The Vitamin D Debate: Sun Protection vs. Sun Exposure

Dr. Justin Madson, a Midwest Dermatology physician and skin cancer specialist, laments something he hears in the office over and over again.

“People tell me a lot that they like to get out in the sun for their bone health,” Dr. Madson says.  “The problem is, too many people think that using sunscreen and other forms of sun protection leads to Vitamin D deficiency, and that the best way to obtain enough of the vitamin is through unprotected sun exposure.”

Multiple scientific studies, including one published recently, in the The Journal of the American Medical Association, concur that there is no evidence that everyday sunscreen use leads to Vitamin D insufficiency. What the studies do show is that it is possible for people to protect their skin with sunscreen and also – that’s the key – maintain healthy levels of Vitamin D.

The Vital Vitamin D

Vitamin D has long been considered essential, and for good reason. It contributes to the development, function and maintenance of healthy bones by regulating calcium throughout your lifetime. Vitamin D also prevents diseases like rickets in children, skeletal deformities, and the debilitating onset of osteoporosis in adults.

In recent years, Vitamin D has become better known for boosting the immune system. Proponents believe that it’s effective against everything from Type 1 diabetes to rheumatoid arthritis to cancer. However, with a lack of studies showing full causation, doctors don’t have the proof needed for a formal medical recommendation.

The bottom line with Vitamin D is simple: you’ve got to have it. Deficiencies can open the door to a Pandora’s Box of possible ailments that all of us would rather avoid.

Have Your Vitamin D & Eat It, Too

Instead of thinking of the sun as an either / or proposition, Midwest Dermatology offers an elegant solution. Don’t assume there’s only one way – sun exposure on unprotected skin – to get the Vitamin D your body needs. Instead, broaden your thinking and use a combination approach – sun exposure on protected skin, plus Vitamin D-rich foods in your diet, plus appropriate over-the-counter supplements.

The choices above may not seem all that different, but as Dr. Madson knows, the combination approach can translate to a major impact on the health of your skin throughout your lifetime. Dermatologists and skin cancer specialists know that subjecting the skin to even 10 minutes of unprotected exposure – with no sunscreen – can add up to cause wrinkles, discoloration, and even worse, skin cancers, such as:

  • Malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer and the fastest-growing cancer in the United States and around the world.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), another common skin cancer that can cause disfigurement, and in some cases, death.
  • Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC), which is the most common form of skin cancer and causes disfigurement and serious health issues.
  • Pre-cancers, sunspots, and lentigos, which are the spots and marks that represent damage and signal the start of various types of skin cancer.

Across the medical literature, there is overwhelming evidence for the multiple benefits of sun protection. Controlled studies have shown that regular use of Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 15 or higher broad-spectrum sunscreen reduces your chances of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40%, melanoma by 50% and premature skin aging by 24%!

A Complete Approach to Overall Health

 The dermatologists at Midwest Dermatology know that the adoption of healthy skin practices into your daily routine can reduce your chances of developing cancer and aging skin. Toward that end, we recommend this holistic approach to sun protection:

  • Seek shade, or better yet the indoors, when sun is at its peak – between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Cover up – clothing and hats, especially those with a high UPF rating, provide strong protection against the sun. An article of clothing with a 50 UPF blocks out up to 98% of harmful ultraviolet light.
  • Make sunscreen part of your daily morning regimen. Apply it liberally starting with your face and neck and including all sun-exposed area on your body. And we don’t just mean when you are going to the beach.  We mean every day – cloudy, rainy, snowy or sunny.  Look for sunscreens that are broad spectrum and at least SPF 30.
  • Don’t turn to the sun as your source of Vitamin D. Even 10-15 minutes a day of unprotected sun exposure adds up throughout your lifetime, producing more genetic mutations that increase your lifetime risk of skin cancer. Instead, adopt a diet rich in Vitamin D (think salmon, tuna, fortified juice and milk, beef liver and other foods), take an oral supplement if needed, and even get some Vitamin D from sun exposure on skin that’s protected with sunscreen.

And the next time you hear someone say that they need to get outside to get some sun and some Vitamin D, share with them what medical science has proven. That it is possible to have both without skin damage or nutritional deficiency.


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