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Skin cancer rates are high and vitamin D levels are low. What gives?

Skin cancer rates are high and vitamin D levels are low. What gives? That’s a question that came to mind this summer when everyone from the New York Times to People Magazine (thanks to Gwyneth Paltrow’s osteopenia) was reporting on the two contradictory health concerns without explaining how this could be.

For those who missed the brouhaha over sun exposure, the discussion has settled into two camps:

One group—we’ll call them the Sun Shielders—says we’re getting more sun exposure than ever and not doing enough to protect ourselves with proper sunscreen use. Melanoma rates are higher than ever, says Neil Sadick, a New York City dermatologist and Clinical Professor of Dermatology at Weill Cornell Medical College—proof to my mind that we should be getting plenty of vitamin D. Also, there’s still no sunscreen that offers 100 percent protection from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Plus are you putting it on correctly and absolutely everywhere? In other words, sun should be seeping in.

Another group—the Vitamin D Absorbers—says the opposite: Historically speaking, sun exposure and, therefore, vitamin D levels, are lower than ever. Our loincloths and hunting-and-gathering ways have been replaced with power suits and office jobs in non-equatorial environments, says Harvard’s Edward Giovannucci, one of the country’s experts on vitamin D. “Current populations with a lot of sun exposure (e.g. lifeguards) have much higher vitamin D levels than most of us,” he says. For Giovannucci, the increase in melanoma rates over past decades is largely caused by increased detection, not incidence.

Vitamin D supplements
More studies are needed to prove supplements can prevent a handful of diseases linked to vitamin D deficiency

So what does the average (non-lifeguard) New Yorker do about the confusing news that the sun’s ultraviolet rays are both the bane and the boon of our health? We bring you three tips from experts greater than ourselves:

1. Keep slathering on the sunscreen. “There’s not enough scientific data at this time that proves vitamin D deficient diseases are caused by wearing sunblock,” says Dr. Sadick. Incidental sun exposure, including what seeps through your sunscreen, may be plenty, says a Skin Cancer Foundation report.

2. Plan meals to include vitamin D-rich foods. Salmon and other fatty fish, or fortified milk products—especially if you’re over 40. Our skin’s ability to help convert sunlight into vitamin D decreases with age, says a study in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Because there just aren’t that many foods with vitamin D, vegans are left to make due with fortified orange juice, margarine, some ready-to-eat cereals, and mushrooms.

3. Consider a daily dietary supplement containing of 1,000 units of vitamin D. Particularly if you avoid all sun or have a history of skin cancers, says Dr. Sadick, pointing to a study in the British Journal of Dermatology. Giovannucci pointed me toward four more solid studies that confirm the benefits of vitamin D for reducing fractures. But there’s still a lot of research needed to prove that supplements help prevent other vitamin-D linked diseases. — Melisse Gelula

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