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Should you get some sun or take vitamin D? One doc weighs in

In summer do you slather on the sunscreen, or soak up a little sun? One doctor says it's OK to step away from the sunscreen, a little.
/ Source: TODAY

With beach season here, is it time to slather on the sunscreen as usual, or soak up a little sun?

Amid warnings against sun exposure, one doctor is taking a controversial stance, suggesting that it’s OK to step away from the sunscreen, at least for a little while.

Dr. Michael Holick wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece last week that the sun is not the enemy it’s been made out to be. He writes about the need to avoid cancer, but also for vitamin D.

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“Faced with high cancer rates, health authorities have rushed to damn the sun without taking into account the many scientifically documented health benefits it provides," Holick wrote.

“The danger of sun exposure has been exaggerated," he wrote, and while he doesn’t suggest soaking up the sun with total abandon, he said to “go easy on the sunscreen.

On TODAY Monday, Holick, of Boston University Medical Center, talked about sun exposure and vitamin D, which helps bone health.

“We know we're concerned about skin cancer, but to avoid all direct sunlight actually increases risks for vitamin D deficiency,” he said. “D deficiency can potentially increase your risk for many chronic illnesses.”

He said that more doctors are “now getting on board, and saying that some sensible sun exposure makes sense.”

Still, nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer in the U.S. every year, according to The Skin Care Foundation. And the American Cancer Society warns that the dangers from the sun are real, and that even just a few minutes of unprotected sun can be risky.

“We know that five sunburns in a lifetime will result in an 86 percent increase in the risk of skin cancer,” Dr. Arnold Baskies, of the cancer society, told TODAY.

He said taking a supplement of vitamin D is just fine.

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“The suggestions in the particular article in The Washington Post really fly in the face of fact,” Baskies told TODAY. “The exposure to the sun in order to get vitamin D doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you weigh it against the chances of getting skin cancer.”

Appearing live on TODAY with Matt Lauer, NBC News medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar noted the layers of debate surrounding sun exposure and vitamin D.

One issue is whether people should get vitamin D from the sun or from a supplement. Others are what constitutes a vitamin D deficiency, she said, and how much vitamin D is adequate for bone health.

“All these questions that I’m raising have no definitive answers,” she said.

There are generally no symptoms for vitamin D deficiency, she said, though some people with severe cases could have muscle pain. The most common association with vitamin D deficiency is osteoporosis and children can suffer from rickets, she said.

Guidelines call for a recommended daily amount of vitamin D of 400 international units from birth to 12 months, 600 international units from ages 1 to 70 and 800 international units for those over 70.

“This is from a supplement,” Azar said. “This does not take into account sun exposure.”

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If people want to get vitamin D from the sun, Azar said the way to do it depends on their skin type, where they live in the world and the time of day they are outside and for how long.

So what’s the right way to enjoy the dog days of summer? Under a shady tree or getting some color from the sun? The debate goes on.

“I’m not going to be a tie-breaker today,” Azar said. “This is a very heated discussion and debate that happens pretty much on a regular basis amongst those of us who deal with vitamin D on a regular basis.” contributor Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.