‘Major Public Health Problem’

The sun is not our enemy, say experts behind a compelling study

We’ve been told for years to slather on the sunscreen before we go outside and to stay away from tanning beds. Over-exposure to the sun is not healthy, causes sun damage to our skin, and can lead to cancer.

Over time, more of us have taken that to heart as we’ve heard more and more about the need to protect ourselves.

“The sun is essential for life and should be diligently pursued in moderation, not avoided.”

But have we taken the recommendations to avoid the sun too literally? The answer is yes, according to Dr. David Hoel, a member of the National Academy of Medicine and a distinguished professor at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Hoel and others are calling insufficient sun exposure “an emerging health problem in the United States.” In a new report, they say Americans need to be “retooled to embrace moderate sun while focusing on sunburn prevention.”

“The message of sun avoidance advocated by our government, and some within the medical community, should be changed immediately to a recommendation of regular non-burning sun exposure for most Americans,” said Hoel in a statement. “The sun is essential for life and should be diligently pursued in moderation, not avoided.”

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The prevalence of vitamin D insufficiency in the U.S. — linked primarily to sun avoidance — is 70 percent, according to the researchers. The study cites recent estimates that about 13 percent of all U.S. deaths (330,000 deaths per year) could be attributable to vitamin D insufficiency.

The new report cites more than 100 studies demonstrating the benefits of non-burning sun exposure, benefits specifically related to vitamin D, which is produced naturally in the skin when exposed to UVB in sunlight.

But vitamin D isn’t all moderate sun exposure gives us. Insufficient sun exposure can increase the risk of many types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease/dementia, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, myopia, and macular degeneration. And vitamin D supplements have not been shown to be an adequate substitute.

Related: Vanity is Our Skin’s Best Protector

Authors of the paper, published last week in the journal Dermato-Endocrinology, are calling for a change in public policy. They believe sunscreen should be used as a tool to prevent sunburn, but the public should know that over-use of the product may have unintended consequences. They are calling for sunscreen labels to contain a statement explaining that sunscreen blocks vitamin D production in the skin.

“Sunlight provides vitamin D, but it provides so much more. The UV from sunlight has other health benefits,” Dr. Michael Holick, a co-author of the study, said. “Most public health agencies have ignored the indisputable evidence that sensible sun is good for you in moderation.”

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