November 04, 2019


A new perspective could change how you look at the sun


Since sunscreen went commercial in the 1930’s we’ve had a growing obsession with protecting our skin from the sun’s rays. We know that overexposure to sun has been linked to skin cancer and signs of premature aging of the skin. Slathering sunscreen on our skin has been marketed as one of the best ways to protect ourselves, and many healthcare providers worldwide recommend a zero-tolerance approach to sun exposure.  

But there is growing evidence that sunscreen may not be all it’s cracked up to be, and the sun may not be our enemy.

The sunscreen revolution

Civilizations around the world have traditionally used local ingredients like rice, plants, spices, and even olive oil to protect them from sunburn. It seems we’ve always known that sunburn should be avoided. But it’s only fairly recently that we started avoiding the sun altogether. Commercial sunscreens made an entrance in the 1930’s, and you may remember advertisements from the 60s-70s that positioned it as more of a tool to achieve a better tan than protection from skin cancer.

But when evidence that sun exposure was tied to skin cancer hit the news, the sunscreen market boomed. Today’s stores carry shelf after shelf of options ranging from lotions to oils, from SPF 2 to SPF 100. And we’ve all bought it for years.

The vitamin D issue

Blocking out the sun’s rays had an unintended result: vitamin D deficiency. Vitamin D is a hormone created by your skin with the help of direct sunlight. It is needed for bone health, muscle and nerve function, and your immune system. Studies also tied low levels of vitamin D to a laundry list of disease: heart disease, cancer, obesity, depression, diabetes, and more.

In an age where indoor jobs are common and we don’t always see the sun on workdays, blocking the little bit of sun available to us proved to cause more problems than it solved.

So, we turned to supplements to fix the health issues allegedly caused by vitamin D deficiency.

But what if sunscreen and vitamin D supplements aren’t the right answer? What if we’re looking at the whole issue from the wrong point of view?

The problem with sunscreen

Today’s sunscreens raise a lot of questions and plenty of public outrage. Modern formulations are mostly made of chemicals, some of which have been shown to damage DNA or the environment. You only must turn to social media to see how many people are concerned about the chemical makeup of sunscreen. Some of the common ingredients have been found to be hormone disruptors and have been found in blood, amniotic fluid, urine, and breast milk of sunscreen users.

Another common ingredient, oxybenzone, attacks the DNA of coral and may be contributing to the death of coral reefs. For that reason, oxybenzone has been banned in the state of Hawaii and in Palau, in the western Pacific Ocean.

Despite chemical bans and public concern, there is little international consensus on which chemicals are safe for humans or the environment. Some that are banned in the European Union, for example, are allowed in the United States and Australia.

Sunscreen safety is not going to be solved overnight, so what do we do in the meantime? We still need to protect our skin from the sun and get our vitamin D in a pill, right?

Maybe not. A new theory is rethinking that solution.

What if vitamin D isn’t the culprit?

Research contradicting the vitamin D approach started making waves over five years ago. While vitamin D truly is crucial for bone health, clinical trials have shown that supplementing with the vitamin has no effect on preventing stroke, heart disease, or cancer.

So, the question is: if low levels of vitamin D are tied to these diseases, why aren’t supplements helping?

Dr. Richard Weller of the University of Edinburgh and others have a theory.

A new theory about sun exposure

Weller and other researchers around the world believe that sun exposure is the key to better health, not vitamin D. While sun exposure does in fact cause higher levels of vitamin D, the vitamin itself may simply be a byproduct.

In his research, Dr. Weller discovered that skin doesn’t only make vitamin D with the help of sunlight — it also works with sunlight to produce nitric oxide. Nitric oxide dilates the body’s blood vessels, which lowers blood pressure as a result. Lower blood pressure, in turn, lowers the risk of heart disease. We lose that benefit when we shut out the sun.

Sunlight also works with your body to make endorphins, often called happiness chemicals, and serotonin which helps with mood regulation, sleep, and several of the body’s other important functions.

Sunlight, not vitamin D.

But what about skin cancer?

Would it surprise you to know that far more people die from heart disease (more than 1 per minute, according to the CDC) than from skin cancer every year (2 per hour, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation)? Are we saving ourselves from skin cancer at a higher cost to our heart health?

It might also surprise you to know that a study in Sweden found that, while women who regularly spent time in the sun did have more melanoma, they also had lower risk of heart disease, fewer blood clots, and less diabetes than sun avoiders. Those who did develop melanoma were also much less likely to die from it than those who avoided the sun. The study concluded that sun avoidance creates a risk factor similar to that of smoking.

Why? One theory is that steady, regular exposure to sun is less damaging than the intermittent sunburns that are more common in people who aren’t used to the sun. Think of people who spend most of the year working indoors, who then go to the beach once or twice a year and suffer fantastic burns. Compared to someone who gets enough regular exposure that they don’t burn.

The evidence is convincing some

Despite the anti-sun movement of the past few decades, some of the world’s sunniest countries have adopted a more balanced approach to sun exposure.

In 2005, Cancer Council Australia, backed by Australasian College of Dermatologists, recommended being cautious while getting enough sunlight to maintain vitamin D levels. They also noted that sun exposure may have a positive effect on blood pressure, mood, and autoimmune disease.

Australia and New Zealand both give specific recommendations to the public regarding sun protection based on the UV index.

On the less sunny side, the British Association of Dermatologists also supports sun exposure for health, with precautions about sunburn.

What does this mean for us?

Until science has firm answers, we are left to decide for ourselves who to believe.

Whether you stick with a zero-tolerance policy or let more sun into your life might depend on your personal beliefs, your healthcare provider’s advice, or your personal health history. You might ask yourself:

  • Do I have a history of skin cancer?
  • Do I have a history of heart disease?
  • How much sun do I normally get?
  • How does my skin normally react to sun exposure?

What’s most clear is that we need to proceed with caution, make informed decisions, and be open to change if the scientific evidence changes.


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