By Karen Foster
Babies who spend more time in the sun are less likely to develop eczema, but it may not be because it boosts their vitamin D levels as previously thought says a new study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Kids who are overly hygienic appear to be at increased risk of developing allergy-related skin condition eczema, according to some study findings.
Eczema is a catch-all term for a group of medical conditions that cause the skin to become inflamed or irritated. It affects about 10% to 20% of infants and about 3% of adults and children although those numbers appear to be increasing due to environmental pollutants. Physicians treat eczema with corticosteroid creams which only suppress symptoms without address the underlying cause. No one knows the exact cause, but some experts think it’s because babies are spending less time outdoors and getting less vitamin D from sunlight.
Exposure to sunlight and vitamin D has been shown to effectively deal with toxins including medications. A study from the Swedish medical university Karolinska Institutet has shown that the body’s ability to break down medicines may be closely related to exposure to sunlight, and thus may vary with the seasons.
This is based on studies showing that people who live closer to the equator — where the sun is stronger — have higher vitamin D levels and lower rates of eczema.
Debbie Palmer at the Telethon Kids Institute in Western Australia and her colleagues wondered if giving babies vitamin D supplements would stop them from developing eczema.
They recruited 195 newborns whose parents or siblings had allergies and gave them vitamin D drops or a placebo every day for their first 6 months of life. They also fitted the babies with devices to measure how much ultraviolet light they received from the sun each day.
Time In The Sun
To their surprise, the vitamin D supplements had no effect. But the babies who had greater sun exposure were significantly less likely to develop eczema.
The findings suggest that sunlight does protect against eczema but not via the assumed vitamin D mechanism, says Palmer. It may activate other anti-inflammatory molecules in the skin like nitric oxide or urocanic acid, but further research is needed to confirm this, she says.
Eczema rates may be going up because parents have become increasingly careful about keeping their children out of the sun, says Palmer. “We’ve had this very strong sun-safe message so parents are keeping their babies wrapped up and under prams with dark covers,” she says. “That’s great for preventing skin cancer but we might have gone too far.”
Her team is now investigating the minimum dose of sunlight needed to prevent eczema so that parents can protect their babies from the skin condition without putting them at risk of skin damage. “We want to be able to give a clear message about how many minutes per day and at what time of the day you should put your baby in the sun,” she says.
For the time being, she recommends following the Cancer Council Australia guidelines, which recommend a few minutes of mid-morning or mid-afternoon sun exposure in summer or longer periods of midday sun exposure in winter.
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