Find out if the benefits of easing up on sunscreen outweigh the risks.

13 11 sunlight vitamin d health wellness sun exposure sunscreen 1

A lot of us have heard that wearing too much sunblock, spending more time indoors and a poor diet may be preventing our bodies from getting enough vitamin D, which is produced in the skin when it’s exposed to sunlight. It has many health benefits, including strong bones and teeth, a healthy immune system and the ability to fight off certain diseases.

However, new research reveals that a completely different compound may deserve the spotlight.

A University of Edinburgh study shows that exposure to UV rays cues the release of a compound in the blood stream that lowers blood pressure, reducing the risk of a heart attack or stroke, two of the three leading causes of death in Canada.

According to the study, soaking up the sun’s rays encourages the release of nitric oxide in the blood stream, which lowers blood pressure. The study concludes that since heart attacks and strokes connected to high blood pressure cause 80 times more deaths than skin cancer in the UK, the benefits of sitting in the sun sans sunscreen could outweigh the risk of getting melanoma.

To complete the study, 24 volunteers sat beneath tanning lamps for two 20-minute sessions. Some of them were exposed to the UV rays and heat while others were only exposed to heat. Blood pressure dropped for one hour only for those who soaked up the UV rays.

While sunscreen is touted for its ability to block these harmful rays it may be blocking the sun’s ability to encourage lower blood pressure.

So, what’s the best way to act?

It’s too soon to start doubting sunscreen, says Dr. Benjamin Barankin, a Toronto dermatologist and Medical Director of the Toronto Dermatology Centre (torontodermatologycentre.com). He points out that the study is small, and tested only on 24 volunteers rather than being a randomized, controlled trial carried out on a larger group. Furthermore, the study only looked at results for one hour of UV exposure. “It would be important to see sustained improvement of say eight to 24 hours for this to be meaningful,” he says.

In addition, while heart attack and stroke are serious conditions, skin cancer carries negative side effects of its own. Dr. Benjamin Barankin points out that the study “doesn’t mention that skin cancer can be very disfiguring with major, embarrassing scarring of the face”—and a potentially long, difficult recovery process, if there is one at all.

The doctor’s advice: “Get 15 to 30 minutes of sun in the summer, which helps you make vitamin D, feel good and perhaps helps your blood pressure, and if possible one hour of daylight sun in the wintertime for similar benefits.” He recommends selecting a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, and reapplying it every two to three hours to prevent skin cancer, “but also to prevent wrinkling, age and brown spots, and reduce cold sore reactivation.”

So, don’t put away your sunscreen just yet.