Opinion: The dark side of the sun

POSTED: 07/29/14 12:59 AM

Sun, sea, and beaches – that sums up the tourism product St. Maarten has to offer. Okay, there is also nightlife and there are restaurants – but don’t they have that anywhere else in the world as well? The sun as a strong selling point is also not unique. It is however certain that sunrays have the potential to seriously damage one’s health. That is why the industry invented sun screen.

Now – after decades of sunbathing and soothing out skins with sunscreen – we find out that those darn crèmes are not without risk either.

Sunscreen protects the skin from the sun but at the same time it prevents the body from producing vitamin D. Does that matter? You bet it does.

Together with calcium, vitamin D strengthens our bones. It also influences muscular functions. A vitamin D-shortage could result in weak muscles and muscle cramps. The vitamin also improves the feeling for balance and thus reduces the chance of falling down. To sum it up: fewer falls and fewer broken bones.

Then there is the vitamin D effect on our immune system. The stuff produces an antibacterial protein that eliminates bacteria and thereby prevents us from falling ill.

And there is more: vitamin D also seems to have an effect on the prevalence of diabetes type 1.

A big bonus of sufficient vitamin D-levels in our body is its effect on depressions. Research has shown that a vitamin D-shortage potentially lowers serotonin-levels. Serotonin has been linked to different forms of depression and people with sufficient vitamin D in their blood less often suffer from depressions.

Lastly, according to the website vitamin-info.nl, vitamin D has a preventive effect on cancer. Several forms of cancer begin with an infection and vitamin D has an inhibitory effect on these processes.

According to an advice from the World Health Organization, the body hardly produces vitamin D when every square centimeter of skin is covered with a 2-millimeter thick layer of sunscreen. Danish scientists did a lab-research whereby they plastered the upper bodies of volunteers during a couple of weeks with sunscreen and then exposed them to UV-B radiation. The thinner the layer of sunscreen, the more vitamin D the scientists found in the blood of their volunteers. In the blood of those to whom they had applied a thick layer of sunscreen, the vitamin D production was virtually blocked.

However, in everyday life we never apply as much sunscreen as the Danish scientists did, dermatologist Ellen de Haas told the Volkskrant this weekend. De Haas works at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam. In general, people do not use sunscreen often enough and they tend to skip parts of their skins.

According to the British professor Anthony Young, sun lovers who use a crème with protection factor 30, apply such a thin layer that effectively they are using factor 4. Therefore, in spite of the sunscreen, the body still absorbs sufficient vitamin D.

Australian doctors who followed a group of fellow countrymen during a couple of months discovered that it does not make any difference whether people use a sunscreen or a placebo crème. Nobody had a vitamin D-shortage. “Even if you apply sunscreen, you are not suddenly in a bunker,” De Haas says. ‘There is always some light getting through.”

There is another aspect to consider. The burning sun is not a pre-condition for the production of vitamins. Ten minutes a day outside with an uncovered face or dressed in a tee shirt is already sufficient to score your daily vitamin D-needs, De Haas notes. This is also true on overcast days.

It is a mistake to assume that on such days applying sunscreen is not necessary, De Haas warns. She advises to use sunscreen every day with a protection factor of at least 15. Winter light also contains a little bit of harmful UV-radiation.

The Volkskrant concludes that sun lovers only risk vitamin D-shortages if they apply a thick layer of sunscreen every day, though this protects the body from skin cancer. However, British researchers recently published a study in Nature that shows that relying completely on sunscreen could be a mistake. It appeared in their study that mice developed skin cancer if they went into the sun with protection factor 50. The cancer only surfaced a bit later.

Sunscreen does offer protection, but not for one hundred percent, because UV-rays always manage to penetrate the protective layer. A total surrender to the sun, as some people still do (just come have a look at the beach of Club Orient on the French side), is therefore still a bad idea. That is one more reason for St. Maarten to develop alternative attractions for its tourism industry.

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