How to Avoid Getting Skin Cancer While Soaking Up Vitamin D
South Africans have always had a love affair with summer, and when the warm weather strikes, locals don their swimwear and hit the bush, berg, beach or backyard for a braai.
This year, fun in the sun has an added benefit, in that research has shown that vitamin D (most effectively absorbed into our bodies from the sun) is critical in keeping the body at optimum health, which may assist with a Covid-19 infection.
However, the harmful rays of the sun can lead to skin cancer, which is highly prevalent in the country. After Australia and New Zealand, South Africa has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with around 20,000 cases per year and 700 deaths.
What is vitamin D and how much do we need?
Vitamin D is an important component in strong bones, because calcium, which is necessary for bone health, can only be properly absorbed into the body when this vitamin is present. Our bodies cleverly make vitamin D when sunlight hits the skin and converts it into an active form of the vitamin called calciferol. Ask your doctor for a more detailed explanation if you’re curious and want to know more.
Vitamin D can also be found in fortified foods such as milk and cereals, but with enough exposure to the sun, such foods are not necessary.
Research suggests that we need about an hour of direct exposure to sunlight per week in order to benefit from the effects of vitamin absorption. Factors that affect this include age, how strong the sun is, your geographic location, and whether or not you’re wearing sunblock at the time of exposure. Sunbeds can also help the body with vitamin D production.
What exactly is the effect on Covid-19?
It’s early days yet, and at this point, not enough research has been done to determine exactly how vitamin D helps with Covid-19. However, one study has shown that over 80% of people who contracted the disease were vitamin D-deficient. In addition, people who did not have enough vitamin D fared worse as the disease progressed through the body, while those who had the vitamin in adequate doses recovered faster and better.
It’s not safe to say that vitamin D can prevent the body from contracting Covid-19. Much depends on the underlying conditions that the person has, as well as how much of the virus they are exposed to at the time of infection. However, the northern hemisphere has experienced a spike in the disease as they head back into winter (when the sun is weaker and it is colder), and medical professionals are expecting the same to happen here once our summer, which is just starting, comes to an end.
The effect of sunlight on the skin is caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays, most notably UVA (which ages the skin if overexposed) and UVB (which burns the skin if overexposed). There is definitive evidence that UV can destroy the efficacy of viruses such as HIV, although Covid-19 is a little more hardy. But the long and the short of it is that no virus likes being exposed to UV rays, in the same way that it doesn’t like soap.
But what about skin cancer?
The sun can indeed be harmful, and skin cancer from overexposure to the sun or from a tanning bed is serious. Three common types of skin cancer are squamous carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma. People with red or blonde hair, with blue or green eyes, and with freckles or who burn easily, are more susceptible to skin cancer. However, don’t be fooled that people with darker skin cannot get skin cancer – it just means it may be harder to notice. If you’re worried about some abnormality on your skin, or if you have a patch or a sore that starts to bleed, itches or won’t heal, or you have a mole that changes shape or colour, then it is best to see your doctor.
Some handy tips for the sun:
Moderation is your best friend
Don’t overdo it in the sun. Although research suggests you need an hour or so a week (depending on your age, where you live, and how much sunscreen you’re using), it is best to get a little every day than having a full dose all in one go. Aim for ten minutes outside in the direct sun per day. Try to get some on your face, arms, back and legs. The active ingredient here is UV, and since windows tend to block UV rays, sitting inside or in the car is far less effective.
Before 9 and after 4
Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, so the saying goes. The sun’s rays are less powerful if you go out before 9 or after 4. Probably the best time to go out is for ten minutes at 9am to get some sun on your body as the morning gets going.
Use sunscreen afterwards
Soak up the sun for ten minutes without any protection, and then put some sunblock on afterwards. This will ensure that the UV rays react with the skin to produce the vitamin D, but you won’t burn.
Be careful near water
Water acts like a magnifying glass when it comes to the sun. If you’re in the pool or at the beach, the effects of the sun’s rays can be amplified by the water, so take extra care.
Protect your face and ears
Sunburn or skin damage to these areas can be sore, but also dangerous. Skin cancer can metastasise and spread to other parts of the body. Also remember that your back and belly don’t see sun very often, so be careful not to burn these areas which are not used to sun exposure.
If you can’t, then eat fortified foods
If you’re worried that exposure to the sun might age you or damage your skin, or you already have sun damage, then it’s best to eat foods that have been fortified with vitamin D. Look especially for milk and cereals with such fortification, so that you get your dose in the morning. Vitamin supplements can also help.
In closing, here’s a summary for you: make sure you don’t braai your body while you’re outside having a braai! Enjoy the summer wisely and responsibly.
For more information please contact:
Dr S Ibrahim
MB ChB Natal FC Rad Onc (SA)
Royal Hospital & Heart Centre
Tel: +27 53 045 0515
Disclaimer: Any information contained here is merely a guideline. Always visit your healthcare practitioner for any health-related advice or diagnosis.