Increase in rickets linked to overuse of sunscreen

The use of too-strong sunscreen blocks out sunshine's vitamin D, which is needed for bone health. Picture: TSPL
The use of too-strong sunscreen blocks out sunshine's vitamin D, which is needed for bone health. Picture: TSPL
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A CHILD health expert has warned that parents worried about skin cancer are partly to blame for an increase in cases of childhood rickets.

Professor Alastair Sutcliffe, of University College London’s Institute of Child Health, said babies and young children were being covered in sunscreen with too high a sun protection factor, so they are not getting enough sunshine, which is the main source of vitamin D.

I thought it was a Victorian disease when I was graduating 30 years ago. That is not true now, unfortunately

It is estimated that about a fifth of adults and up to a quarter of children have low vitamin D levels – a total of ten million Britons.

Vitamin D helps to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body and these nutrients are needed to keep bones and teeth healthy.

A deficiency can lead to bone deformities such as rickets in children, and bone pain and tenderness as a result of a condition called osteomalacia in adults.

It also has other health benefits, including protecting against multiple sclerosis.

Testing for vitamin D deficiency has increased up to six-fold and treatment costs have jumped from £28 million in 2004 to £76m in 2011.

Prof Sutcliffe, who is honorary consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College London Hospital, said: “I thought it was a Victorian disease when I was graduating 30 years ago. That is not true now, unfortunately.”

He said the study into the rates of rickets and vitamin D deficiency across the UK was ongoing but added: “A dominant cause is a change in the ethnic balance of the population – there are far more people in this country with darkened skin. They are more prone to rickets.

“There are some white children in our initial study, but it’s predominantly seen in places like Birmingham, Leicester, Bradford and London in Asian and black children. Their skin is darker and needs more sunlight.

“There may be more use of sun protection than there was 30 years ago because of concerns about melanoma. Ultimately, babies are being slavered with the stuff, so they are not getting enough vitamin D from sunlight.”

He said covering up with factor 50 cream was “too high” for the British climate and added: “Mums are probably being too scared of the risk and that will have secondary side components. Protect yourself and your children, but don’t overdo it.”

Prof Sutcliffe said vitamin supplements should be given to all under fives.

He said: “It should be given in the first four to five years when they are growing up more rapidly and are being looked after by mothers so are more likely to take it.

“And at that age they are more likely to stay indoors before they grow up and start doing sport.

“Rickets is just the tip of the iceberg. If you don’t acquire bone mass as a human by 25, you don’t acquire it for the rest of your life.”

Prof Sutcliffe said this put people at greater risk of osteo-porosis at a younger age. He added: “It’s not just an intervention for childhood, it’s for the rest of their lives.”