When I was a kid, my mother used to say hey, the sun is shining, go out and play! I am not sure if many mothers today still send their kids out into the sun as readily as my mother did. In the last couple of years, we all have been told time and again that sun causes skin cancer. All those campaigns have done their work, but they may have done more harm than good, as far as children are concerned.
Sun in childhood protects against multiple sclerosis (MS): In California, more than seventy pairs of identical twins have been examined. In each pair, one of the twins suffered from MS and the other did not. In addition, they differed in the amount of sun exposure in childhood. On average, the MS risk is less than half in kids that have been often outdoors playing in the sun, compared to children who have been well protected from the sun. MS is a nerve disease with considerable genetic risk factors, that's why identical twins have been selected for this study.
But skin cancer? I hear you ask, but let's do some comparing. Skin cancer (melanoma) and multiple sclerosis (MS) are both very bad diseases. Hard to tell which is worse. Against MS there is no cure at all, and melanoma can be cured by surgery if it is detected in time. If not, it is deadly. In our family we have and had both diseases. If you ask me, I would prefer not to have MS.
Now let's have a look at the facts and figures. In the United States, one in seven hundred persons has MS, but only one in five thousand has melanoma. Thus, MS is seven times more frequent than melanoma (source: Wrong Diagnosis?). If these figures are right, may (over-) protecting children from the sun do seven times more harm than good? Well, not really, because a greater amount of skin cancer risk than of MS risk reduction may be attributed to the sun. If this difference is less than sevenfold, harm still may be greater than benefit.
Yet more harm may be added due to inactivity: Sun exposure concern is linked to a sedentary lifestyle, according to an Australian study. Lack of physical activity, especially in childhood, is a major source of diseases.
Take home message: Playing outdoors in the sun is good for a child but it must be protected from sunburn. The acceptable dose of sunlight depends strongly on the skin type.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/childish/389947911/