Sun Safety and Protection

Sun Exposure

Many government and other organisations around the world are encouraging people to avoid exposing their skin to the sun; some are advising pretty much total sun avoidance, recommending that sunscreen and protective clothing be used whenever people go outside. This is based on the increasing incidence of skin cancers, and the link between over-exposure to the sun and an elevated risk of developing such cancers.

However, such advice, particularly total sun avoidance, is going too far: the success of such campaigns is leading to widespread vitamin D deficiency and its wide-ranging health consequences, such as increased incidence and severity of various types of cancer – including the more serious melanoma form of skin cancer.

Adequate vitamin D levels are difficult to achieve from dietary intake alone, even with vitamin supplements; limited exposure of the skin to sufficiently intense sunlight is the most efficient and effective way of achieving adequacy.

Therefore we need to achieve a balance between sun exposure and protection for optimum health. The key to this is knowing your skin type (natural skin colour), then taking appropriate precautions, when necessary according to the current local UV Index level, to protect yourself from over-exposure, once you have received sufficient sun to maintain your vitamin D levels.

Besides the UV Index, there is another simple indication of sun strength: the length of your shadow when stood up. If your shadow is shorter than you are tall, then the sun is strong enough to require at least some precautions. If your shadow is much shorter than you are, then the sun is nearly overhead and likely to be very strong.

For the average white-skinned person living in a temperate climate such as the UK, the recommended level of exposure for vitamin D production is 10–15 minutes unprotected exposure of arms, face and neck 2–3 times per week on sunny days during spring and summer. Very pale-skinned people need somewhat less, while those with dark skins (including naturally light-skinned people with a tan) will need longer exposure (by 2–3 times, or more for the very dark-skinned) to achieve adequate vitamin D production.

To be able to generate vitamin D in the skin, the sun needs to be reasonably strong: below a certain level of UV intensity, vitamin D production shuts down almost completely. This is why it is difficult to get enough vitamin D in temperate climates in autumn and winter – the sun is simply too weak. The intensity required is about that for which sun protection measures are also recommended, a UVI or around 2–3 for the average white person. Dark-skinned people need even higher intensity levels.

The human body also needs prolonged daily exposure to high light levels, such as natural sunlight, even on a cloudy day, through the eyes to maintain its circadian rhythms (biological clock) and a healthy daily cycle of serotonin/melatonin levels. Dim light levels prior to going to bed, and profound darkness during the night also help with this.

With a proper daily cycle of bright and dark periods, you should feel good and alert, and be able to concentrate well, during the day, and then be able to sleep well during the night.

Sunlight and Children

The official recommendations for sun protection and avoidance are often even stronger for children, and especially babies and toddlers, than they are for adults. Young, growing, immature skin is more sensitive to damage than that of adults, and children have more time for the consequences of that damage to develop. The risk of developing melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, at some point during your life as a result of excess sun exposure, and especially burning, is significantly higher if that over-exposure or burning occurs during childhood rather than later in life.

However, it is even more important for children to get adequate vitamin D than it is for adults. Children need vitamin D to help their bones develop properly. Children are also even less likely to get adequate vitamin D through their diet. The sorts of foods naturally rich in vitamin D, oily fish such as salmon and herring, or sun-dried mushrooms, are not those that children are usually fond of eating.

While the vitamin D levels found in enriched foods, such as breakfast cereals, and supplements are designed to prevent rickets – deformed bones that are the result of severe vitamin D deficiency in children – this may not be enough for them to receive the full benefits of vitamin D in other respects. There is growing evidence that the current recommended intake levels for vitamin D are not enough, for both children and adults, and should be raised significantly.

It is therefore important that children of all ages get a regular, controlled, moderate level of unprotected sun exposure to their skin to allow them to generate their own vitamin D naturally. As for adults, 10–15 minutes exposure to arms and face, 2–3 times per week, should be sufficient. Once this level of exposure has been reached, then of course children should be protected against further exposure. Educating your children early into a healthy approach to the sun will stand them in good stead later in life.

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