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Embracing the Sun Or Protecting Ourselves from It: Wearing Sunscreen Versus Receiving Vitamin D Input

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A beach-bronzed tan, year-round, is what nearly every teenager wants growing up in California, but it does not come without a price. Growing up in Southern California, I called the beach my second home and experienced first-hand, the dangers of achieving a sun-kissed glow. Ever since I was little, my parents always reminded me as I was walking out the door to make sure I put plenty of sunscreen on and keep reapplying. But even with the constant nagging, I have still have had my fare share of unpleasant burns. There have been times where I have not been able to sleep because of the pain and crunching of my skin, due to my lobster-red bun; and to think that the sun’s rays could cause more pain and suffering is unfathomable. Sunburns are not only bad in the sense of temporary pain and discomfort, but they can also cause long-term pain from skin cancer. But by constantly wearing sunscreen I am able to decrease my chances of getting skin cancer later in life. With sunscreen preventing such a harmful illness, I never thought that the continuous application of sun block could ever be a bad thing.

When I first heard that wearing too much sunscreen could cause a deficiency in vitamin D, it came as a shock. I want to have enough vitamin D to stay healthy, but I also do not want to get skin cancer. Vitamin D supplements are a possibility, but how am I supposed to pick the lesser of the two evils when they both involve my health? I want to keep my tan, avoid skin cancer, and keep up my vitamin D intake, but there are so many different set backs that cause me to rethink and prioritize.

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There is no doubt that skin cancer is a big problem throughout the world, but susceptibility varies among different people. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, different heritage backgrounds, including African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans, are less susceptible to UV radiation and severe skin cancers such as melanoma. But with enough UVR exposure, contraction of melanoma is possible and often fatal, which is why the creation of sunscreen was so important. Stakeholders such as the American Association for Cancer Research, which started in 1907 and is the oldest and largest scientific organization in the world that focuses on every aspect of high-quality, innovative cancer research, felt that there needed to be a substance to help prevent against skin cancer. At first, the organization began with eleven physicians and scientists that were interested about spreading the knowledge about cancer, but today they are focuses on finding ways to prevent and cure cancer. Yet, the first attempts at creating a substance to protect the skin from the sun were not made with the sole purpose of avoiding skin cancer. Instead, they were to protect against the pain and redness caused from extensive periods of time spent in the sun without any protection. In the 1930s, Eugene Schueller—the founder of L’Oreal—was credited with the first production of sunscreen Then, in 1944, he first mass-produced suntan cream (Coppertone) was created by Benjamin Green, but it was not until 1972 that SPF was introduced.

SPF stands for sun protection factor and determines what percent of all incoming UV-B rays are being filtered out. According to the Arizona University Cancer Center, “UV-B rays are shorter and stronger [and] burn the top layers of the skin.” These rays are the cause of the pain and redness that occurs when getting “burnt”. However, it was not until the 1980s that researchers discovered that both ultraviolet-B and ultraviolet-A light could cause skin cancer. Ultraviolet-A light is different than UV-B because these rays go deep into skin and can cause damage such as wrinkles, sagging and tanning. Also, unlike UV-B rays, UV-A rays can pass through glass windows. UV-A and UV-B are found throughout the world and can be fatal.

With such drastic consequences due to not wearing sunscreen, it is hard to believe that there could be a downside to wearing sunscreen as well. There is belief that wearing too much sunscreen could be leading to a vitamin D deficiency, which is needed for healthy bones and a strong immune system. One stakeholder for this issue is the Food and Nutrition Board at the Institution of Medicine—established in 1940. This board addresses and studies the safety and adequacy of the U.S. food supply regarding national and international importance. The board has researched how much vitamin D is necessary for healthy bones, and how much vitamin D is necessary for various people with different skin pigmentation. Vitamin D is produced on the skin through ultraviolet lights—specifically UV-B rays. With sunscreen protecting from these rays, and society being so concerned with keeping their skin from aging and protecting against cancer, it is felt that the recommended dosage of vitamin D is not being attained. However, no sunscreen can block all UV rays.

Professor Antony Young, a professor of experimental photobiology at St. Johns Institute of Dermatology King’s College London, has done significant research about sunscreen and vitamin D. He has 5 publications regarding UVR and sunscreen specifically and has done multiple experiments to prove that sunscreen is not denying all vitamin D from the sun to the body. He has also done research on UVR on immune function, risk factors for skin cancer, and how the skin adapts to repeated low doses of UV-A exposure. In addition, he has conducted experiments done with human cell in vitro and with normal human volunteers. One of these experiments involved seventy-nine men and women that were taken on a week’s holiday. Before the procedure began, the vitamin D levels of each participants were checked and recorder. Then, for the next week, the participants wore sunscreen from breakfast to sundown and participated in normal activities. At the end of the study, the vitamin D levels were checked again and compared to the previous levels. The vitamin D levels at the end were higher than initially recorded. This experiment gave evidence that it is possible to stay safe in the sun and still get enough vitamin D. Because everyone in the study used SPF 15, about 7% of all incoming UVB rays were still able reach the skin and allow the precursors to be formed in the skin.

Another way to stay protected from skin cancer initiated by the sun, as well as receive the recommended amounts of vitamin D to stay healthy, is to take supplements. The American Academy of Dermatology argues that it is safer to receive vitamin D from supplements as opposed to the sun, and I agree because having skin cancer is more harmful and problematic than having low vitamin D levels. It is possible to receive a healthy dosage of vitamin D without having to be susceptible to the harmful rays that can be fatal. In addition to vitamin D supplements, one can also eat more foods that contain vitamin D to help boost his or her levels of vitamin D. A lot of seafood contain vitamin D, including cod, halibut, oysters, shrimp, and salmon. Of these foods, salmon has the most vitamin D. In addition to seafood, eggs (including the yolk) and mushrooms also contain vitamin D; and according to Robert Bruce Beelman—a Professor Emeritus of Food Science at Penn State—quick zaps of ultraviolet light can boost the vitamin D levels in mushrooms, producing more vitamin D than usual. Professor Young states that on average, 90% of vitamin D usually comes from sun exposure, and 10% comes from food—without any added supplements. Therefore, people should still protect their skin from cancer and premature aging by using sun screen, but also take vitamin D supplements to keep their bones healthy and their immune system functioning well.

The problem of picking between the lesser of two evils when it comes to sunscreen, and its effects, can be dealt with without having to make many sacrifices. The use of sunscreen when being exposed to the sun for more than fifteen minutes—even when it is cloudy—should be continued to protect the body, but people should also pay attention to what they eat—and try to eat more foods that contain vitamin D—as well as take supplements to make up for the lost nutrition from using sunscreen. Also, scientists should continue research on vitamin D and sunscreen in order to make more advances that furthers the knowledge of skin cancer and vitamin D in regard to human health. Maybe someday, with the proper research, scientists will be able to discover a way to invent a sunscreen that eliminates skin cancer and also promotes a healthy amount of vitamin D.

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