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Sunbathing: good or bad?

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Is it better to bask in the sun and boost your production of Vitamin D or hide from its rays and the potential skin cancer they cause? A new study leans toward the former, at least for those from the high latitudes, like Scandinavia. Quoting from the press release: "We know that solar radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer," said biophysicist Richard Setlow of Brookhaven National Laboratory and a well-known expert on the link between solar radiation and skin cancer. But "since vitamin D has been shown to play a protective role in a number of internal cancers and possibly a range of other diseases, it is important to study the relative risks to determine whether advice to avoid sun exposure may be causing more harm than good in some populations." According to their results (which involve modeling human exposure to sunlight by treating us as cylinders), skin cancers go up with increased sun exposure but deaths from internal cancers--such as colon, lung, breast and prostate--go down. The researchers proposed solution is to reformulate sunscreens so that cancer-causing ultraviolet A light is filtered out while Vitamin D producing UVB light is allowed through. But research has fingered UVB in cancer production as well. A feature article in our November issue weighed the conundrum as well, arguing for more Vitamin D, whether through sun exposure or diet. So if you're still afraid of the sun (like pale, pale me), drink more milk.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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