A Healthy Dose of Sunshine

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Your body can benefit from the sun in multiple ways. But too much sunbathing can damage your skin
and eyes and increase your risks from cancer. So, as summer draws to a close, how much sun should you get to stay healthy, without exposing yourself to risks?

Because sunlight can be both beneficial and harmful, there is no exact formula for finding the right
balance, says Dr. Keith Lamy, at Austin family practice medicine clinic. That is partly because research has not yet settled all the answers and partly because individual needs vary, depending on skin type, family history for skin cancer, age, and other factors.

One example of the sun’s varied impacts is a 2016 study that monitored 30,000 women in Sweden for
20 years and found those with more sun exposure actually lived longer and had healthier hearts and
fewer non-cancer deaths than those with less sun. Yet they also had an increased risk of skin cancer.

Generally, the sun helps your body make vitamin D, which can help build healthy bones. Not having
enough of the vitamin may increase your risk for fractures, cancer and other diseases—but more studies
are needed to definitively make that link.

Getting some sun can also make you less prone to nearsightedness or seasonal depression in winter.
But too much can cause health problems. Over time, you may be more likely to develop cataracts if
you get too much sunlight.

The biggest concern is that excessive, repeated sunbathing can age your skin and make skin cancer
more likely. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun can enter unprotected skin and damage genetic
material, resulting in tumors or lesions which may be harmless or cancerous. Your chances of getting harmed by the sun are influenced by your genes. You are more likely to get serious melanoma cancer if you have already had skin cancer, have lighter skin, or if it runs in your family.

So how much sun should you get? That depends on your skin type, where you live, the time of year,
and other factors. Generally, those of us who live in sun-soaked Texas should take extra care during the summer and when the sun is highest. Get some sun, but avoid excessive amounts– especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Seek shade and wear a hat during peak sunlight hours. Apply sunscreen, which can shield your skin if
slathered on as directed. Mineral-based sunscreens (such as zinc oxide) are gentler on your skin than
chemical-based sunscreens. The caveat with sunscreen is that if you use it religiously– at all hours and all over your body– you are likely overdoing it by depriving yourself of sunlight and vitamin D.

One approach is to apply sunscreen to your face and neck, but allow your legs and arms to get sun for
about 15 to 20 minutes each day.

Obviously, if your family has a history of skin cancer or you have already had it, you may want to be
more careful about exposure than someone who doesn’t have those risk factors.

Sunlight is probably the easiest way to get vitamin D, but it is not the only one. Eating certain foods, such as tuna and salmon, and taking supplements can also provide vitamin D.

So should you get tested to see if you are getting enough vitamin D? Not so fast, according to an
independent panel of experts known as the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force. The group neither endorses nor opposes vitamin D screening for most adults. Instead, it says the evidence is insufficient to assess the benefit/harm balance of testing to improve health. First, no consensus exists on exactly how to define a vitamin D deficiency, the group says. Experts differ on the optimal level of the vitamin circulating in the body. Testing methods also vary, and the accuracy of those tests can be difficult to determine, it says.

If Dr. Lamy suspects you might be deficient in the vitamin, he may suggest testing. For example, if your bones are brittle, or you are not getting much sun exposure because you are deprived of it, he may
recommend screening.

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