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Should I avoid the sun?

Surgeon Gabriel Weston’s job involves removing skin cancers from her patients – many of which are caused by too much exposure to the ultraviolet rays of the sun. However, these rays have also been shown to have a range of health benefits – so should we be avoiding, or enjoying, the sun?

Gabriel meets dermatologist Dr Richard Weller at the University of Edinburgh, who shows how UVA – one of the ultraviolet wavelengths of light – lowers our blood pressure significantly. Professor Martin Feelisch at the University of Southampton shows how this is due to the light stimulating our bodies to produce nitric oxide, which causes our blood vessels to dilate, reducing blood pressure.

The reduction in blood pressure after approx an hour’s exposure to the ultraviolet light is about 2-3mm of mercury – which can reduce the risk of having a stroke by 10% and of a heart attack by 7%. Given that these are the two biggest killers in Britain, Dr Weller argues convincingly that for many people, these benefits of sunlight exposure outweigh the risks of increased skin cancer.

Some people are at a particularly high risk of the dangerous skin cancer, melanoma: people with red hair, people who have skin that burns and never tans, people with a lot of moles or a family history of melanoma. If you fall into any of those groups, then you should definitely continue to protect yourself against the sun.

However, if you have skin which tans easily, and especially if your blood pressure is slightly high, then Dr Weller recommends that increased sunlight exposure may be good for you as long as you make sure you don’t burn.