To use sunscreen or to let the sun shine on your bare skin?
For Dr. Nektarios Lountzis there’s no question.
“If cigarettes had vitamin C in them, would you smoke cigarettes to get vitamin C?” the local dermatologist asked rhetorically.
Of course, for a health-conscious person, the answer would be no. Even if cigarettes had vitamin C., which they don’t, the dangers of the nicotine and other hazardous chemicals they contain would convince you to look for your vitamin C in tomatoes or oranges instead.
Similarly Lountzis, who is affiliated with the Geisinger Health Care System, said getting vitamin D through foods and supplements is better than facing the sun without protection and possibly becoming one of the more than 76,000 men and women in the United States the National Cancer Institute predicts will be diagnosed with melanoma this year or the 9,480 who are expected to die from the aggressive form of skin cancer.
However, there is another school of thought.
“It’s kind of a battle between two specialties, endocrinology and dermatology,” Lountzis said.
Lountzis was referring to Dr. Michael Holick, a biochemist and endocrinologist from Boston University, who has written a book, “The Vitamin D Solution.” In his book Holick says getting vitamin D from the sun reduces the risk of colon, breast and prostate cancer as well as other diseases and that benefit outweighs the risk of skin cancer.
So began a reporter’s search for local health-care professionals who might agree with Holick. They proved somewhat elusive.
Dietitian Kristen Mannix from the Geisinger Health Care System pointed to fortified bread, milk, yogurt and orange juice as good dietary sources of vitamin D and to fish as a food source naturally high in that vitamin. “We encourage lots of fortified food and fish a couple times a week,” she said. She did not recommend venturing out into the sunlight without sunscreen.
Neither did Jaime McAndrew, a registered nurse who was distributing sunscreen information during a women’s health program.
Nor did Dr. Sumit B. Ghosh, medical director for women’s health at the Veterans Administration Medical Center.
Answering a question before a recent program on bone health and osteoporosis, Ghosh, who is a gynecologist, said he recommends that his patients get bones-benefiting vitamin D from foods and supplements, not from the sun.
But Paola Montross, clinical nutrition manager at the Veterans Administration Medical Center, says a short session of sun exposure without sunscreen might be a good idea.
“It think 15 minutes, a few times a week,” she said. After that brief quarter of an hour, she recommends covering up.
Back to Lountzis, the dermatologist. He said the sun is not the only concern when you’re trying to avoid the damaging effects of ultraviolet light.
Exposure to tanning beds poses a cumulative danger, he said. “Every time you use a tanning bed, you increase your risk of skin cancer by 2 percent. Think about what you’re doing with 50 exposures.”
As for spray tans, he said, they’re not safe either, because they carry a risk of lung damage.
So, should pale people stop trying to darken their skin tone with what used to be called “a healthy tan?”
“It’s the year of the vampire,” Lountzis said with a cheerful chuckle. “A lot of people are actually going that way, like Taylor Swift.”
Which SPF does he tell patients to use?
“In the past we recommended SPF 15, but now I tend to recommend 30,” he said. “The reason is because of unevenness of application. On one area, you might apply it thinly. Another might be thick. You want to have sufficient coverage all over.”