Hot Topic – Sunshine Friend or Foe?

Dermatologists advocate seeking shade, wearing sun-protective clothing, and applying sunscreen every two hours.

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As we eagerly make summer plans, our fond memories of sand castles, backyard barbecues and lazy afternoons poolside can be quickly eclipsed by headlines about sun exposure and skin cancer.

It’s distressing. On the one hand, we want to heed the warnings about melanoma. On the other, it’s hard to resist the allure of coconut oil.

For those of us who are naturally pale, there’s no question that a summer tan makes us look—and feel—healthy and vibrant. And the image of tanned and radiant bodies is drummed into us daily by Hollywood and the media. What’s a body to do?

And then there are those scientists, who argue that solar ultraviolet (UV) exposure is essential to the body’s production of vitamin D, which could actually prevent certain cancers and bone diseases. These doctors feel that continually shielding ourselves from UV rays may be detrimental to overall health.

But most dermatologists, as well as the Skin Cancer Foundation (, vehemently insist that the risk of developing skin cancer from UV radiation vastly outweighs any potential health benefits of extended exposure to sunshine.

“It’s never a good idea to seek out the sun,” says West Orange dermatologist Stephanie Silos Badalamenti (973-736-7546;, who also holds a PhD in molecular medicine, and has cloned genes important for skin function. “More than 2 million people in the U.S. will develop skin cancer this year, and 1 in 58 Americans will be at lifetime risk for potentially deadly melanoma,” says Silos Badalamenti. ”Although educational information has been out there for years, millions of people continue to bask in the sun because they just don’t believe skin cancer will ever happen to them.

“The idea is to enjoy the outdoors in a smart way,” she adds. “Between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, avoid the sun and use sunscreen. Wear a cap or wide-brimmed hat, and consider lightweight sun-protective clothing that is widely available online and through retailers such as REI. If you want to run or bike or play tennis, seek shade whenever you can.”


The Vitamin D Debate

So what about the sun’s role in producing vitamin D? The so-called sunshine vitamin is necessary for absorption and use of calcium and phosphorus for healthy bones.  Some studies say it also protects us against certain cancers.

Statistics indicate that significant numbers of Americans are vitamin D deficient. But most dermatologists say that doesn’t mean we should go running back to the sunlight. The Skin Cancer Foundation advises children and adults who regularly practice sun protection to obtain the recommended daily 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D from food and supplements for strong bones and a healthy immune system. Some physicians recommend even higher doses.

The American Academy of Dermatology ( agrees that the safest way to obtain vitamin D is through a healthy diet that includes foods naturally rich in vitamin D (dairy products and fish) or fortified with vitamin D (some milks and cereals), and/or vitamin D supplements. The usable form of vitamin D is the same regardless of whether it enters the body through supplements, enriched food or the sun, says Silos Badalamenti.

Also important is safeguarding your eyes. The American Optometric Association ( recommends wearing sunglasses with UV protection, a cap or hat with a wide brim and, if you wear contact lenses, lenses with UV protection.

Given that many people tan because they think it makes them more attractive, Silos Badalamenti reminds us that unprotected exposure to UV light from the sun also causes age spots and wrinkled, leathery skin—one more reason to play it safe this summer.


Protecting Our Children

“Smart sun protection is a way of life,” Silos Badalamenti observes. “Choose a cabana. Choose a shade tree. These are natural alternatives to being in the sun, with no side effects. I happen to be an outdoor person, but in my family, we walk the walk—and that goes for adults and kids.”

In the U.S., melanoma is the number-one form of cancer in young adults 25 to 29. And it’s the second most common skin cancer in adolescents. “As parents, we need to tell our kids that it’s not cool to get a tan. It’s a tragedy to see young people with melanomas, especially because skin cancer is so preventable,” she says.

“Just as parents shouldn’t remove airbags from their cars or allow their children to ride without seat belts, we should insist that kids seek shade, wear sun protective clothes and use sunscreen,” adds Silos Badalamenti, who was voted a New Jersey Monthly Top Doc by her peers in 2010.

Play it Safe in the Sun

While the sun’s UVA and UVB rays cause sunburn and can lead to skin cancer, UVA rays are particularly dangerous because they penetrate the skin so deeply. Most dermatologists recommend a broad-spectrum sunscreen (which blocks UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF rating of at least 30. Other sun safety tips include:

Generously apply water-resistant sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Re-apply every two hours.

Avoid spending time with skin exposed in outdoor areas that reflect light, i.e., water, snow and sand.

About 30 minutes before you go outdoors, apply sunscreen to dry skin. (Dry skin is less likely to burn than wet skin.)

Never apply baby oil or other oil-based products to the skin, and avoid lotions that contain para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA). Some health experts believe such lotions can cause genetic damage when exposed to sunlight.

Even if you’re just going on a picnic or taking a walk, you still need sunscreen.

If you’re naturally dark skinned, you might be less prone to burning, but you require sun protection.

Each season, check the expiration date on your sunscreen, and buy a fresh bottle when in doubt.

Most adults need about a shot glass full of sunscreen to protect the body. Or conserve sunscreen by wearing a hat, shirt and pants.

Minimal SPF protection found in some makeup is not sufficient protection. You need at least 30 SPF, found in some facial moisturizers.

If you’re thinking about using a tanning bed before you hit the beach, think again. Tanning beds release high levels of dangerous UVA rays.

Learn the “ABCDEs” of melanoma at

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