Why would a dermatologist tell you to go out in the sun?

Sunlight is pretty bad for you, right? We’ve been told over and again in recent years how we should all be avoiding the sun as much as possible to avoid premature skin ageing and skin cancers, but maybe this isn’t the whole story.

Science shows us that the benefits of the sun on our mood, sleep patterns and Vitamin D production are not to be underestimated. There is no doubt that healthy levels of Vitamin D in our bodies protect our bones and help to reduce bone thinning and fragility. 

Other benefits of the sun which we are now discovering may include a reduced risk of diabetes, multiple sclerosis, blood pressure, heart disease and even some forms of cancer (e.g. colon, breast and lymphoma).

There is still some debate in the science world as to how exactly sunshine provides all these benefits but the thought is that it may have benefits on the way our immune system protects and supports the body. Special chemicals in the body are released in response to sun exposure that relax blood vessels which in turn can help blood pressure.

Despite all of this, most of us are aware that too much sun (and in particular getting a sunburn) increases the risk of skin cancers. This is an important fact and mustn’t be forgotten when we think about the possible health benefits of the sun. It’s very important that people with light skin, blond or red hair, pale coloured eyes, multiple moles and who burn easily take sensible precautions.

Parents and schools need to protect susceptible children during playtime and sports. This includes using wide-brimmed sun hats, close-weave loose-fitting clothing, seeking shade and using SPF 30+ UVA rated sun creams. These should be applied thickly every 2 hours and reapplied after sweating or swimming.

So, what does all this mean in practice? Have we all become a little too paranoid about the to our health from the sun? Are we doing ourselves unknown harm by avoiding the sun too much?

There is little doubt that lots of aspects of modern living and our indoor lifestyle are having an adverse effect on our health. Our generally sedentary routine and lack of exercise, as well as western diet are all contributing to obesity and poor overall health of the public, but maybe we also need more sunlight than we think to stay healthy.

It is helpful to consider that the health benefits of sun light seem to be largely provided by the longer UVA wavelengths and that skin cancer risk is mainly associated with the shorter UVB wavelengths. Since sun creams are generally quite good at protecting us from UVB but less so from UVA, this means we should be able to spend more time outdoors safely if we follow sensible precautions. Remember though, if you have a mole that changes or an odd looking skin blemish you should get it checked out by your doctor.

So the take home message? Maybe don’t be scared to bare a bit of flesh in the sun. Be sensible, wear sun cream and don’t fry yourself. Now all we need is for summer to arrive!

Written by Dr James Dean – Dermatology Doctor at Freyja Medical, Wrexham

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