Updated: Mar 12, 2019
What About Sunlight Causing Skin Cancer?
It’s ironic with the prevalent use of sunscreens over the last few decades, that there is a huge rise in cases of skin cancer. It is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. Research has shown that most sunscreens do not block the UVA rays that cause melanoma, the fatal skin cancer. Not only that, many popular agents used in sunscreen products may have toxic properties, especially when you consider the recommended reapplication of these synthetic chemicals to your porous skin. When exposed to sunlight for too long, you can get a sunburn and consequently sun damage which increase your risk of having skin cancer. However, no scientific evidence links regular moderate sun exposure to any form of skin cancer—only excessive sun exposure presents a skin cancer risk, and even then mainly for carcinoma—the easily treatable condition—and not melanoma, the far more serious condition.
So, How is Exposure to Sunlight Healthy?
Okay, we might get a little “sciency” with this. Sun exposure on the body is a crucial mechanism for vitamin D synthesis. Within our epidermis, enzymatic “biofactories” convert cholesterol derivatives to vitamin D when UVB rays from sunlight hit our bare skin. The newly created vitamin D is then distributed to receptors located within cells throughout our body.
Why Is Vitamin D Important?
Vitamin D helps regulate growth in virtually every cell in our body, and plays a central role in metabolizing calcium and improving the absorption of key nutrients including vitamins A and C; strengthening immunity, cardiac, renal, and neurological function; and gene expression. Recent studies cite vitamin D deficiency as the root cause of other health complaints such as depression, fibromyalgia, and muscle and joint pain.
Vitamin D switches on approximately 2000 genes, triggering elevated levels of feel-good hormones like beta-endorphins and serotonin. Vitamin D also works to regulate cell growth and renewal, particularly by acting on the crucial P53 gene, which is responsible for overseeing hundreds of millions of daily cell replications by informing cells when something has gone awry and instructing them to make necessary changes. It is also involved the natural self-destruction of extra or damaged cells before they become malignant. In the absence of vitamin D, the P53 gene will turn off and the risk of many forms of cancer, including melanoma, dramatically increases.
Can’t I Just Take a Vitamin D Supplement Instead?
Today’s indoor-dominant lifestyles coupled with successful campaigns to control sun exposure through avoidance and sun protection have resulted in a widespread vitamin D deficiency—according to a 2009 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, 77 percent of Americans have insufficient levels of vitamin D. Sun exposure is by far the preferred and predominant method of obtaining healthy levels of vitamin D. You can manufacture multiples more vitamin D from sun exposure than from an optimal vitamin D diet and aggressive supplement regimen. Also, vitamin D from sun exposure is stored longer in your body than vitamin D from dietary or supplementation. A 30-minute sunbathing session on a summer day can produce around 10,000 IU of vitamin D. Even consuming a diet high in D-rich foods (oily coldwater fish, leafy green, shiitake mushrooms) might only deliver 1000 IU on a good day. That being said, during winter months when UV intensity is low, and for those who live at a latitude north of the US/Canadian border, especially darker skinned individuals, where the sun’s rays are intense enough to manufacture vitamin D for only 3 months out of the year, supplementing and a diet high in vitamin D can be extremely useful to maintaining healthy blood levels of the nutrient year-round. A typical capsule might dispense 2000 IU, and since vitamin D can be easily stored in the skin you can take several pills at a time with no ill effects. In the winter months, an average of 2000 IUs per day is recommended.
How Much Sun Exposure Should I Get?
There are a number of variables obtaining optimal sun exposure that influence the manufacturing of vitamin D including skin pigment, time of day, time of year, latitude, amount of pollution in the air, and reflectiveness of your surrounding’s surface.
Melanin is a natural chemical in our body that protects our skin from excess solar radiation (UVA ultraviolet light), so the more melanin you have, the more you can enjoy risk-free sun exposure. The darker the natural coloring of your skin, hair, and eyes, the more melanin pigment you possess. Those with red hair and extremely fair skin have difficulty manufacturing melanin. If you have fair-to-medium skin pigment, you can synthesize vitamin D much quicker and easier than a darker-skinned person, but you also burn easily.
Dr. Michael Holick, author of The Vitamin D Solution and one of the world’s leading authorities on vitamin D health, recommends a maximum safe sun exposure time of half the amount of time it takes for you to sustain a slight (pink) sunburn that is noticeable 24 hours later as the benchmark—which he refers to as one minimal erythemal dose (1 MED). Dr. Holick, and other vitamin D advocates, recommend a minimum exposure pattern of 25 to 50 percent of 1 MED over 25 to 50 percent of your skin, two to three times per week, during the time of year and time of day (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) solar intensity is at its peak at your latitude. A good in-season strategy, represented by the maintenance of a slight tan, should provide enough vitamin D cycling through your body year-round. Sun-obtained vitamin D, incidentally, lasts twice as long in our body as a vitamin D supplement of the same amount.
Is Sunscreen My Friend Or Foe?
As mentioned in the opening of this blog, many sunscreens contain toxic chemicals—Octyl methozxycinnamate and titanium dioxide are common synthetic chemicals found in the majority of sunscreen products—and most sunscreens do not block the UVA rays that cause melanoma. If you must be in the sun for extended periods of time, it is far more preferable to cover up with clothing. As a backup to clothing for protection, use a premium sunscreen that protects against UVA, UVB, and the newly described UVC rays, such as Neutrogena’s Helioplex or an opaque zinc-based cream that blocks all rays entirely—I use Trader Joe’s Non-Nano Zinc Oxide Mineral Sunscreen Stick to protect small areas i.e. face (especially nose and lips), tops of feet/hands. I also make my own zinc-oxide base sunscreen, for larger body parts, that contains only natural and safe ingredients, but it is not waterproof, so it must be reapplied when sweating, and immediately after swimming. This is a fun and fairly unknown fact about coconut oil—it is a natural SPF of 4-8!
I wrote this blog with the sole intention to provide my readers with useful, true and accurate information on the critical role sunlight plays in our health. Sensible sun exposure is the key! I hope this writing helps you apply healthy behaviors surrounding getting optimal sunlight—body solar power!!!
Feel free to respond to this blog with your comments, or contact me with questions or feedback.