Does sun exposure increase your risk of skin cancer? What are the best, and safest, forms of sun protection?
Summer’s officially here, which means a whole lot of people are planning a whole lot of fun in the sun.
For many that are trying to be health conscious, it also means avoiding the sun’s rays as if we were vampires, slathering on copious amounts of sunscreen lotion until we have a pale, white shine.
We all know why people do this: according to “experts,” the more we’re in the sun, the more we damage our skin and the greater our chances of developing skin cancer are.
Are these claims true, though? And are traditional forms of blocking the sun’s rays the right way to deal with potential risks?
Let’s find out.
We’ve all heard the story many times before.
“Many doctors believe” that sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, which is the most common of all cancers.
Well, many doctors also believe that carbohydrates make you fat, fruit is unhealthy, and skipping breakfast makes you gain weight. So forgive my irreverent skepticism about their claims against the sun.
The first red flag with such a correlation is the simple fact that our ancestors spent much more time in the sun than we do, yet our skin cancer rates are exponentially higher.
Some researchers claim that ozone depletion accounts for this, but they fail to address the fact that the depletion and replenishment are seasonal and occur primarily in the Arctic, Antarctic, and equatorial regions of the planet, yet we don’t see higher cancer rates in those areas. Cancer is just exploding all over the place.
Well, while that scientific debate rages on, let’s look at what is currently known about sun exposure and skin cancer.
According to research conducted by the University of Texas, only 5-10% of cancer cases can be attributed to radiation, of which sun exposure is a small part. 5-10% of cases can be attributed to genetic defects, and the remaining percentage can be attributed to poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, diet (high intake of unhealthy fats, processed red meats, etc.), obesity, alcohol, and physical inactivity; as well as other factors like pollutants, infections, and stress.
The relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer was the subject of a meta-analysis of 57 skin cancer studies conducted by the European Institute of Oncology. Researchers found is that lifetime routine sun exposure was not associated with skin cancer. In fact, they found it had an inverse relationship–it reduced the risk of developing skin cancer.
Two things were associated with an increased risk of skin cancer, however: intermittent sun exposure and sunburn. It’s also noteworthy that those often go hand-in-hand: people that only go in the sun occasionally are most likely to burn.
A pooled analysis of 5700 cases of melanoma conducted by the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine reported similar findings. Recreational sun exposure and sunburns go hand-in-hand, and are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer.
So, then, if sunburns are the culprit here, not mere sunlight, all we have to do is coat ourselves in SPF 9000 cream on our beach days and we’re good to go, right?
A quick glimpse at the ingredients list of your average sunscreen is enough to give anyone pause:
- Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
- 2-Cyano-3,3-diphenyl acrylic acid
Couple that with the fact that the skin is an incredibly absorbant organ, and we really have to wonder: what kind of chemical concoctions are sunscreens, and are they a cause for concern?
Well, let’s dive in.
The first thing you should know is that many sunscreens are quite effective at blocking UVB rays, which are the rays most responsible for burning, but not are not nearly as effective at blocking UVA rays, which cause more subtle damage, including ageing. Spending hours in the sun covered in sunscreen still results in skin damage.
Quite a few chemicals often found in suncreens do give a reason for concern. We simply don’t want them in our bodies.
- Certain chemicals like parabens, homosalate, octyl-dimethyl-PABA, 4-methyl-benzylidenecamphor, and octyl-methoxycinnamate mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. Such chemicals are known as endocrine disruptors, and as expected, have been shown to accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells.
- Many sunscreens contain known allergens, like p-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), PABA derivatives, anthranilates, salicylates, cinnamates, benzophenones, and dibenzoylmethane derivatives.
- Nanoparticles like zinc and titanium oxide absorb UV rays, but as a result, release free radicals in your body. It was once believed that these chemicals remained on the skin and weren’t absorbed, and thus posed no risk to humans, but other research has emerged that refutes these claims.
In animal research, the application and illumination of these nanoparticles has been shown to alter DNA and increase the risk of skin cancer. Scientists dub these types of chemicals “photocarcinogenic,” meaning they can cause cancer after they are exposed to light.
Some suncreens are advertised as “non-nano”, but these claims are misleading. Sizes of particles vary, but nearly all ingredients in sunscreens would qualify as nanomaterials under the general definition.
- More than 20% of sunscreens contain a form of vitamin A such as retinol, retinoic acid, or retinyl palmitate to purportedly slow skin ageing. According to research conducted by the US National Toxicology Program, these forms of vitamin A increase the risk of skin cancer when topically applied and illuminated.
The SPF rating system is also problematic. Just like how people used to believe that “low-fat” meant a food was automatically healthier, many assume that the higher the SPF number, or sun protection factor, the better the protection.
Ironically, the actual protection from the sun’s rays changes very little as SPF increases. SPF 50 will block about 98% of the rays, and SPF 100 about 99%. 100 is not twice as effective as 50, as many people assume, which is why the FDA said that offering high-SPF products is misleading.
Not only that, but the higher the SPF is, the higher the concentrations of the troubling chemicals are. Yup, all a high-SPF product does is increase the health risk while providing basically no protective benefits.
As if all the above isn’t enough to find alternative ways to protect yourself from sunburns, there’s more.
If we’re talking about how the sun affects our bodies, then we have to talk about vitamin D as well.
As you may know, our body can’t produce vitamin D without sun exposure, and this molecule plays a much larger role in fighting disease than we once thought. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of developing a wide variety of diseases, such as osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, some cancers, type 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosis, tuberculosis and even the flu.
Well, according to research published by the Center for Disease Control in 2011, 8% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, and 25% are considered “at risk” of a deficiency. Other research published in 2010 showed that nearly 70% of breast-fed babies were vitamin D deficient at one month, which can be particularly harmful considering how important this vitamin is in overall health and development.
Now, when our skin is exposed to UVB rays, they interact with a form of cholesterol in the body to produce vitamin D. The more skin that is exposed to the sun, and the stronger its rays, the more vitamin D you produce. Research has shown that, with 25% of our skin exposed, our bodies can produce upwards of 400 IUs of vitamin D in just 3-6 minutes of exposure to the 12 PM Florida sun.
How much vitamin D should we be getting every day, though?
According to the Institute of Medicine, 600 IU per day is adequate for ages 1-70 (and 800 IU per day for 71+), but these numbers have been severely criticized by scientists that specialized in vitamin D research. They call attention to the over 125 peer-reviewed studies that indicate such recommendations are too low, and are likely to lead to vitamin D deficiencies.
A committee of the U.S. Endocrine Society recently convened to review the evidence, and concluded that 600-1,000 IU per day is adequate for ages 1-18, and 1,500-2,000 IU per day is adequate for ages 19+.
Considering the fact that overdosing isn’t likely to occur until intake skyrockets to 40,000 IU per day for several months, or 300,000 IU in a 24-hour period, these are very safe recommendations.
So, as you can see, with just 15-20 minutes of exposure to the sun each day, your body can produce most, if not all, of the vitamin D it needs. But not if you’re wearing sunscreen.
Because sunscreen significantly reduces your body’s vitamin D production while you’re in the sun. So, it not only presents health risks, it basically negates a huge health benefit we derive from sun exposure.
If your diet is low in vitamin D, if you don’t supplement with it, and if you religiously wear sunscreen when you’re in the sun, there’s a very good chance you’re deficient, and will benefit from raising your levels. You can raise them by going in the sun a bit every day if possible, or by supplementing–there’s no evidence that once is ultimately “better” than the other in this regard.
I’m not in the sun much–maybe 30 minutes, twice per week–so I just supplement with 5,000 IU of vitamin D per day to keep my levels within the healthy range. In case you’re interested, here’s the exact product I use:
This exact product isn’t available on Amazon.co.uk, but NOW Foods’ is:
So if chemical sunscreens are best to avoid, how can we naturally, safely protect ourselves from sunburn?
There are several ways:
- The easiest and most obvious way to prevent burning is to limit your skin’s exposure to the sun using clothing. For instance, a shirt provides SPF protection of about 5, which is, ironically, higher than under-applied SPF 100 sunscreen. A hat is an easy way to protect your face.
- Coconut oil applied topically helps prevent skin damage from sun exposure. It doesn’t block nearly as much radiation as chemical sunscreens, but if applied regularly, it can help extend the amount of time you can remain in the sun before having to cover up. Many people also buy non-nano zinc oxide powder to mix with the oil, which greatly enhances the UVB (sunburn-causing) protection.
- Make sure your vitamin D levels are in a healthy range. Research has shown that vitamin D increases sun tolerance and protection against skin damage. Nature’s characteristic elegance at work.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids. Yet another reason to make sure you’re getting enough of these wonder molecules: research has shown that higher blood concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids protect the skin against sun damage and decrease the risk of sunburn.
- Increase your intake of antioxidants, whether by food or supplementation. As we would expect, the very nature of antioxidants protect the skin against sun-induced damage (they counter the effects of free radicals that result from sun exposure, and which cause sunburn).
- Increase your intake of fruits and veggies. Vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, and other dark, leafy greens all contain molecules (in addition to antioxidants) that help protect the skin against sun damage.
So, there we have it. I hope this article helps you enjoy the summer sun safely and healthily!