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Friday, July 9, 1999 Published at 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK


Controversy over sun health claim

Life on the beach: a health tonic or a health risk?

Experts have hit out at a study which says the health advantages of exposure to the sun outweigh the risk of skin cancer.

A study in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) says the danger of dying from skin cancer has been exaggerated and the potential benefits from the sun played down.

Sue Nelson: "This does not mean that sunbathers should forget their sunscreen"
But the Health Education Authority (HEA) says the study is based on faulty research and could lead people into complacency about skin cancer.

It says there are 2,000 deaths a year from all types of skin cancer and the number of reported cases, particularly of the most dangerous form - malignant melanoma - has doubled in the past 15 years.

Tell us whether you think it is safe to sunbathe

The study says there is evidence that lack of vitamin D, which is linked to exposure to the sun, can cause bone problems, including childhood rickets, may reduce multiple sclerosis and depression and can treat skin conditions like psoriasis.

It says research also "tentatively" suggests deaths from coronary heart disease increase in the winter and may be related to exposure to sunlight.

Lounging in the sun

The researchers, from the University of Bristol, call for a review of current advice about reducing exposure to sunlight.

Dr Andy Ness and Cancer Research Campaign's Jean King debate sun bathing
They conclude: "Perhaps, while we await the conclusions of such formal analyses, those of us who enjoy spending time in the sun can rest (on our deck chair, sun lounger...or whatever) assured that the chance that we will be one of the people dying from our tan is small."

However, a spokeswoman for the HEA said: "There is more medical evidence to support the fact that exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer than that it prevents other diseases."

[ image:  ]
She added that only one case of rickets had been reported in the UK in the past 10 years and that this could have been diet- rather than sun-related, since vitamin D can be found in food such as cereals.

"You don't need a lot of sun to get the vitamin D you need. Just five minutes a day will do which you can get walking to work. It doesn't mean you have to lie out in the sun," she said.

The HEA also says one of the studies mentioned by the researchers was misquoted.

They cite an Australian study which they claim shows use of sunscreens reduces vitamin D concentrations.

The HEA has received a letter from Professor Robin Marks who was behind the study, saying he has been misrepresented.


"The weather is getting good and people are thinking about going on holiday. This research is very badly timed and potentially damaging," said the spokeswoman.

[ image:  ]
Jean King of the Cancer Research Campaign also criticised the study.

"I don't think they have produced nearly enough evidence for saying that the health benefits of sun exposure outweigh the harmful effects, and it gives people an excuse to expose themselves to a very well established risk."

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