Sunlight – A Double Edged Ray?

In England, when the sun shines and temperatures hit over 15 degrees, I notice that legs suddenly make an appearance and we dart out to bask in the warmth like a moth covets a flame. We all crave the important nutrient that is vitamin D.

Vitamin D – the most common source is sun exposure on skin

My question, however, is this: are we fully clued up on sun exposure?

My grandparents and parents always tell me stories of how when they were young, all they needed was a bike, a small bottle of drink and a jam sandwich to head off for a day out with friends, only returning home for tea. And for a long time, rickets, which was seen as something of an old Victorian disease, was rare.

Anteroposterior (AP) view of the legs in a 2 y...
Anteroposterior (AP) view of the legs in a 2 year old child with rickets. Image created by Michael L. Richardson, M.D. Sept 28th, 2004 Bild:Rachitis.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rickets has been in the news recently, with sad cases such as a couple in England charged with shaking their baby to death when it was found that he actually had rickets. It’s a condition where bones fail to completely harden (vitamin D is an important factor for calcium mineralisation in bones), leading to the characteristic bowed legs as well as other weakened bones. Nowadays, it’s emerging in northern parts of the British Isles (Scotland and northern England) in those who have darker skin tones or who cover their skin up more. But it also seems that even in sunnier parts of England, children are falling fowl of a vitamin D deficiency, as seen in this article here. And it seems this age of spending more time indoors away from the sun (which I admit to doing) and an over use of high factor sun screen have played their part in this problem.

On the other end of the spectrum though, skin cancer rates are also on the rise. It’s caused by an over exposure to the ultra-violet light from the sun, the UV (of which there are two types: UV-A and UV-B) radiation mutates the DNA in our skin cells, causing them to over multiply and leading to the development of melanoma. It’s long been known that over exposure to the sun leads to increased ageing and the creation of wrinkles, but nowadays, having that all important tan during the summer is seen as a must and is something that even I, someone who is very pale, has tried to achieve with varying degrees of success (including a horrible case of sunburn that left tan lines for months and has made me paranoid about moles). Skin cancer rates are becoming such a problem, including cases occurring in young people, that the chief executive of the British Skin Foundation wrote this letter to The Guardian which included a petition about school children being burnt during term time.

So what is the advice for sun exposure? Well it varies between people, but the general advice that I found from the NHS is a 10-15 minute exposure, without suncream during the summer months between 11am and 3 pm (this is the time of the day when the sun is highest in the sky). This time span is generally too short for sun burn but when done about three times a week is enough to create a vitamin D store for the whole year round, as from November to March, it is less possible to create vitamin D from sunlight. Also, if necessary, supplements are available to those at risk of deficiency, such as pregnant women or the elderly.

And now, whilst the sun is still shining, I’m going out into the garden to enjoy it just for a short while, before the rain arrives.

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