Good sun sense is more than a simple matter of ‘slip, slop, slap’

John Henzell ponders vitamin D deficiency in one of the sunniest countries on earth

One of the quirks of the UAE is that possibly the sunniest place on the planet also has one of the highest percentages of people who are deficient in Vitamin D, which is mostly obtained from sunlight. 

I always assumed this was a reflection of the local traditional dress code of long flowing clothing – be it kanduras or abayas, in each case topped by a keffiyeh or shayla – that was adopted to cope with the climate in the days before air conditioning.

Or possibly because of the fashion favouring pale skin for women, which is why so many of the expatriate female population habitually hide under umbrellas or use high-SPF sunscreens to minimise the risk of getting a tan.

Then at a routine check-up this month, my doctor went through the blood test results. After the usual chiding about the deleterious effect of Abu Dhabi’s Indian restaurants on my cholesterol levels, he said that my Vitamin D levels were below the recommended minimum.

“But ... but ... how?” I stammered. “Look at my tan. How can I possibly be deficient in Vitamin D?”

It’s not like I set out to get a tan. In truth, I actively avoid it – for reasons that will soon be obvious. But through an outdoorsy lifestyle of hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and canyoning in my time away from work, tanned skin just seems to happen. To the chagrin of friends whose milky skin pallor screams of high-latitude origins, I generally go brown quickly in the sun.

I grew up in Australia but spent much of my adult life in New Zealand. As sunny climates that are primarily populated by emigrants from western Europe, these two countries vie for the unsought top place on the global list of skin cancer rates.

When I was a child in the 1970s, the concept of being “sun smart” meant having a perpetual deep brown tan all through the year. Every summer would involve at least one beach holiday which ended with skin peeling off my back and shoulders but I was imbued with the perceived immortality of youth. 

This was combined with an era in which Speedos swimwear was deemed to be an acceptable fashion item, so there was a lot of skin on display.

Within a generation, that message had been completely reversed – which was a good thing in terms of the community’s attitude towards both suntanning and also, thankfully, Speedos.

It was suddenly all “Slip, slop, slap”, an official anti-cancer campaign reminding children to slip on a shirt, slop on some strong sunscreen and slap on a hat. 

By then, the effect of the ozone hole in the southern hemisphere was tangible and nobody doubted that the sun was stronger and burn times shorter than they used to be.

The children of parents who were allowed to wear abominations like Speedos would wrap up their own children in neck-to-ankle coverings known as ozone suits. 

Suddenly the surest way to get ­other parents’ tongues wagging with disapproval would be to allow a child to swim in just a pair of shorts or a bikini.

But it was too late then for children of my generation, who after a lag of 20 or 30 years are bearing the cost of sun-dumb attitudes of our youth. The prevalence of malignant melanomas, the most deadly type of skin cancer, has leapt manyfold since the 1970s, probably reflecting the early impact of the ozone hole before its existence was discovered. 

I also had a familial predisposition, with both grandfathers and my father – all farmers who used to spend most of their working life outdoors – having had suspicious skin growths removed.

For the past 15 years, it’s been my turn, with annual skin checks with, on occasion, moles being removed from my back. It’s just the price that has to be paid to stay one step ahead of the risk.

For obvious reasons, this has changed my attitude about the sun, and I cover up far more than most of my outdoorsy colleagues. But some degree of exposure when you have an outdoorsy life in the UAE remains unavoidable, which explains the tan.

In the doctor’s office, I guess this combination of tan and Vitamin D deficiency demonstrates the balancing act at play, in which I tried to avoid further exposure but by doing so discovered I’m among the disproportionate part of the population who needs to spend more time in the sun.

I promise one thing, though: I won’t be wearing Speedos.

JHenzell@thenational.ae

Published: May 25, 2014 04:00 AM

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