To go out in the sun or not to go out in the sun, that is the question. As summer tempts us to shed our cardigans, Britons seem to be caught between the fear of developing skin cancer through excess sun exposure, and new worries about vitamin D deficiency from catching too few rays.
Both are realistic concerns. Around 15,400 people are diagnosed with melanoma in the UK each year, say Cancer Research UK. Over the past decade, the number of diagnoses has increased by almost half.
Meanwhile, more than one in five people in the UK is suffering low levels of vitamin D, according to Public Health England, and this could behaving a range of health consequences. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to thin or brittle bones, and it may have a role in the development of insulin resistance, high blood pressure and impaired immune function, as well as a greater risk of multiple sclerosis.
Indeed, the idea that avoiding sunlight may be a health issue is backed by a new survey from Canada’s Alberta University, whose researchers found that 91 per cent of office workers have insufficient vitamin D levels, with more than three-quarters considered to be vitamin D deficient.
However, it’s not just your vitamin levels that get a boost from sunshine.
Samantha Carbon, psychotherapist, says: “Spending time outside can have positive benefits for our mental well-being. Reconnecting with the env- ironment increases the use of our senses, which are often diminished in this digital age.
Time spent outdoors, in particular among nature, can betherapeutic. And the sun provides a source of energy that can promotefeelings of restoration and renewal.”
So can we get a sunshine fix without worry? “Of course,” says Claire Crilly, Senior Screening Nurse at The Mole Clinic. “No one is saying live in a cave.”
Instead, she says, we should use a product with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or above, with a five-star rating (which can usually be found on the back of the bottle). It’s important to find a product which meets both standards.
The SPF is a measure of how long the screen protects against UVB rays from the sun which cause areddening of the skin and burns- the damage that can cause cancer, says the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD). The stars denote how well the sunscreen protects against UVA rays, which cause the signs of ageing (like wrinkles) as well as potentially causing cancer.
A good sunscreen will be called “broad spectrum”, and protect against both types. Choosing this double protection is more important than going for a brand name, says Crilly. “Often own-brands tend to be better and have more stars,” she adds. “The expensive creams may be more moisturising or have a better smell, but do they have enough stars?”
She suggests re-applying frequently – every one or two hours, even the creams that claim to offer all day protection. “If you sweat or towel yourself dry, the cream is going to be gone.”
Dr Nick Lowe, consultant dermatologist at the Cranley Clinic, warns not to rely on cream alone for protection. He says: “There’s interesting research from the US on the importance of headwear for men or women with short hair. If you go bare-headed you are at risk of sun damage on the nose, ears and upper chest, so you need to get a broad brim hat or a cap with neck protection.
“UV clothing is very good now too, including body suits which protect you in water.” Crilly agrees and suggests young children are given rash vests to wear on the beach and Legionnaire-style hats to protect their necks.
She says: “Don’t forget UV-protected sunglasses. You can get melanoma in the back of the eye due to genes or lack of protection. A huge percentage of cataracts are formed due to people not wearing sunglasses.”
After exposure to the sun, Crilly encourages us to keep an eye on our moles. “People often worry most about the largish, squishy type of moles, but most of the time they are the safer types – though they do need monitoring.”
Of more concern are the small, dark brown ones. She adds: “All tanned skin is damaged skin. A tan is the body’s way of protecting itself.” But will good habits get us enough vitamin D? “You shouldn’t rely on the sun for enough vitamin D,” says Dr Lowe.
“In the UK, it’s unlikely you will get the correct wavelength of ultraviolet light for your skin to synthesise it. There certainly isn’t much on a cloudy day, or in the spring, autumn and winter months.”
He suggests getting levels of vitamin D checked to establish a baseline, as he does. “If your levels are low, you can take vitamin D3 (about 1,000-2,000 units) each day. The sensible way to enjoy the sun is to protect your skin, take a supplement and just enjoy yourself.”