As winter turns to spring, our thoughts turn to getting outdoors, and lots of time in the sun. How much sun should we get? Let’s consider some controversial, new research about widely accepted guidelines for sun exposure. Can an argument be made that these guidelines are wrong, unscientific, and driven in part by a cosmetic industry awash in profits from their sunscreen products?
Sunlight is key to a healthy lifestyle. It has much to do with vitamin D, which is actually a hormone that the skin manufactures with the aid of sunlight. Sunscreen or sunblock obstructs our body’s vitamin D production. The trend now is to minimize our exposure to the sun. But what of the resulting deficit in vitamin D? Most healthcare providers advise that diet and vitamin D supplements serve to fill the gap. In any event, the American Academy of Dermatology has zero-tolerance for sun exposure, urging the use of sunscreen year-round.
At the same time, most healthcare providers agree that it’s nearly impossible for us to get vitamin D in sufficient amounts from diet.
As for supplements? This is a $30 billion industry in the U.S., but studies continue to show that virtually all the nutrition supplements we take, such as vitamins C and E, fish oil, glucosamine, chondroitin, selenium and beta-carotene, we fail to absorb adequately. They essentially go right through us. The same is true for vitamin D supplements — they fail us miserably.
Low levels of vitamin D pose serious problems. Many of our biological processes depend on it – not only calcium absorption and the bone health that goes with it, but also protecting us against diabetes, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, cancer, osteoporosis, heart attack, autoimmune conditions, and much more. Yet the old rules persist: lather on the sunscreen and make up the vitamin D loss from pills.
The sunscreen/sunblock industry overall has a poor record. After years on the market, it turns our that the once prized, basic ingredient of sunscreen, oxybenzone, is found to disrupt hormones and turns up in users’ blood and breast milk. With evidence mounting that it also has been altering the DNA of coral reefs, and killing them, oxybenzone has been banned in Hawaii and the island nation of Palau. The industry scrambles to change ingredients, assuring us not to worry. But with the inadequacy of vitamin D supplements, does sunblock still make sense?
While it’s clear that sunburns are harmful, particularly during childhood and adolescence, what about sensible sun exposure in general? Unblocked exposure to sunlight releases other compounds we need, such as endorphins and serotonin. In fact, research by a noted dermatologist, Richard Weller of the University of Edinborough Medical School, found that exposing volunteers in 2010 to 30 minutes of sunlight, without sunscreen, raised their levels of nitric oxide, which in turn brought their blood pressure down. High blood pressure is a leading cause of disease worldwide, connected as it is to heart disease, stroke, renal failure, etc.
Skin cancer, which excessive exposure to sun can also cause, interestingly kills few people in the U.S., less than 3 per 100,000. But 300 per 100,000 die from cardiovascular disease. Dr. Weller reports that most skin cancers are almost never fatal except for the one deadly type, melanoma, which accounts for about 1 to 3 percent of new skin cancers.
And according to Weller, while the “risk factor for melanoma” appears to be “intermittent sunshine and sunburn, especially when you are young,” he cites “increasing evidence that long-term sun exposure associates with less melanoma.” This explains, he reports, why tanned people have lower melanoma rates in general, and why outdoor workers have half the melanoma rate of indoor workers.
Meanwhile, American dermatologists adhere to what some contend are questionable rules about avoiding sun. Consider a recent, opposite position in the recommendation of one of their professional counterparts, the British Association of Dermatologists: “Enjoying the sun safely, while taking care not to burn, can help to provide the benefits of vitamin D without unduly raising the risk of skin cancer.” Australia’s skin specialists as well advise that sun protection “is not recommended unless near snow or other reflective surfaces,” conclude that there are substantial benefits from a few minutes of direct sun exposure each day even in the height of summer.
Add to this the work of Pelle Lindqvist, a senior research fellow at Sweden’s Nobel Prize winning Karolinska Institute. He tracked the sunbathing habits of 30,000 women in Sweden over 20 years, and came up with some compelling findings, not the least of which was that sun avoiders were twice as likely to die prematurely from disease as sun worshippers. His work was the subject of a peer reviewed, carefully scrutinized article published in 2016 in the Journal of Internal Medicine, which stated in no uncertain terms, “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor of a similar magnitude as smoking, in terms of life expectancy.”
So what do we conclude from this conflicting science? Is the American Academy’s approach correct, as they state it, “All people, regardless of skin color, should protect themselves from the sun’s harmful, ultraviolet rays by seeking shade, wearing protective clothing, and using a broad spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher?”
Or is this another instance where we are being told to replace something natural with some artificial pill or product that is sure to improve our health, that again turns out to be wrong precisely because we didn’t have enough information? Recall, if you will, another example, when the medical profession, in league with the manufacturers of margarine, condemned something as basic as butter, insisting that the 32 synthetic chemicals in margarine posed safer, better nutrition for all of us, a position abandoned years later.
How much “unblocked” sunlight is good for each of us is a personal health decision. Would you believe there’s even an app for this! The Dminder app considers body weight, age, and exact amount of exposed skin to help you decide what amount of sunlight produces adequate and natural vitamin D. With common sense and reasonable caution, sunshine as part of a healthy lifestyle could prove to be one of this world’s truly magnificent blessings.