Busting four common myths about skin cancer, SPF, and the sun’s rays
Now that summer is in full swing, you’re probably being bombarded with advice to slather yourself in sunscreen. But before you slap on the SPF 100, I’d like to expose some huge medical myths about sun exposure, sunscreen, and skin cancer.
Medical myth #1: Stay out of the sun as much as possible
A few years ago, a striking study about the importance of sun exposure came out of Sweden. Interestingly, Sweden is the land of the “midnight sun,” a natural phenomenon where the sun never sets (north of the Arctic Circle) during the summer months. Let’s take a look at their findings.
Researchers at the Karolinska Institute followed 30,000 women for over 20 years. And what they discovered turns “conventional medical wisdom” on its head. The researchers found that women who avoided sun exposure were twice as likely to succumb to all-cause mortality compared to women who got the most sun.1
In my opinion, the big reason these mortality rates differ so much is the fact that avoiding the sun blocks the body’s natural ability to make vitamin D.
So especially in places like Sweden and the U.S., where vitamin D deficiency is at epidemic levels, not getting enough sun can put you at risk for fatal diseases that vitamin D helps prevent—including cardiovascular disease, dementia, diabetes, tuberculosis and lung diseases, and more.
And we now know that the “sunshine vitamin,” as it’s often called, also protects against cancer—including skin cancer.
Which leads me to another myth…
Medical myth #2: Sun exposure gives you skin cancer
According to the American Cancer Society, you only have a 2.6 percent risk of getting melanoma—the truly deadly form of skin cancer—regardless of how long you stay out in the sun.2
In fact, Dr. Wally Clark once told me personally (while his grand-daughter was attending grade school with my daughter) that melanoma is NOT caused by spending time in the sun.
If you’re not familiar, he’s best known for devising what is now a standard dermato-pathological examination method, called the “Clark’s level.” His system is used to classify the severity of malignant melanoma skin cancer based on how deeply it penetrates the layers of the skin. Needless to say, Dr. Clark really knows his stuff…
Furthermore, research shows that men and women with low blood levels of vitamin D are four to five times more likely to develop thicker, more dangerous, malignant melanoma tumors compared to men and women with higher levels.3
In other words, soaking up more sun can actually reduce your chances of getting the deadliest type of skin cancer.
Dr. Bernard Ackerman, another world expert on melanoma—whom I met when I was in medical and pathology training during the early 1980s—said as much in a 2004 New York Times article titled, “I beg to differ; A dermatologist who’s not afraid to sit on the beach.”4
Not only did Dr. Ackerman say the link between melanoma and sun exposure was “not proven,” but he called the sun/melanoma research field “replete with nonsense.”
He also made this important observation: “Anyone who argues that sun exposure causes melanoma needs to explain why blacks and Asians get melanoma almost exclusively on skin that is not exposed to sunlight: the palms, soles, nails, and mucous membranes. Even in whites, the most common melanoma sites—the leg in women, the trunk in men—are hardly the most sun-exposed body parts.”
Furthermore, Dr. Ackerman pointed out that there’s no evidence that getting sunburned leads to skin cancer. He also had some salient points about sunscreen, which brings me to my third myth…
Medical myth #3: Sunscreen protects you from cancer
In the New York Times article, Dr. Ackerman noted that no study has ever shown that using sunscreen reduces the risk of getting skin cancer (as others have also noted). And yet, the FDA allows manufacturers to make that claim only on the basis that sunscreens effectively block the sun’s UV rays (even if they don’t actually prevent skin cancer).
It’s similar to the situation with statin drugs, which are FDA-approved on the basis of their (questionably beneficial) ability to effectively block cholesterol—but not on the basis of actually preventing heart disease!
On the other hand, there’s evidence that sunscreen can actually make you more susceptible to melanoma.
In another Swedish study published back in 2000, researchers found that there was a link between sunscreen use and increased rates of melanoma. That finding doesn’t seem surprising when you consider how many sunscreens contain toxic, carcinogenic, and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.5
Elizabeth Plourde, Ph.D., has conducted extensive research on sunscreen chemicals documenting the parallel rise of skin cancers and the widespread use of sunscreens over the past 30 years. In fact, she’s written a book on it aptly titled: Sunscreens—Biohazard: Treat as Hazardous Waste.6
One of the most disturbing findings Dr. Plourde reveals is that many sunscreens don’t block UVA or infrared rays—the solar rays commonly linked with melanoma.
So whether you’re in the sun for five minutes or five hours, your sunscreen is likely useless at protecting you from the deadliest skin cancer.
Which leads me to my final myth…
Medical myth #4: Skin cancer is increasing because more people are sunbathing for longer
Sun worshipping became a fad in the 1960s and continued until the 1980s—before the sunblock craze caught on. These generations have now entered the prime age for increased incidence of skin cancer.
So skin cancer rates should still be going up, right? Wrong. Skin cancer rates are actually decreasing.
Of course, sunscreen manufacturers want you to think this drop is due in part to their products, but the timing doesn’t really work out for them.
A breakthrough French analysis (where they know a thing or two about baring skin on the beach) found that the sun-worshipping generation of the 1960s was behind a dramatic increase in melanoma years ago—not due to more sun exposure, but because they were exposed to (what were then recommended) medical ultraviolet radiation treatments when they were children.7
The French researchers showed that the increase in skin cancer observed during the late 20th century was not due to increased sun exposure on more exposed skin, but to these ridiculous medical treatments, which were fortunately stopped by the 1950s, during this particular generation’s childhood years.
Now, we’re seeing the rates of melanoma deaths leveling off among people 50 to 69 years old, who exposed even more skin when they were young adults. And decreasing in people younger than 50, who are baring more than ever.
(If you’d like to read more about this intriguing study, simply click here.)
How to safely enjoy the benefits of a sun-kissed glow
Bottom line: When it comes to melanoma skin cancer, sun isn’t the problem—and sunblock isn’t the be-all, end-all solution.
Strive to spend 15 minutes in the sun without sunscreen. Add 15 minutes more each day, and expose as much of your skin as possible. Eventually, you’ll develop a natural, healthy tan and will be able to stay out in the sun as long as you want.
You do, however, want to avoid getting a sunburn—not because of melanoma, but because it’s painful and will end up limiting your time in the sun. You can tell if your skin is irritated by pressing down on a red area and observing whether it blanches white. If you have red hair and the kind of skin pigmentation that shows freckles but just won’t tan, sun protection is for you. You can make your own natural, non-toxic skin blocker, as I described last month in a Daily Dispatch.
So as the sunny days of summer continue, take a trip to the beach or the pool, and soak up the sun without fear. But don’t forget to keep taking your vitamin D supplements especially since autumn is on its way.
Always supplement daily with 10,000 IU of vitamin D. Your body is able to store any excess D away for a rainy day (literally and metaphorically). That way, you’ll enjoy the endless, lifesaving benefits of vitamin D not only now, but year-round.
1“Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for all-cause mortality: results from the Melanoma in Southern Sweden cohort.” J Intern Med. 2014 Jul;276(1):77-86.
3“Vitamin D deficiency at melanoma diagnosis is associated with higher Breslow thickness,” PLoS One. 2015 May 13;10(5):e0126394.
5”Sunscreen use and malignant melanoma.” Int J Cancer. 2000 Jul 1;87(1):145-50.