Is there such a thing as a healthy tan?

Drop that bronzer: There may be a benefit to baking in the sun.

Published October 30, 2007 2:07PM (EDT)

For those of you slathering on the sunblock, hiding under hats and generally avoiding the rays of our nearest star as if they carried a deadly plague, new research (via Reuters Monday) suggests that sunshine may have some surprising health benefits for the very women who have been advised to avoid it. According to research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, sunlight seems to cut the risk of breast cancer in light-skinned women.

In a San Francisco Bay Area study of 1,788 women with breast cancer and 2,129 without, researchers discovered that light-skinned women with high levels of sun exposure enjoyed a 47 percent reduced risk of advanced breast cancer. The theory is that sunlight triggers the body's production of an active form of vitamin D. In people with more pigmentation -- say, African-Americans or many Hispanics -- the effects of sunlight don't affect breast cancer risk, presumably because the melanin inhibits the synthesis of vitamin D in the skin. Although there have been previous studies linking reduced risk of breast cancer with sunlight exposure, this study measured sun exposure more accurately based on the woman's skin rather than her self-reported sun exposure.

Ready to don your bikinis and head for the nearest lounge chair? Not so fast. According to Gary Schwartz at Wake Forest University in an interview with MedPageToday, although there's increasing evidence that vitamin D may cut the risk of breast, prostate and colon cancers, you don't need to tan your shiny white hiney to get the benefits of vitamin D. Popping vitamin D pills is both cheap and safe, says Schwartz, and may prove to have not only a therapeutic effect but a preventative one as well.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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