The weather is forecast to be hot and sunny for Finals Weekend Celebrations. That means lots of time outdoors for graduates and the people celebrating them – and lots of exposure to the sun.
Sun damage is a concern for everyone. What’s the best way to balance getting a healthy, daily dose of vitamin D while preventing sun damage? Dr. Mark Russell, a professor of dermatology, said while humans can produce vitamin D following sun exposure, the American Academy of Dermatology does not recommend people get vitamin D or count on vitamin D from the sun or tanning beds because “there is a conflicting risk.” Russell is also director of Mohs and dermatologic surgery at UVA Health; Mohs surgery is named for its inventor, Dr. Frederick Mohs, and is used to treat some skin cancers.
“You may get some vitamin D from the sun, but you also increase your risk of skin cancer, which is the most common cancer in the United States,” he said.
UVA Today reached out to Russell to learn more about how people can get safe doses of vitamin D while also preventing sun damage, which could lead to skin cancer.
Q. What is vitamin D?
A. Vitamin D is pretty important. It promotes calcium absorption and bone metabolism. For example, people at risk for osteoporosis or thinning of the bone are often treated with vitamin D and calcium supplementation. It also has a role in supporting the immune system.
Q. How much vitamin D should people be getting every day?
A. It depends somewhat on their age. But the recommended daily amount for infants is 400 international units. For children, teenagers, and adults, 600 international units, and then for adults over 70, recommendations are 800 international units. These recommended daily allowance guidelines are based on a person receiving minimal or no sun exposure because one cannot predict how much sun exposure someone will or will not get.
Note: An “international unit” is a measurement of the biological effect a substance has on the body. A cup of milk fortified with vitamin D generally provides 120 international units, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Q. If the sun is a dangerous source for vitamin D, what other sources are available to people?
A. A safer source of vitamin D is through your diet. Vitamin D supplements are available over the counter or by prescription. Dietary sources include supplemented juices like orange juice or dairy products. Many cereals are fortified with vitamin D and certain foods have high levels of vitamin D, like fatty fish, including salmon, tuna and swordfish. Cod liver oil, egg yolks and beef liver are also good sources of vitamin D.
Q. So you recommend supplements and food over sunshine?
A. Yes. I would not recommend relying on ultraviolet radiation to provide significant amounts of vitamin D. There are safer dietary sources of vitamin D without the risks inherent with sun exposure.
Q. What are the dangers of getting too much sun?
A. There are three main dangers. First is the immediate sunburn. We all can associate the sun with a sunburn. For some people, it may be as little as 15 minutes and they start getting red. The fairer you are, usually the quicker you burn. And if you’re on certain medications, you may be more susceptible to sunburn.
Second is premature aging, which can result from chronic ultraviolet exposure.
Third is the risk of skin cancer. While the vast majority of skin cancers can be effectively treated, some can spread and even result in significant illness and death.
Q. What types of skin cancer are there?
A. There are many types, but the three most common by far are basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma, and they generally occur in areas where you get sun. There are more skin cancers diagnosed every year than all other cancers combined. And ultraviolet light is the most common and preventable cause.
Q. Are some people more predisposed to skin cancers than others?
A. Yes. If you have a fair complexion, or you burn easily in the sun. If you have red or blond hair. If you have blue or green eyes, or if you have a family history of skin cancer, you could have an elevated risk.
Q. What level of sunblock do you recommend people use?
A. I recommend at least a SPF 30, and it should be a broad-spectrum sunblock that is water resistant. That will provide you the protection that should decrease your chance of skin cancer.
There are many sunblock products, and some will feel different on your skin, so it’s important to find one that you are more likely to use. You may have to try several before you find one that really suits you.
Remember to reapply sunblock every two hours when you are in the sun, and up to every hour if you are sweating heavily or in the water.
Q. Are you “team cream” or “team spray” when it comes to sunblock?
A. In general, I recommend creams. With the sprays, you just don’t know how much is really getting on the skin, and for it to be most effective, you have to rub it into the skin anyway. Cream is more reliable and you can see where you’ve put it on so you are less likely to miss spot.
Q. Is there a benefit to applying sunblock a certain amount of time before you go out into the sun?
A. Yes. It’s recommended to apply at least 15 minutes before going into the sun to allow it to even out and penetrate into the skin. And remember, even when it is cloudy, up to 80% of the sun’s rays can still reach the earth.