In the US, about 87,000 new cases of melanoma are diagnosed and about 10,000 melanoma-related deaths occur each year. Melanoma is the least common and most dangerous form of skin cancer. Other skin cancers are more benign, more common, yet still painful, costly, and worrisome.
Why, after years of sun-risk awareness, is this still such an issue? Why, when many of us use sunscreen throughout the year, even if we never see the sun, are skin cancers still the most common cancers in the US? There are two issues here: sunscreen blocks the essential nutrient Vitamin D, and sunscreen fails to protect your cells from the DNA damage that can eventually lead to the development of skin cancer.
According to a review of sunscreens by the Environmental Working Group, 75% of sunscreens contain ingredients that may actually increase the risk of skin cancers. When these chemicals are applied to the skin and then exposed to sunlight, they cause the generation of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) that are highly damaging to cellular DNA. Unfortunately, higher SPF sunscreens contain higher amounts of these chemicals.
Most sunscreens prevent sunburn by preventing the inflammation of the skin. However, they do not prevent the cellular DNA damage that can occur, even without the presence of the burn. Sunburn is actually your body’s way of telling you that it is past the time to get out of the sun.
The fact of the matter is that we NEED the sun and the UV exposure to improve our health, and PREVENT skin cancers.
The most important nutrient we get from the sun is Vitamin D. Vitamin D is actually a hormone which helps us absorb Calcium. Vitamin D has always been an important component of bone health and is used to prevent and treat Osteomalacia, Rickets, and Osteoporosis (the reason that milk has been fortified with Vitamin D). In recent years, however, we have been inundated with research proving that Vitamin D is much more important than we thought. Not only is it important for our bones, it is important for our overall health.
Vitamin D deficiency is now thought to be a major contributor in many diseases. Autoimmune diseases such as Rheumatoid Arthritis, Multiple Sclerosis, and Diabetes are higher in those deficient in Vitamin D. Women who avoid the sun are more likely to have menopausal symptoms, PMS, fertility issues, and breast cancer. Higher rates of heart disease, including heart attacks, stroke and congestive heart failure are linked to deficiency. Vitamin D deficiency is also associated with mood disorders such as depression and Seasonal Affective Disorders, memory loss, migraines, back pain, and any kind of chronic pain. The list goes on and on.
While we may drink our fortified milk and take our multivitamins, we are still falling short of our daily Vitamin D needs. The current Recommended Daily Allowance set by the FDA for Vitamin D is 400IU, which is a typical dosage in a multivitamin. Researchers now think that our actual requirements are more along the lines of 1000 IU to 4000 IU a day. This is far above what most people are getting.
It is obvious to me that if we are finding that an overwhelming majority of our population is deficient in this valuable nutrient, we need to find a way to get more of it. The more we can normalize our Vitamin D levels, the more diseases we can prevent. While supplementing with a high quality Vitamin D is effective and necessary in some cases, we can certainly get Vitamin D the way nature intended and get a little tan.
The debate goes on between the safety of the sun and the risks of developing skin cancer, a very real and scary disease. While I am not a fan of bathing myself, my kids, and my patients in the chemicals in sunscreen, I do fear skin cancer (and wrinkles) like the rest of you. However, I also think that the benefits of being tan outweigh the risks of Vitamin D deficiency.
My solution? Skip the sunscreen, and expose your skin and your eyes to the sunlight. Instead, work your skin up to a nice healthy glow by starting with five minutes of unprotected sun exposure a day and gradually, without getting sunburned, work up to an hour of unprotected sun exposure each day. This should provide you with adequate Vitamin D to prevent a myriad of very serious health issues while protecting you from skin cancer.
When necessary, use clothing to cover up and a safe physical sunblock like zinc oxide to protect yourself from excessive UV exposure.