Mon, May 29, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Enjoying the sun is good for you after all: scientists

ABOUT FACE For years doctors have said not to spend too long outside on sunny days for fear of cancer, now they say too little sun can lead to vitamin D deficiency

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

Most of us like to feel some sun on our faces. But children will be smothered in factor 30 cream and told to always wear hats to avoid sunburn. Adults, similarly, are constantly warned to cover up or wear suncream.

Now experts are saying the Draconian anti-sun message needs to be altered. The shift comes after new evidence that suggests too little sunshine leaves us deficient in a vital nutrient, vitamin D.

The move follows a change of policy in Australia and New Zealand, where scientists have decided that, without some sun on the skin, the population will be seriously deficient in vitamin D and may be at risk of developing other cancers later in life, as well as osteoporosis, arthritis and even schizophrenia.

They are now recommending that people allow themselves between 10 and 15 minutes of exposure to sunlight on most days. People should allow their hands, face and arms to be exposed, but still cover up between 10am and 2pm.

"It's about getting the balance right. We now realize that too little sun may be harmful, and we have to enable people to make vitamin D while also protecting their skin," said Anne Marie Ponsonby, associate professor at the Australian National University in Canberra.

"I think the message is getting through to the public that people need to think about optimal sun exposure. They need to assess for themselves how much sun to have, based on whether they have a fair or a dark skin, but also the advice has to be tailored to where they live, because UV [ultra-violet] radiation that can damage skin depends on the latitude," she said.

Oliver Gillie, who runs the British Health Research Forum, has campaigned for government and bodies such as Cancer Research UK to acknowledge that we need more vitamin D.

"For years, we have seen these aggressive campaigns aimed at cutting back on any exposure to the sun because of concerns about skin cancer," he said. "But sunlight is the normal and natural source of vitamin D and, unlike food or vitamin pills, it is free. Some 60 percent of people in the UK have insufficient amounts of the nutrient in their blood, so they are almost certainly at a higher than average risk of developing cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis and a number of other diseases."

Others also believe that the warnings have gone too far. Neil Walker, a consultant dermatologist and leading skin cancer expert, warned recently that messages that you had to to avoid the sun entirely are "Draconian and unnecessary."

His view was supported by Brian Wharton, from the Institute of Child Health in London, who is worried that rickets may be making a comeback in children from Asian and African-Caribbean families, as their darker skin makes it harder to synthesize enough vitamin D.

"We do need some sensible use of the sun and we have been swinging too strongly against it," he said.

The change follows a growing number of studies showing the dangers of vitamin D deficiency. This year, a joint British/US study suggested that teenage girls might need more vitamin D to cut the risk of breast cancer later in life. They found that women with the highest levels of the vitamin were up to 50 percent less likely to develop breast cancer.

Even the British charity Cancer Research UK, has subtly shifted its advice. It now suggest it is all right to have small doses of sunlight over the day in order to make vitamin D.

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