With summer on the horizon, stores have been stocking up on sunscreen in a tacit reminder that too much time in the sun can be deadly. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., with more than 68,000 Americans diagnosed with melanoma (the most serious type of skin cancer) every year and another 48,000 thousand diagnosed with an earlier form of the disease. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of their lifetimes; areas of the skin that are most exposed to the sun are most at risk.
Given all this, why are some scientists suggesting that the benefits of time in the sun “outweigh the risk of skin cancer”?
Scientists from Edinburgh University have conducted a small study suggesting that exposure to sunlight, and to ultraviolet (UV) rays, can help to lower blood pressure, reduce the risk for heart attacks and strokes and, even, prolong one’s life.
Richard Weller, a senior lecturer in dermatology at Edinburgh University, and other researchers conducted a study in which 24 volunteers were exposed to UV rays and tanning lamps. In one session, they were exposed to both the UV rays and the heat of the lamps. In another session, the UV rays were blocked and the participants’ skin exposed only to the heat.
The participants’ blood pressure was then measured and found to drop “significantly” with exposure to the UV rays, but not after the session in which they were exposed only to heat. Scientists note that the UV rays express a compound, nitric oxide, that lowers blood pressure.
In the U.K., heart disease and stroke linked to high blood pressure are believed to lead to about 80 times more deaths than skin cancer. In the U.S., the American Cancer Society estimates that melanoma will account for more than 76,000 cases of skin cancer in 2013. By way of comparison, about 600,000 people die of heart disease and about 715,000 have a heart attack every year in the U.S., according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Heart disease is the reason for 1 in 4 deaths among Americans.
Previously, production of vitamin D was thought to be the only health benefit of humans from the sun. The study suggests that simply taking a dietary supplement of vitamin D does not compensate for exposure to sunlight.
Dr. Weller is presenting his findings at the annual meeting of the†International Investigative Dermatology and plans to continue his research “to look at the relative risks of heart disease and skin cancer in people who have received different amounts of sun exposure.” Should his work confirm that sunlight might “[reduce] the death rate from all causes,” he notes that “we will need to reconsider our advice on sun exposure.”
As the CDC notes, “about†65 percent Ė90 percent of melanomas are caused by exposure” to UV light. May has been dubbed Cancer Research Month and Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month (and May 24 has been named “Don’t Fry Day”). Certainly, it’s probably wise not to under-emphasize the risks that excessive exposure to UV rays can cause and the reality of having melanoma and other forms of skin cancer.
If you’re fair (like my Irish-on-both-sides-of-his-family husband), it’s definitely prudent to (as my husband does throughout the year) apply the sunscreen. The Environmental Working Group offers a guide to sunscreens and notes some hormone-disrupting compounds that you might wish to avoid. After taking some precautions, it can be good in more ways than you might realize to get out into the great outdoors and enjoy the warmth of the sun.
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