People in Western countries have very mixed feelings about the sun. On the one hand it evokes memories of beaches, summer holidays and playful times. Children’s books often personify the sun as a smiling, happy face — typically contrasted with angry, moody rain clouds. In fact, the sun has such positive connotations that the descriptor ‘ sunny’ refers not only to a state of weather but also to ‘ cheery, cheerful, or joyous’ moods and dispositions amongst humans. On the other hand, many people fear the sun because of its association with cosmetic degeneration that can cause people to look much older than they actually are. Even more seriously, many people see the sun as a killer- this is because excessive sun exposure can lead to skin cancer which has a very high mortality rate. So is the sun our friend or a foe? The answers are complex and contradictory.
Let’s start with the worst news about the sun. It is a carcinogen. As the national Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens from the Department of Health and Human Services reports, broad-spectrum UV radiation and solar radiation (what is known as ‘ sun rays’) are thought to contribute to most of the estimated 1.5 million skin cancers diagnosed in the United States each year. This gives the sun the unfavourable distinction of being the leading carcinogen in the United States — ahead of genetic mutations, bad diets, cigarettes, alcohol, chemical exposure and other lifestyle factors. Of these melanoma diagnoses, 8,000 – sufferers will perish from the condition.
Ultimately, moderation and protection may be the key when it comes to sun exposure. This is true of other carcinogens such as alcohol as well-studies suggest that binge drinkers and teetotallers experience higher levels of many health problems than people who drink moderate amounts of alcohol on social occasions. Healthy access to the sun involves wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen before every exposure (even in winter) and not staying in the sun any longer than is necessary, which is about five minutes for adequate Vitamin D exposure. With these simple steps, the sun once again becomes our friend and not our foe.
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