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Practicing Safe Sun: Melanoma, Vitamin D, and You

Melanoma and skin cancer prevention begins with sun care like applying sunscreenBy Kristin Sidorov
As we head into the heart of summer, taking precautions against the sun’s harmful UV radiation is a must. But sun protection isn’t always easy or convenient, and experts tend to disagree about the risks posed by the sun’s powerful rays.

While we know that skin cancer is caused by sun exposure, we also know that the vitamin D the sun provides is essential to our health. These contradictory points are frequently used to confuse the public’s perception of the sun’s dangers, and while neither claim is inaccurate, neither tells the whole truth, either.

Here are the facts:
Melanoma is the fastest growing and deadliest skin cancer in the U.S.
UV radiation is thought to be the major risk factor for melanoma and most other skin cancers.
Vitamin D is essential to our health for calcium absorption, bone strength, cell growth, immune function, and some studies suggest it aids in preventing some types of cancer.
Studies show that as many as three out of four Americans suffer from vitamin D deficiency.
Sunlight is the best source of vitamin D, and the Institute of Medicine’s Food and Nutrition Board recommend 600 IU per day for males and females under the age of 70.

So how do we get a “healthy” amount of sun without putting ourselves at risk? The key is balance, and realizing what these generalized statistics mean for you and your family. The national averages remove the details that you need to make informed decisions. Here, specific risk factors are all too important: Age, race, gender, ethnicity, history, and environment all play a role in sun exposure dangers.

Risk factors for skin cancer include:
–fair complexions
–blue or green eyes
–blonde or red hair
–skin that burns, freckles, or reddens very easily
–family history of cancer and/or skin cancer
–history of frequent sunburns earlier in life
–history of unprotected sun exposure, and/or a history of indoor tanning
–history of job or hobby that is performed in sun exposed areas
–numerous “common” moles

The key is always protecting yourself, especially if you’re going to be in the sun for long periods of time. There is no denying that sunburn is unhealthy and irreversibly damaging, not to mention painful. Hats, cover-ups, and lots of sunscreen are essential sun-safety go-tos for everyone. For help finding the right sunscreen for you, check out the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Sunscreen Guide.

If you have a higher amount of risk factors for skin cancer, be sure to amend your sun exposure accordingly — you know your body, and when it needs shade. If you don’t want to be in the sun, look into stocking up on vitamin D rich foods like salmon, fortified milk, and taking supplements.

More information:
Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer, from the Cleveland Clinic
Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
More on Melanoma

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