Next year, let's not be so afraid of the sun

Chuck Laszewski
Chuck Laszewski is communications director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.
Submitted photo

All winter long, we complain about our dry, pasty skin and the necessity of wearing three or four layers of clothing. So why, when the warmth of late spring finally returns, do we insist on additional clothes and a thick layer of sunblock every time we venture outside?

To our well-founded fear of freezing to death in winter, we've added a nearly hysterical fear of dying from the sun in summer.

Now, new research published in August indicates that Americans have once again overreacted. Turns out we are hurting our children -- by not getting them enough sun.

That's right: Research shows we shouldn't be slathering on all that sunscreen, or covering our kids with long-sleeved shirts and pants when they go outside to play.

According to a study published in Pediatrics, researchers found that 9 percent of the study sample -- equivalent to 7.6 million children across the United States -- was deficient in vitamin D. Another 61 percent, or 50.8 million, was found insufficient in vitamin D. Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamins in maintaining healthy bodies and hearts, and in preventing cancer.

One of the researchers, Dr. Michal Melamed, said parents should kick their kids outside, without sunscreen, until they have been in the sun for 10 minutes.

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Ten minutes? How about a couple of hours?

I and the legions of Minnesotans who participated in spring sports know the key to absorbing healthy amounts of sunshine-produced Vitamin D without getting skin cancer:

When we first hit the outdoors in late March, it's still cool and the sun is still low in the sky. Our face and arms might be exposed for an hour or so, and over a week or more they slowly begin to add color.

As it warms in April, we begin to pull off our sweats and expose our legs for short periods.

By the time the spring sports season is over, it's summertime and we've built up a healthy tan without lying out in the sun for hours, and without burning our skin or slathering on sunscreen.

This contradicts the very effective multi-million dollar advertising campaigns of the sunscreen companies, but it works.

I've employed the same method on the occasional spring trip to warmer climes. I have gone out for a short period in the morning and then again in late afternoon. By the second or third day I have a tan, while others with me often have a burn. Why? Because I'm in touch with the sun and have a healthy respect for it. Others expect lotion to take care of them.

As the Environmental Working Group found in tests two years ago, more than 84 percent of 784 suntan lotions with high SPF (sun protection factor) levels either quickly lost effectiveness or failed to protect sunbathers against harmful rays from the beginning.

And the facts are these. It's repeated burning, usually caused by lying in the sun for hours, that damages skin and causes cancer. It is not the healthy working or playing in the sun and moving into the shade, and then back out into sun again, that is a problem.

The most deadly form of skin cancer, melanoma, accounts for fewer than 8,000 of the nearly 600,000 annual cancer deaths in the United States. More than 1 million milder forms of skin cancer will occur, but again, these are the ones associated with chronic tanning. No one recommends that.

Dr. Edward Giovannucci, Harvard University professor of medicine and nutrition, says his research indicates that vitamin D might help prevent 30 deaths for each one caused by skin cancer. And research published in 2007 by the Harvard-affiliated Dana Farber Cancer Institute found that a tan is the body's best effort to fend off the cancerous effects of ultraviolet light.

Scientists also know that our short winter days provide too little sunlight to spur the skin into making vitamin D. Not that we have any skin exposed during that time of year anyway.

The research is too late for this year. But come next April, we should resolve to save ourselves some money and improve our health, and let our skin soak up a little sun. While we can.

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Chuck Laszewski, Falcon Heights, is communications director at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. He is a former reporter at the Pioneer Press.