By Amir Khan
Sun exposure may be good for you after all, according to preliminary new research presented at the International Investigative Dermatology 2013 conference in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Being in the sun can help lower your blood pressure, researchers said, adding that overall, the benefits of being out in the sun outweigh the risk of skin cancer from UV rays. But other experts caution that you shouldn't put away that sunscreen just yet.
When skin is exposed to the sun, a compound called nitric acid is released into your blood vessels, which helps to lower blood pressure, researchers said. They exposed 24 participants to sunlamps for 20 minutes while they measured their blood pressure. In one session, they exposed subjects to ultraviolet (UV) light and heat, and found that their blood pressure was reduced by 2mmHG, which, researchers said, could be enough to reduce risk of coronary artery disease by 7 percent and stroke by 10 percent.
However, when subjects were exposed to just the heat of the lamp, researchers did not see the same reduction in blood pressure.
"We suspect that the benefits to heart health of sunlight will outweigh the risk of skin cancer," study author Richard Weller, senior lecturer in dermatology at the University of Edinburgh in the UK, said in a statement. "The work we have done provides a mechanism that might account for this, and also explains why dietary vitamin D supplements alone will not be able to compensate for lack of sunlight."
Until now, scientists thought that the only benefit of sun exposure was the production of vitamin D, which is thought to lower blood pressure. However, people who take vitamin D in the form of supplements don't seem to reap this benefit. The blood-pressure lowering effects of sun exposure now seem to be separate from vitamin D production, the researchers said, and UV rays are necessary for the effect, which lasted 50 minutes in the study participants.
While the new study is interesting, said Nina Goad, with the British Association of Dermatologists, the study size was too small to draw any conclusions.
"The findings do not confirm sustained blood pressure reduction in the general population," she said via email. "It's also worth noting that there are many other ways of achieving sustained reductions in blood pressure with evidence-based interventions that do not involve the risks associated with getting too much sun."
And before you go out tanning in hopes of getting bronzed and helping your heart, said Jennifer Stein, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center, it's important to remember that while there do seem to be some benefits of sun exposure, skin cancer and melanoma are a very real risk.
"Sunlight damages the skin and can lead to skin cancer," Dr. Stein said. "People who have had sunburn and use tanning beds are at an increased risk for skin cancer, including melanoma."
Tanning beds are especially risky, she added, more so than being out in the sun. Recently, the FDA announced a proposal that would require warnings on all tanning beds indicating that their use is linked to a 75 percent increased risk of melanoma, the most fatal type of skin cancer.
"When people are using tanning beds, they receive huge amounts of UVA," Dr. Stein said. "UVA penetrates deeply into the skin and damages your DNA and causes skin cancer. Tanning beds are not a safe way to get tan."
And while it appears that going out in the sun may have some benefit, it's important to do so safely, Stein added.
"Sunscreen is just one part of a protection plan," she said. "If you're going to go to the beach, try to go in the beginning or end of the day and sit in a shady spot. Also, be sure to cover up your skin."
"You don't have to be vampire," Stein added. "You can go outdoors. Just make sure you do it in a safe way."
"Sun May Lower Blood Pressure, But Skin Cancer Risk Still Looms" originally appeared on Everyday Health.