By Richard Gray–
Researchers studying how sun exposure affects the risk of developing melanomas discovered that those who spent between four to five hours in the sun each day over the weekend were less likely to develop tumours.
The findings appear to contradict the commonly-held belief that longer time spent in the sun increases the risk of skin cancer.
Instead, the study shows that while excessive exposure to the sun – and particularly sunburn – can lead to melanomas, regular doses of sun for up to five hours a day at weekends can be protective.
The study comes just days after Andy Flowers, the England Cricket team head coach, underwent surgery to remove a malignant melanoma below his right eye.
Professor Julia Newton Bishop, an epidemiologist who led the research at Leeds University, said it seems regular exposure helps the skin adapt and protect itself against the harmful affects of sunshine. Increased levels of vitamin D made in the skin while exposed to sunlight may also be protective.
Professor Newton Bishop said: “The relationship between the amount of sun we are exposed to and the risk of melanoma is complicated – we have known for a long time that melanomas are something to do with sun exposure and fair skin.
“Our paper suggests that moderate regular sun exposure may actually reduce the risk. We are talking about quite high levels of sun exposure for the protective effect with an average of four to five hours a day at weekends.
“It appears that in moderation, sun exposure can be protective, but it is when you have extreme sun exposure that it becomes a problem. So in the UK sunburn is a potent risk factor because we have a habit of not getting much sun at home and then suddenly exposing our skin when we go abroad.”
Malignant melanoma is the most serious type of skin cancer and around 10,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with the disease each year. The incidence of the disease is rising faster than any other cancer in the UK and has quadrupled since then 1970s. Around 2,000 die each year in this country from skin cancer.
Public health experts blame the rise in skin cancer in the UK on growing use of sun beds and an increase in the number of holidays people take abroad.
Harmful ultraviolet light from the sun is thought to trigger skin cancer by causing damage to the DNA in the skin.
But the new study by Professor Newton Bishop and her colleagues, which is published in the European Journal of Cancer, suggests that regular sun exposure can help the body prevent this damage.
The researchers examined the sun exposure behaviour and skin type of 960 melanoma patients and 687 controls who had not been diagnosed with skin cancer.
After adjusting the results to account for deprivation, they found that participants with fair skin, freckles and blonde or red hair, were most at risk of developing melanomas as where those who had suffered severe sunburn.
But they also found that regular exposure to the sun at weekends of more than five hours had the most significant effect that protected the participants from developing melanoma.
Unfortunately for those with sensitive skin, this protective effect was not seen in people who had red hair and freckles, perhaps due to their tendency to burn far more quickly.
The researchers also measured levels of vitamin D in 1,167 of the participants, who were aged between 18 and 76 years old, and found that those who received regular doses of sun exposure at weekends also had raised levels of vitamin D.
Professor Newton Bishop said: “There is some evidence from other studies that suggests that vitamin D may help to reduce melanoma size and improve prognosis, but it could be that there is some adaptation going on in the skin which reduces the damage from ultraviolet light.
“Melanoma, in the UK, is a cancer of people who work inside who have short bursts of sunshine when they are on holiday. If they are working in offices all week, then when they go sunbathing on holiday, they don’t have the protection that might naturally develop.
“Regardless, people need to take steps to avoid getting sunburnt – particularly at this time of year when the days are shorter and there is much less sunshine around. People who go away for winter sun holidays are particularly at risk.”