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Should I let my kids get some vitamin D from the sun?

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The question: Is there such a thing as too much sunscreen? Shouldn't I let my kids get some vitamin D from the sun?

The answer: Sun exposure is one way of getting vitamin D. Ingesting dairy products fortified with vitamin D is another, but there is no such thing as too much sunscreen. The link between sun exposure and skin cancer is well established. Children who have had sunburns are known to have a significantly increased risk of developing malignant melanoma (skin cancer) later in life.

Fortunately, sunscreens can be used at any age. Infants under six months should avoid direct sunlight but, when it can't be avoided, applying sunscreen is preferable to risking sunburn. For children older than six months, a sunscreen with an SPF30 rating or higher should be applied before sun exposure, reapplied every 2 to 3 hours and after swimming. Of course hats, swim shirts and light clothing should be worn for sun protection whenever possible, and avoid being outside at midday .

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It's good to be concerned about vitamin D deficiency – Canadians are particularly prone to it because of our northerly latitude. Vitamin D is critical for the development of strong, healthy bones. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to rickets and has been linked to diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis and both colorectal and breast cancer. The good news is that regular use of sunscreen has not been linked to lower levels of vitamin D. In fact, one school of thought suggests that those who wear sunscreen may stay outside longer and may actually have higher levels of vitamin D.

Here is what I recommend to my patients: Turn off the television and computer and get the kids outdoors. Apply a sunscreen with minimum SPF 30 before going outside regardless of the season. Wear a hat and shirt whenever possible. Avoid sunburns at all cost. Given our northern climate and the consequences of vitamin D deficiency, I think all children should take a vitamin D supplement daily. A dose of 400 IU is standard, but don't hesitate to ask your doctor for advice about your child's particular needs. This is most easily accomplished by taking a standard children's multivitamin daily.

Send pediatrician Michael Dickinson your questions at pediatrician@globeandmail.com. He will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail website. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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