Sunscreen vs. Cancer vs. Vitamin D

by Ryan Wanger on August 31, 2009 · 14 comments

My entire life, I’ve been told over and over and over: exposure to the sun causes cancer. But what if it were the other way around? Exposure to sunlight actually prevents cancer?!?

I’ll describe this in more detail shortly, but first, a quick summary:

  • Plenty of studies have reported that Vitamin D prevents many types of cancer
  • Sunlight accounts for up to 75% of our daily Vitamin D intake
  • Skin cancer rates for Caucasians in the US have almost tripled in the last 30 years. The rate for African Americans has actually decreased.
  • On a state by state basis, the sunniest states do not have the highest rates of skin cancer

Now clearly, I am not a doctor, so consider this information and do your own research. And don’t necessarily trust doctors! For years they’ve recommended products which are later shown to be horrible for your body (cigarettes anyone?).

Vitamin D Seems to Prevent Cancer

While no one is staking their reputation on this, over and over and over again, studies are showing decreased cancer rates (for MANY types of common cancers, not just skin) in people with higher Vitamin D intakes. Many of the stories seem to hedge their bets (Vitamin D “may” prevent cancer), which I can understand. It’s hard to prove definitively in a study that spans decades and has an almost impossibly complex set of variables to control for.

Although the American Cancer Society says “evidence isn’t conclusive”, they admit the majority of studies they’ve analyzed agree that Vitamin D prevents cancer. They go on to say:

Many studies have looked at the relationship between cancer and vitamin D, but they have not been able to pinpoint exactly how vitamin D might influence cancer development..

Which leads to their specious conclusion that: “…it’s too soon to recommend taking vitamin D supplements for cancer prevention.” Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be too much risk of overdosing on vitamin D from exposure to the sun or a regular diet. Only excessive amounts of dietary supplements seem to have any potential downside. (Google “too much vitamin d”).

Caucasian Skin Cancer Rates Are Skyrocketing

Sunscreen started to become widespread in the 1950s, and our skin cancer rates (as well as all other types of cancer) have been exploding ever since. With all we “know” about skin cancer, why is a product like sunscreen, which is designed to prevent skin cancer, actually failing to do it’s job? Well, guess what? Sunscreen is filled with chemicals, often allows UVA rays to get through (which are primarily responsible for skin cancer), while blocking UVB rays - which provide us with lots of healthy vitamin D.

African American skin cancer rates have actually dropped during that time frame, and stand at about 1/17th of the incidents found in Caucasians. Remind me again why having darker skin is a sign of skin cancer?

More Sun Does Not Equal More Skin Cancer?

This map shows the daily amount of sun radiation received in a given location:

The next map, shows the rate of skin cancer by state:

Why don’t the states with more sun have more skin cancer? In fact, you’ll notice that many of the least sunny states have the highest rates of skin cancer (particularly the northeast and northwest). Perhaps the real problem is lack of sunlight?

How I Plan to Fight Cancer

After doing this research, I have a new plan: instead of fearing the sun, and applying sunscreen by default, I will only use sunscreen when I will be in the sun long enough to burn. Sunburns are definitely still something to avoid. Getting color in small doses is not. The sun is particularly less harmful early and late in the day, so I’ll probably only use sunscreen between 10am and 3pm.

When I do use sunscreen, I plan to use the most natural kind possible. The fewer chemicals that get absorbed into my skin the better obviously.

Anyone else following a similar plan?

{ 1 trackback }

Sunscreen vs. Cancer vs. Vitamin D ~ via Ryan Wanger. | elephant journal
09.11.09 at 10:20 am

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Beckie 08.31.09 at 12:57 pm

Great blog Ryan. I totally agree and don’t put sunscreen on (am super pale too…) unless it’s gonna be a burn day. I’m done in general with lotions of any kind, but especially if they have sunscreen protection. I’ll take my chances with the natural sun any day over a bunch of chemicals.

Tom Markiewicz 08.31.09 at 12:59 pm

I do something similar. When I know I’ll be in direct sun for a longer period of time, I apply sunscreen to my face, ears, neck and shoulders. Otherwise, the sun is good for you - but you’re absolutely right - the key is getting burned. But I’ve never read anywhere, anyone suggested it’s ok to get sunburn.

When I was in high school, I had a dermatologist recommend getting more sun to help with acne.

As with all things, moderation is likely the key!

Taylor Lynn Chase 08.31.09 at 2:46 pm

After living in Russia for a year, I’m still feeling Vitamin D deprived. Call me Icarus; I know it’s not a good idea, but for now I’ll take my chances with letting my skin get too close to the sun :o).

Mike 09.01.09 at 7:25 am

Consider also that the skin has the porosity of a sponge: whatever we rub on it gets absorbed and the liver has to deal with it. This concept applies to makeup, deoderant, even soap. A product can trumpet that it’s got aloe or any number of “natural” substances, but chances are it’s 90% chemicals, compounds that the body is not designed to process. This could help explain why the incidence of cancer is up, not down….

Aunt Ginger 09.02.09 at 6:39 pm

Hi Ryan:
I’m in complete agreement with you on the sunscreen/vitamin D issue.
However, some of the states in the south that have low skin cancer rates also are the states with high black populations, which might help to explain it.
Love ya, Aunt Ging

TheReluctantEater 09.02.09 at 10:43 pm

Excellent point Ginger. Maybe with some more research I can correct for this?

Jeanette 09.23.09 at 8:23 am

Great blog! I live in on the coast of Washington state, where there is very little sun compared to alot of other places in the US. Why then do we have a higher rate of not only skin cancer but other cancers and neurological diseases such as MS, Alzeimers, etc.. Not enough Vit D! We tend to slather on the sunscreen when the sun does come out. At the beginning of this summer I decided not to use sunscreen unless absolutely necessary. I use a sun hat and long sleeves if I must. I feel safer with nature than with man made chemicals on my skin.

TheReluctantEater 09.24.09 at 10:00 am

Great to hear Jeanette. Thanks for the comment!

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