For Shakespeare: How Much Sun?

>> Saturday, June 13, 2009

Shakespeare asked: How much sun is healthy? Where I live, sunlight is a rare commodity, and it causes seasonal depression. Now, with the stuff I've heard about putting too much sunblock on kids and causing vitamin D deficiency, I'm not sure what to do. I don't want my kids to get rickets, and I don't want them to get cancer either.

I am not a doctor. My understanding of the official word on this is: "The American Academy of Dermatology recommends the use of sunscreens, wearing sun protective clothing and avoiding the sun altogether."

At the risk attracting ire from The Mother (who really is a doctor), I'm going to say, in my nonexpert opinion, I'm not sure it's as black and white as that. It seems, in fact, that sunshine couldn't be all bad or our bodies wouldn't depend on it. I do have some reasons for that.

  • People who spend all day in the sun tend to have a lower incidence of skin cancer than folks that spend most of the time inside.
  • People with higher pigments in their skin (or who tan faster) tend to be less susceptible to skin cancer than the fairer folks. They are also much less likely to get sunburned - and it takes them much more sunshine to make a comparable level of Vitamin D.
  • There have been a number of reports that sunburning oneself to build a tan (as used to be so prevalent and, sadly, hasn't quite fallen out of fashion) is a recipe of skin cancer. Your damaging the layers of skin that lead to skin cancer before one's natural protections have a chance to kick in and protect them. When I was in college, this was still the preferred method for all the blondes I knew (those at the highest risk). Even then, it was common knowledge to be self-destructive.
What does that mean? In my opinion, staying cooped up all the time isn't healthy (and makes the possibility of real damage more pronounced). However, you should take advantage of your body's natural defenses. That means, take every precaution you can to avoid sunburn.

Are you fair, then go very slowly. If you're of a darker skin tone, you might have a little more leeway. The good news is that younger children can convert less sunlight into more vitamin D than adults so less is more. If you're walking to the mailbox, sunscreen is probably not important. If you're weeding the garden, wear it. Sunburn is real damage (or your body wouldn't have the defenses it does) and the vitamin D issue isn't worth that damage.

Historically, cultural wisdom and medicine tend to go in cycles where all of something is good, then any of something is bad. I, in general, tend to think moderate amounts of most things are OK (with some important exceptions). But I am not an expert.

Note that most commercial milk and some brands of orange juice are fortified with vitamin D. Ditto for most kid vitamins, so, unless you're feeding a child just breastmilk and protecting them from every stray ray of sun, they aren't at high risk of rickets.

If you're worried, talk to your pediatrician.

(P.S. On another note, is that a cool picture from NASA images or what? A special ring of fire!)


  • flit

    Seems like a good answer to me... moderation seems to be the key to most things

  • The Mother

    Risk of skin cancer from sun exposure is dose dependent for most types of skin cancer. So less total hours is STILL better.

    The "moderate sun exposure is good for you" thesis comes from the fact that we need UV light to convert Vit D precursors into Vit D, and it has antioxidant properties, which may help protect against skin cancer.

    But let's be clear, here. Most people get more than enough UV exposure to make more than enough Vit D by incidental exposure--walking to your car and back, for instance.

    I don't think anyone meant to imply that we should stop slathering our kids with sunscreen.

    Besides, those UV rays do more damage than cancer--they are the leading cause of wrinkles, because the UV rays also destroy the collagen in the dermal layer. Staying out of the sun, or using sunscreen, may save you that facelift later in life.

    Besides, you can buy Vit D in a bottle. Most women get tons, since it's usually included in the calcium preparations that YOU SHOULD BE TAKING, anyway.

  • Stephanie B

    I had a feeling you'd show up, the Mother.

    I don't disagree with what you're saying. I suspect my sister and I (shakespearemom is my sister) aren't in the facelift category so, at least for me, wrinkles aren't a serious consideration.

    But, one could overread the dermatology recommendation. Do I need to put on sunscreen before walking to the mailbox? I don't think we do, but the recommendation comes across as sunscreen, parasol or, preferably, living in a cave. I don't think that's reasonable (or healthy - in my nonexpert way).

    I would definitely recommend sunscreen to kids going out to play in the backyard for hours, but not to take out the trash.

  • The Mother

    You just TRY to convince a kid to put on sunscreen on his way out to the trash.

    I have enough trouble convincing them to wear it to soccer, here in my sun infested Houston.

    Kids have no sense of their own mortality.

  • Stephanie B

    No, I won't. I have a teenager, thank you. Fortunately, she's smart enough to know tanning parlors are for stupid people and that sunburns are miserable. Her father isn't as bright since he's let her get sunburned on diving expeditions, but that's a whole other discussion.

    Fortunately, my son LOVES swimming and he doesn't get to go without sunscreen, so he'll wear it without complaint.

  • David

    I think I might have Seasonal Affective Disorder. I need sunlight. I notice when I don’t have sunlight for several days, I get…discombobulated. Like I have cobwebs between my ears. When I get a good solid dose of sunlight, I am fine again like nothing was wrong. I find it very disconcerting. The long dark of winter is rough for me. I need sunshine!

  • Shakespeare

    David, I actually bought myself a sun lamp for the winters up here in Seattle. I use it 15 minutes each morning, right after I wake up ( just checking e-mail), and it did much to alleviate my problems this last winter. I plan to make my hubby use it next year, since he has the same problem.

    Thanks for the advice, everybody!

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