For the last few years or so, we’ve heard the “sun smart” message and been told that for the sake of our health and our appearance, we should not be exposed to sunshine or step outdoors – even in winter – without sunscreen on any bare skin. However, scientists are now discovering another side to sunshine, skin cancer, ultraviolet light and sunscreens.
The study in question that the ideas and findings in this article were derived from was done by J. Moan and A. Dahlback from the Norwegian Cancer Institute and published in the British Journal of Cancer Vol 26 No. 6 June 1992: 916’921. Other researchers into Vitamin D and sunshine have also made some interesting new findings in this area.
Popular knowledge and many health campaigns say that you should avoid the sun completely, as more ultraviolet light is getting in through the hole in the ozone layer and your chances of contracting melanoma are much higher. Classic examples used are Australia and New Zealand where a significant chunk of the population is pale skinned, they spend a lot of time outdoors and there’s a hole in the ozone layer that breaks up and disperses over these countries during springtime. QED? It may be not quite so cut and dried. Moan & Dahlback found that in Norway (which also has a significant pale population and spends time in the sun when it’s about) the incidence of melanoma was also increasing… with no corresponding decrease in ozone. What’s more, the folk from Down Under who did get melanomas were more likely to survive it than the Norwegians.
The most likely solution to this enigma? Vitamin D. You can get Vitamin D into your skin in two main ways. The most important one of these is the interaction of ultraviolet light on bare skin, with no sunscreen in between. The other source is from certain coldwater fish, notably cod and salmon (salmon is also the richest source of Omega-3 fatty acids). Whoever’s in charge of arranging these things seems to have done a good job to make sure that the human race as a whole gets enough Vitamin D. In more northern (or southern, at the other end of the world) latitudes, people tend to have paler skin so they can absorb more UV and thus produce more Vitamin D even when the long winter days are upon them, and in the really cold places where everyone bundles up against the cold rather than exposing skin to the elements, the necessary fish are swimming around in shoals near the waters.
Vitamin D is important for protecting the human body against a whole range of ills. It seems to be right up there alongside Vitamin C for the title of Supervitamin Champion. A quick list of things that Vitamin D is supposed to play a role in preventing:
This is the classic deficiency disease caused by a lack of Vitamin D. Rickets were nearly eliminated once the role of Vitamin D was discovered, and children were turned out of doors to play and given dollops of cod liver oil at night. Doctors have now started noticing cases of rickets turning up in children again, particularly where the parents and schools are scrupulous about enforcing the wearing of hats, sunscreen and long, loose clothing.
Vitamin D is vital for good strong bone formation, so without a good amount of it, osteoporosis is more likely in old age. Women have some protection against it prior to the menopause, and then afterwards depending on the amount of oestrogen they have stored in their fatty tissues (yes, all that cellulite has its uses!). Thin women who spend a lot of time indoors (and many women do not get enough Vitamin D, especially if they not only work in an office or indoors but also do the indoor chores the rest of the time) are particularly at risk. One survey in supposedly sun-happy New Zealand found that 87% of the pregnant women surveyed were Vitamin D deficient. Another study done in Britain found that 70% of teenage girls are Vitamin D deficient.
* Cardiovascular disease.
Low levels of Vitamin D increase the risk of heart attack or stroke by 80%.
* Breast cancer.
Getting 15 minutes of sunshine a day, plus supplements (cod liver oil) in winter reduces your breast cancer risk by 50%. If you do contract breast cancer, getting enough Vitamin D increases your chances of survival by 30%.
Another alarming finding by researchers at the Harvard Medical School and a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jan 7th 2008 found that some of the key ingredients in sunscreens – benzophenone and psoralen – turn into significant free radical generators (i.e. carcinogens) when exposed to UV light… which is exactly what happens when you slather yourself with sunscreen and head outdoors.
The moral? Put on a tank top and shorts and go outside when the sun’s shining, then just put on long sleeves and a hat if you’re getting close to your limit and are about to burn. And eat lots of salmon in the winter.
Nick Vassilev runs a successful London carpet cleaning firm called CarpetFirst!. Being in the cleaning industry for more than 12 years, Nick has built a substantial knowledge base, which he wants to share with everybody with passion for carpets, cleaning and… guitars. For more info regarding carpet cleaning visit http://www.carpetfirst.co.uk