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Sun exposure and your health: The good, bad and the ugly

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It’s summer, and time to get outside. But before you do, you may be wondering if getting some sun is really good for you.

Should you cover up or let it all hang out?

We’ve all heard the horrors of what too much sun exposure can do to our skin. You know, the wrinkles, the freckles, the sunspots, sunburn and three types of skin cancer.

But on the other hand, there are ups and downs in not getting enough vitamin D. Oh wait, it also turns out getting sunshine may have an anti-cancer effect.

If you are trying to digest all this conflicting information and your head is spinning, you aren’t alone. What’s a girl (or guy) to do?

Over the last few years, sun protection messages arose as an essential public health message in response to rapidly increasing rates of skin cancers.

Then everyone began slathering on sunscreen, which blocks out nearly all UV radiation and that caused health risks from too little vitamin D.

Let’s just get this out of the way. No one is advocating for you to bake yourself into a leather shoe. A sunburn is still a really bad thing, period.

But we all need vitamin D to stay healthy, and sunlight is the best source.

Experts say it’s a delicate balancing act based on your skin pigmentation, where you live, and what time of day you are outside, and for how long.

If you are a fair-skinned person you require way less sun at noon (only a few minutes without sunscreen) compared to someone with black skin who may require up to six times more sun to get the same amount of vitamin D.
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A new population-based, case-control study released today at the American Association for Cancer Research’s Pancreatic Cancer: Progress and Challenges conference adds to the already conflicting data about sun exposure, vitamin D gained from sun exposure and cancer risk.

Rachel Neale, principal investigator at Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Queensland, Australia said that her research supports sun exposure as a protective effect against pancreatic cancer.

“There is increasing interest in the role of sun exposure, which has been largely attributed to the effect of vitamin D, on cancer incidence and mortality,” Neale said. “It is important that we understand the risks and benefits of sun exposure because it has implications for public health messages about sun exposure, and possibly about policy related to vitamin D supplementation or food fortification.”

Neale’s study followed 714 Australian participants for four year and then matched them by age and sex with 709 control participants to test if high levels of sun exposure where you are born can lower your pancreatic cancer risk.

It turned out those born in areas with the highest levels of ultraviolet radiation did have a 24 percent lower pancreatic cancer risk over all, compared with those born in areas of low ultraviolet radiation.

While all skin types had some significant association with lower risk, those classified as having the most sun-sensitive skin had a 49 percent decreased risk for pancreatic cancer compared with those classified as having the least sun-sensitive skin.

No, that’s not a misprint. Get this: Participants with a history of skin cancer or other sun-related skin lesions actually had a 40 percent lower risk for pancreatic cancer than those who had no reported skin lesions.

There are other studies too that support adequate amounts of vitamin sunshine are good for you.

Research, published in 2008 in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine, shows that those with the lowest vitamin D levels more than double their risk of dying from heart disease, stroke and other causes, compared with those with the highest vitamin D levels.

The researchers cite "decreased outdoor activity" as one reason that people may become deficient in vitamin D.

Another recent study found an increased risk of heart attacks in men with low vitamin D levels, but that didn’t hold true for women.

Getting enough rays, however, may help women prevent breast cancer. Canadian researchers compared 3,101 breast cancer victims with 3,471 healthy women without tumors.

They found that women who had at least 21 hours a week exposure to the sun’s UV rays in their teens were 29 percent less likely to get cancer than those getting under an hour a day.

Among women who spent the most time outside in their 40s and 50s, the risk fell by 26 per cent and for those above 60, sunshine halved their chances of getting cancer. The study was published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.