The Sunscreen Myth
- Friday, 29 May 2009
Approximately 85% of North Americans are vitamin D deficient. As a direct result of that statistic, about two million of you will die from cancer each year.
Regardless of what supplements you take, the single best source of vitamin D is sun exposure. Your body has a built-in mechanism that increases blood levels of vitamin D if you are not getting enough sun exposure and decreases the blood levels if you are getting too much of the sun.
Dermatologists and most other doctors have been telling their patients for many years that sun exposure causes skin cancer. There is always paternalistic advice about using sunscreens and wearing protective glasses, hats, and other clothing. The higher the SPF factor in the sunscreen, the better.
But is this advice correct? The truth is that the benefits of UV light have been much underestimated while its dangers have been grossly exaggerated.
Yes, the sun causes skin damage. Our bodies, however, have developed a way of repairing this damage by creating more vitamin D under the skin. Vitamin D repairs the DNA in your genes and prevents your cells from transforming into cancer. This is built-in cancer protection that you will negate by avoiding sunshine or using sunscreens.Evidence of the benefits of UV light is piling up in the medical journals. Good news about exposing your bare skin to UV light keeps appearing in the media practically every day. For example, the BBC News reported that more sunshine helps melanoma patients because their tumors become less aggressive.
Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma is another type of cancer that can be helped by increased exposure to UV rays, as mentioned in the same BBC News report. In this case, the risks of developing the disease are reduced by up to 40% when exposed to either the sun or UV-producing sun lamps. The studies concluded that the decreased cancer rate was due to the fact that the skin produced much more vitamin D from the increased UV light exposure.
UVA vs. UVB
The important thing to realize is that it is the UVA light and not the UVB light that is responsible for the skin damage that causes aging, wrinkles, and the more benign forms of skin cancer. Both UVA and UVB can cause sunburns and suntans.
UVB causes tanning more rapidly. This is based on a study published by Dr. Dianne Godar of the U.S. FDA. UVA light can even pass through window glass, making you susceptible to skin cancer even when indoors. UVB light cannot travel through glass and is the type of sun radiation that protects the body from melanoma and other skin cancers.
UVB light is strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. whereas UVA is stronger at other times. To maximize vitamin D production, most people need between 10 to 20 minutes of sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Beyond that, unless your skin color is fairly dark, you risk some sun damage and even burns.
Hiding from UVB
Despite all the very positive studies on the benefits of UVB irradiation, we are a western society that is still frightened of sunshine. We slather on harmful chemical sunscreens in the belief that we will ward off skin cancer—even though there is no proof that this ritual prevents anything.
Dermatologists sing the praises of these toxic and unproven lotions and encourage all their patients to avoid the sun, tanning beds, and vitamin supplements of any kind because, as they say, “You can get all your vitamins from your diet.” They tell the public to use the highest possible SPF lotions. This is all based on outdated information, superstition, or highly successful advertising by the drug lobby that manufactures the stuff.
Different Kinds of Skin Cancer
There is no plausible evidence that the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma, has anything to do with sun damage. Basal cell carcinoma (BCE), the commonest form of skin cancer, is extremely benign and rarely, if ever, spreads anywhere. It is usually seen in fair-skinned people and is causally related to excess sun exposure in susceptible individuals. The same can be said for a less common form of skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma.
Various sunscreens might protect an individual against BCE and squamous cell cancer of the skin, but they don’t protect from melanoma. The strongest risk factors for melanoma development are skin type (the paler, the greater risk) and the number of moles present on the body. Sunscreens have no preventive value.
Recent studies indicate that one of the real causes of melanoma is vitamin D deficiency and a low ratio of omega-3 to omega-6.
Using flaxseed oil, hempseed oil, and/or marine or fish oils would help rebalance things. So would more UV light exposure. One recent study showed a 40% reduction in melanoma in frequent fish eaters. By the way, if you are worried about the mercury content of fish, it is now well established that most fish oil supplements are free of mercury.
Is it really true that tanning on a sun bed increases the risk of malignant melanoma?
Although there are some studies that show a causal relationship between the two, one of the largest studies on the subject in 2005 indicated that sun bed actually use has a small protective effect against melanoma.
Oddly enough, some studies indicate that the use of sunscreens increases the risk of developing melanoma. In one study done in 2007, subjects using sunscreens had three times the risk compared to those who never used sunscreens at all.
Bathe in the Sun
Further, people who took 30 sunbaths per year without getting burned were 10 times less likely to have melanoma compared to those who took less than 20 sunbaths per year. There was no such protective effect if sunburns occurred.
The increased incidence of melanoma since 1940 has occurred mostly in people who work indoors. Outdoor workers rarely get the disease and, on average, get nine times more solar radiation than their indoor counterparts. Outdoor workers obviously make more vitamin D under their skin and this helps protect them from all cancers, including melanoma.
Should I buy a UV light for home use to prevent skin cancer? You could, but be sure to expose yourself to the gadget as if it were the sun itself. Artificial UV light sources emit both UVA and UVB waves. You could get sunburn or a tan just as easily as if you were in the noonday sun.
Don’t Get Burned
But what about preventing sunburns?
Yes, there are people who must spend hours of their time in the sun due to the nature of their work. To prevent skin damage or sunburns, the safest sunscreen to use is one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Mainstream drugstore sunscreens block the potentially beneficial vitamin D-producing UVB rays while allowing the more damaging UVA rays to come through. The end result of this means that the typical drug store sunscreen (any SPF factor) can produce a higher cancer risk due to vitamin D deficiency.
Aside from the vitamin D deficiency created by most sunscreens, many of the chemicals commonly found in sunscreens are potentially carcinogenic. About 90% contain OMC (octyl-methoxycinnamate), which can turn extremely toxic when exposed to sunlight. Other toxic sunscreen ingredients that should definitely be avoided are:
- Other forms of salicylic acid (aspirin)
The best natural ingredients that block both UVA and UVB rays are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Unfortunately, even these natural sunscreens prevent your skin from manufacturing adequate levels of vitamin D. You therefore will have to spend at least some time out in the sunshine without sunscreen protection.
UVA light like that coming through closed windows, on the other hand, appears to be associated with a greater risk of melanoma. The vast majority of the most recently published scientific papers on the subject indicate a greater risk exists for melanoma with decreased sun exposure and subsequent low blood levels of vitamin D.
What if you already have melanoma? Should you risk sun exposure or listen to the skin specialists that tell you to avoid the sun?
One recent study indicates that the more sun exposure a melanoma patient has, the less likely was his risk of death. If you avoid the sun, vitamin D levels plummet and cancer then has a better chance of killing you. Higher blood levels of vitamin D make melanoma less aggressive. There is growing evidence that melanoma survival rates are improved significantly with greater exposure to sunlight.
Melanoma is more common in people who work indoors. Outdoor workers enjoy a far lower rate of this disease provided they avoid commercial sunscreens. Interestingly enough, melanoma tends to occur in areas of the body less exposed to the sun or usually covered by clothing. If you hear your doctor or anyone else telling you to stay out of the sun, mention these proven facts and ask them for evidence to the contrary.
For the time being, if you have fair skin or are extremely sun-sensitive, the best advice is to take vitamin D supplements and get periodic blood testing done during the months of the year you do not get adequate sunlight exposure. The one exception to this rule, and here is where I recommend tanning beds or artificial UV light exposure, is in cases where the bowel fails to absorb vitamin D from an oral source. Examples of this are in people who have had bowel surgery or suffer from one of the many forms of bowel disease.
The only thing that staying out of the sun might do for you is prevent premature aging and relatively benign or rare forms of skin cancer. This might be an important matter if you were a movie star. What it might also do for you is give you vitamin D deficiency.
This does not mean you should go out in the sun and stay long enough to get sunburns. What it does mean is that you should use sunlight responsibly.
- If you haven’t exposed yourself to the sun in months, just go out for 10 minutes a day until your skin becomes accustomed to the UV rays.
- Never allow yourself to burn. As soon as you see your skin turning a bit pink, it’s time to head for the shade.
- As your skin turns gradually darker with more sun exposure over time, you will be able to spend more time in the sun since the darker skin shades offer more UV light protection.
- Use natural sunscreens if you must.
- If you burn, use zinc oxide creams or aloe vera lotions available from your local health food stores or pharmacies.
- At all costs, avoid the synthetic drug company sunscreens, as these are more likely to contain dangerous carcinogens. Recent medical journal articles have proven that none of these sunscreens actually work.
- Use clothing, floppy hats, sunglasses, and an umbrella since these are all more likely than synthetic sunscreens to be effective at preventing sunburn.