount of healthy sun exposure without succumbing to skin cancer, scarring, and melanoma?

Much of the answer to this question is based on individual attributes. UVB exposure (the better kind of ultraviolet rays from the sun, as UVA predisposes one to skin damage) helps the skin to manufacture vitamin D. A fair skinned individual out in the sun for 10-15 minutes probably gets enough UVB for optimal vitamin D health. When the sun is at its height, UVB rays best penetrate the atmosphere and stimulate vitamin D production. At the height of sun exposure, fair skinned people need only minimal time for this effect to occur. Those with darker skin may require up to six times as much time in the sun to obtain the same vitamin D levels. It's a tough call as there is no real formula for determining the correct exposure for each individual. One has to make the best judgement for themselves.

Most "safe-sun" guidelines have similar recommendations: avoid the sun, use sunscreen of SPF 15 or more (preferably 30 or more), wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses, and immediately get out of the sun when your skin starts to redden. Wearing long sleeve shirts and longer tight woven pants are also suggested. These recommendations are best followed for individuals with light skin, freckles, a propensity to burn quickly in the sun, genetic tendencies toward skin cancer or melanoma, or any personal history of skin growths or cancer. Cumulative sunlight exposure can cause growths such as basal and squamous cell carcinomas, and prolonged or severe sunburns contribute to potentially deadly melanomas. Some healthy fear of high sun exposure is certainly justified.

If you like being in the sun, do so with a healthy caution. Days where there isn't a lot of direct sunlight and the UV index (every weather forecast nowadays references it) at 3 or less are probably fine without extensive protective measures. On the hotter sunnier days, limit sun exposure to 20-30 minutes or less (depending on your complexion and risk factors) and use sunscreen and other skin protective measures. If you're tanning or burning, you're probably getting more sun than you need or is healthy for you. Check your skin for any growths or moles that change in character on a regular basis. The "ABCDE Rule" (Asymmetry, Borders, Color change, Diameter, Evolving) is good to follow, and see a dermatologist when a mole begins to change in character. And avoid tanning salons, as the tanning booths can damage your skin just as excessive sunlight can.

One more tip, if you especially avoid the sun and your diet is not high in milk or other vitamin-supplemented foods have your doctor check your vitamin D levels periodically. The USDA recommended vitamin D intakes for adults of 600 IU through age 70 are probably underestimating the need. Most doctors feel 1,000 IU is a much more reasonable dose. Testing a vitamin D level can allow your doctor to see if you are getting adequate vitamin D relative to your individual diet, lifestyle, and sun exposure.

Authored by Dr. Bob Goldstone, M.D.

The information contained on this page is not intended to provide medical advice, which should be obtained directly from your physician.