Think sunscreen protects you from skin cancer? Think again. Get the real truth about the sun and skin health, and learn 5 ways to decrease your skin cancer risk in the sun!
This is Part 1 in a 2-part series about the sun and our skin.
Today we’re looking at what the science really says about the sun and skin cancer risk, and I’m sharing 5 practical steps to help you decrease your skin cancer risk in the sun this summer. In part 2, I’ll share a personal success story of how my entire family avoided sunburn last summer without using sunscreen!
So let’s jump in with a look at the latest research on the sun, vitamin D, and cancer risk. Some of it might surprise you.
THE REAL FACTS ABOUT THE SUN AND SKIN CANCER
First, the most obvious question…
IS THE SUN HEALTHY OR HARMFUL?
Extended exposure to UV rays – both UVA and UVB – can cause DNA damage, which could lead to cancer.
On the other hand, UVB rays provide 80% of the vitamin D we need each day. (Source) What’s more, world renowned Vitamin D expert Dr. Michael Holick points out that vitamin D made in the skin (via sun exposure) lasts at least twice as long in the blood as vitamin D ingested from the diet. (Source)
So not only is vitamin D from the sun a better source of vitamin D than foods are, it’s also more effective in our bodies because it lasts longer.
Quick Tip: Wild caught fish, pastured eggs, liver, and cod liver oil are all excellent food sources of vitamin D.
And just why is vitamin D such a big deal?
Vitamin D deficiency is widespread in the United States and has been linked to depression, impaired immune function, hormone disruption, diabetes, asthma, autism, and several major cancers (colorectal, breast, prostate, and pancreatic, to name a few). (Source) Sadly, vitamin D deficiency is said to account for 400,000 deaths every year. (Source)
Some doctors and researchers believe that many more beneficial processes than vitamin D absorption are taking place when we’re out in the sun, and many of them now conclude that the health benefits of moderate unprotected sun exposure greatly outweigh the risks.
BUT WHAT ABOUT FAIR SKINNED PEOPLE AND REDHEADS?
The same principle of moderate unprotected sun exposure for vitamin D applies, but research confirms that fair skinned individuals and redheads need less exposure than olive skinned individuals. (Source)
WHAT ABOUT AFRICAN AMERICANS AND DARKER SKINNED PEOPLE?
Again, the same rule of moderate unprotected exposure applies, but the higher concentration of melanin in darker skin tones increases the amount of sun exposure needed for adequate vitamin D absorption compared to lighter skinned individuals. (Source)
ARE TANNING BEDS OKAY?
No. Most tanning beds employ mainly UVA rays so there’s a higher risk of DNA damage with lower levels of beneficial vitamin D. The time most people spend in tanning beds also far exceeds the recommendations for sun exposure (see list of 5 Ways to Decrease Skin Cancer Risk in the Sun below). (Source)
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WHAT ABOUT SUNSCREEN?
Interestingly, both sunscreen use and skin cancer rates have increased simultaneously, which means the relationship isn’t exactly inverse like we once thought. (Source)
Some studies show that sunscreen protects against the less lethal squamous cell carcinoma of the skin, but results have been mixed when it comes to basal cell carcinoma and melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer. (Sources: 1, 2)
And, it turns out sunscreens can actually increase risk of skin cancer and other diseases in three main ways.
- Sunscreen use increases sunburns, due to the false sense of security that sunscreen gives to users, leading them to remain out in the sun longer, incurring more DNA damage. (Source)
- Many people use sunscreen daily to block even brief sun exposure. Unfortunately, this blocks vitamin D as well. In fact, many vitamin D researchers blame our overuse of sunscreen and modern indoor lifestyle for increased rates of vitamin D deficiency in recent years. (Source)
- Most commercial sunscreens are full of questionable chemicals, a number of which are actually linked to – you guessed it – cancer. (Source)
DOES DIET AFFECT SKIN CANCER RISK?
Yes it does! And that’s a perfect segway into our list of 5 ways to decrease skin cancer risk this summer!
5 WAYS TO DECREASE SKIN CANCER RISK IN THE SUN
1. Eat a whole foods diet rich in antioxidants + healthy fat
- Antioxidants from whole foods (think brightly colored fruits and vegetables) are better than antioxidant supplements at protecting against cancer. (Source)
- Lycopene from cooked and canned tomato products appears to be particularly protective. (Source)
- Vitamin D, in combination with other fat soluble vitamins like vitamins A and vitamin K, protect against multiple types of cancer as well as heart disease and other major chronic diseases. (Sources: 1, 2)
- Healthy fats, including omega-3’s from wild caught fish and seafood, monounsaturated fats from some plants and olive oil, and saturated fats from pastured animals, assist in skin healthy and regeneration. (Sources: 1, 2, 3)
- Avoid processed vegetable oils abundant in packaged foods (yes, even the “healthy” versions!). They increase inflammation and appear to increase risk for sun damage. Avoid canola, sunflower, soybean, and other vegetable oils on ingredient lists – especially if listed as hydrogenated, partially hydrogenated, or interesterified. (Source)
2. Get 15-20 minutes unprotected exposure midday
- This is the average time it takes to reach the “pink point”, when the skin just begins to turn pink, signaling enough vitamin D has been absorbed and DNA damage is about to begin. If you have lighter or darker skin, adjust this time accordingly to match your own “pink point.” (Source)
- Midday is when UVB rays – the best source of vitamin D – are most available, so you get maximum vitamin D absorption in the least time. (Source)
- Higher altitudes increase vitamin D
- Geography affects vitamin D availability during different seasons – closer to the equator, vitamin D absorption occurs year-round; the farther away you get, it’s possible only during summer months. (Source) Wild caught fish, pastured eggs, liver, and cod liver oil are all excellent food sources of vitamin D.
- Update 2018: I recently heard world renown vitamin D researcher, Dr. Michael Holick, advocate for very similar recommendations I’ve made here, but with the addition of wearing sunscreen on the face and hands since they get the most lifetime sun exposure and are some of the most common locations for the less deadly squamous cell carcinoma of the skin. So I’ve added nontoxic sunscreen to my face and hands if I’m going to be out in the direct sun for any significant length of time.
3. Cover Up + Move to the Shade at the “Pink Point”
- The “pink point” is when your skin just begins to turn pink, and indicates you’ve achieved the maximum amount of benefit from the sun. This is the skin’s warning signal to take cover before DNA damage ensues.
- Since sunscreen is unreliable for skin protection, experts advise covering up with UV protective clothing and moving into the shade. (Source)
4. Avoid Sunburn
- Ignoring the “pink point” and allowing sunburn is a sure sign of DNA damage.
- Lifetime number of sunburns is clearly linked to increased risk for skin cancer. (Source)
5. Use Nontoxic Sunscreen as a Back Up
- If covering up and moving to the shade aren’t options, definitely apply nontoxic sunscreen with SPF 30 to minimize sun damage. Badger brand sunscreens have worked well for my family, but I also love the quality and performance of Beauty Counter sunscreens.
- Always keep sunscreen on hand during long days at the pool, beach, or water park.
Still skeptical about going out without sunscreen?
Read Part 2 of this series where I share my own family’s story of applying these exact principles to avoid sunburn all summer long without using sunscreen!
Disclaimer: Information on this site is intended only for informational purposes and is not a substitute for medical advice. Always consult with a trusted healthcare provider before implementing significant dietary change. Read additional disclaimer info here.