Is the sun so harmful?

Have we become too concerned about the hazards of its rays, while neglecting the benefits, asks Wendy Wallace
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Every winter, inhabitants of the town of Tromso, in northern Norway, endure a stretch of 49 sunless days. On the day that the sun first reappears, they celebrate "Soldag" with prayers, tears and special wishes, and children stay home from school. The long-awaited arrival of sunny spring days here in Britain this week has been greeted with less ritual, but equal enthusiasm. Has our increased knowledge of skin cancer and the thinning ozone layer led us to overlook the everyday benefits of warmth and sunshine?

Certainly the naturists think so. Suzanne Piper, president of the Central Council for British Naturism, has myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) and is badly affected by winter weather. "The damp weather we've had has been absolutely crucifying," she says. "The cold has been in every joint in my body, like having a toothache all over. Once you've got gentle sun, it starts warming through. I always feel better when the sun is out."

Most people do. But to say in the Nineties that the sun is good for you is considered at best cranky, at worst downright cavalier. Naturists claim that they are less likely than some to get skin cancer, since they treat the sun with respect. "We spend increasing amounts of time in the sunshine from April onwards," says Christine Ashford of the Naturist Foundation, which has 50 acres of park and woodland outside Orpington. "We don't get burnt like people who spend 50 weeks a year in the office and then go to a Greek island. And at noon on a hot summer's day, we advise people over our loudspeaker system to cover up or move into shade."

Naturists are fond of the word "scaremongering" to describe press coverage of the damaged ozone layer and rising rates of sunlight-induced cancer. But so great are the fears over skin cancer - the incidence of which is still doubling every 10 to 15 years in this country - that asking a dermatologist what benefits the sun might bring is akin to asking a vegan to recommend vampirism.

One dermatologist from St Thomas Hospital, London, who did not wish to be named, says: "Our main thrust is that we want people to realise that the sun is a hostile environmental hazard. Clearly, there are two sides to every story. But dermatologists need to give an unmixed message."

So what is the other side of the sun story? Sun is crucial in the manufacture of Vitamin D, needed for the immune system and bone production. But to do that effectively we only need about 10 minutes exposure a day, on the hands and cheeks. "There are problems with some housebound elderly, but most of us are not walking about with Vitamin D deficiency," says Professor Brian Diffey of Dryburn Hospital, Durham who has researched the effects of light on the skin.

Sunlight can also benefit certain skin conditions. The shores of Dead Sea in Israel are lined with hotels catering for psoriatics, many of whom find that particular combination of sun and sea helpful. Eczema can improve with exposure to moderate amounts of sunlight according to the National Eczema Society, although they also warn that some people's skin deteriorates in the sun. Acne is sometimes treated with phototherapy, or helped by a foreign holiday.

The general notion that sunshine is "good for you" has been around since Hippocrates' day but has never been reliably proved by western medicine. In the Twenties, the Sunlight League was formed in London to educate the public about "Nature's universal disinfectant, stimulant and tonic". More recently, scientists from central Europe and the former Soviet Union have claimed that exposure to sunlight can have effects ranging from lowering blood pressure to warding off some cancers.

It is possible that our fear of sun has gone too far. Professor Brian Diffey did a study last year of children's exposure to sun. The children, from three parts of the country, wore ultraviolet-sensitive badges and kept diaries of the time they spent outdoors between April and July.

"We were surprised by how little sun kids got," says Professor Diffey. "People have this idea that we're all getting a lot more sun, but I don't think it's true at all. Quite the reverse actually." He suggests that if children don't have red skin by the end of a summer's day, you're probably practising safe sun.

Perhaps the only undisputed benefit of the sun is simply that it cheers people up. At the extreme end of the spectrum, people who suffer from seasonal affective disorder get severely depressed in the short, dull days of winter. But, says Dr Ian Rodin who runs a mood disorder clinic at the University of Southampton, the same processes affect us all. "Probably the majority of people are affected to some degree. But not enough to interfere with function. About 1-2 per cent are affected severely enough to develop clinical depression," he says.

Anyone suffering from the winter blues is well advised to get outdoors for a while if the sun shines.

There are complicated processes at work in the brain in all this. Light influences hormone levels by triggering the pineal gland deep within the brain. When the amount or intensity of daylight diminishes, the gland produces the hormone melatonin - which makes us want to sleep. Bright light switches off the production of melatonin and low levels of melatonin are related to high levels of serotonin, the "feel good" hormone which makes us happy and excited.

Happiness tends to evade measurement. But Dr Lance Workman, biological psychologist at the University of Glamorgan, says his research suggests that more than 90 per cent of people feel some degree of mood elevation when they enter periods of increased sunlight.

They have the same problem in northern Norway. In midsummer, the people of Tromso - with 20 hours of sunlight a day - get excitable and find it hard to concentrate on their work.

Since babyhood, Jill Robson (top right), 31, has suffered from severe eczema, which produces disfiguring and demoralising patches of dry itchy skin on her arms and legs. She says there is only one reliable way to ease the condition - a spell in the sun. A secretary at the Department of Social Security in Newcastle, Jill believes holiday relaxation and getting fresh air on her skin have a beneficial effect on top of the actual sunlight.

I went to Tenerife at the end of April, just for a week, because that's normally my bad time. If I get away, it gives me a chance to pull myself around and get off the steroids. I use topical steroid creams, and when I have a flare-up of eczema, I normally go up a degree of potency until I get it under control.

When I left, I was putting on Eumovate, the strongest cream I use. I took it with me just in case. But after two or three days in the sun, I was only putting on E45 moisturiser, and I wasn't using the steroids at all.

The sun has quite an amazing effect on me - I just feel so much better.

Normally, I go away twice a year for a week, and on a typical day, I'll spend about four hours in the sun. I have to drag myself in really; I'm definitely a sun-worshipper. I always use factorised creams, beginning at about 10 or 12, then next day down to factor 8. Then I use 3, which I know you shouldn't really do.

You learn to cope with eczema, but I have problems, especially in winter. If my skin's really bad, I'll try to book a cheap holiday or go away for a weekend.

It's partly psychological. If you've got a bit of a tan, you feel better in yourself.

Belinda Magee (right), a 42-year-old graphic designer, says she has finally learnt to listen to the dictates of her Celtic colouring. With her white skin and auburn hair, she has always burned, never tanned. She now lives on the top floors of a garden-less converted warehouse by the Thames, and takes holidays in the Middle East - where everyone covers up.

I've always needed to avoid the sun. But at boarding school, when everyone was going out to toast themselves in the house garden, I would join them and end up having to have calamine lotion all over me.

All that happens to me in the sun is that I go pink, then beetroot. I do not go brown. But as a teenager, I thought the more I pursued the sun, the more chance there was of a tan. I had a test strip where my watch had been, and I could just about perceive a difference in my skin colour.

It took until I was in my late thirties to recognise the signs of sunburn. My skin starts to get hot and goes pink within 20 to 30 minutes. I wear sun-block of between factor 12 to 20. But it's tedious because it's greasy, and if you're walking around in Jordan or Egypt the dust sticks to the cream and you get absolutely filthy.

I've given up on tanning now. To me, it's not even an option. But there's still an appeal about a hot climate. I love that blast of heat when you get off the plane. It's the heat rather than the sun I like - the gorgeous balmy evenings and the way it's warm even when it rains. I cannot stand a beach holiday. There is nothing worse than lying on a beach with an ivory skin when everybody around you is bronzed. Since there's been so much publicity about skin cancer, I've been breathing great sighs of relief, because I no longer feel the pressure on me to conform to having a tan.