As we’re now in the summer months and the power of the sun’s rays are at their dangerous peak in Australia, discussion of sun safety has also hit its peak in the media, along with concerns about the need for Australians to achieve adequate levels of vitamin D while still heeding the sun safe messages.
For people with MS, the messages about vitamin D, UV light and sun safety can become confusing and often seem to be conflicting. We know that the evidence tells us that low UV light exposure and low blood levels of vitamin D are risk factors for MS. So people with MS, and those at higher risk of developing MS (such as family members) should ensure that they get some, safe, sun exposure, and ensure that they have an adequate intake of vitamin D. But just how much sun is enough, and safe, for people with MS?
In a recent article in the Perth Sunday Times a West Australian doctor (not a dermatologist, or vitamin D specialist) suggested that people should be staying in the sun long enough to turn slightly pink (erythema) in order to achieve adequate levels of vitamin D. At MS Research Australia we strongly disagree with this position.
We spoke to Professor Robyn Lucas – Professor of Environment Climate and Health at The Australian National University – to get her recommendations for people with MS. Over many years, she has studied the role of UV radiation and vitamin D in health and disease, and has worked closely with cancer organisations and policy makers.
Professor Lucas said, “There are no health benefits to getting sunburnt, even a little bit pink, only adverse effects”.
Professor Lucas explained that the production of vitamin D in our skin in response to UV radiation very quickly reaches a point of saturation – that means that once the vitamin D reaches a certain level it signals to the body to stop making it. This happens well before erythema (pinkness) develops.
During the peak of the day in summer in most parts of Australia, the safety margin is very small – just 2 minutes of exposure is enough for vitamin D production for the average fair-skinned Australian, but 5 minutes will result in sunburn. For this reason the Cancer Council recommends that people avoid the sun in the middle of the day.
Professor Lucas said, “In the summer, in most of Australia, maybe less so in Tasmania, people with fair or European skin will make enough vitamin D from casual sun exposure – hanging the clothes on the line, cycling to work, going out to get a coffee – assuming that there is some skin exposed to the sun”.
“In winter, a 30 min walk, brisk, so that you can at least bare your arms, near the middle of the day should be enough to maintain vitamin D levels, particularly if you have had a bit of regular sun exposure during summer, so that you go into winter with good levels”.
Professor Lucas’, final comment – “It is really important to remember that the sunburn reaction is delayed – so a little bit pink while in the sun, will become a lot pinker after 24 hours!”
Also visit the Cancer Council Victoria ‘Sun Smart’ webpages for more information and to learn about their SunSmart app that can help you calculate whether you have received adequate sunlight for vitamin D synthesis tailored to your own skin tone and get UV and sunscreen alerts.
The MS Research Australia funded vitamin D MS prevention clinical trial, PrevANZ, is testing whether vitamin D supplementation can help to prevent or delay a diagnosis of MS in people at high risk – the trial will help us to work out what dose of supplementation and blood level of vitamin D is safe and effective in reducing the impact of MS learn more here.