Sunlight causes your skin to produce vitamin D -- a fact that, ironically, means that sunscreen campaigns may have made millions of people chronically short of this critical nutrient, and put them at a greater risk of skin cancer, rather than reducing their risk.
Research shows that a very low level of vitamin D is a major risk factor for melanoma. This flies in the face of the idea that it is too much sun that increases your melanoma risk.
According to Professor Angus Dalgleish, writing in the Daily Mail:
“Research shows that a large percentage of people in the UK are deficient in vitamin D partly because we can’t make any from the sun for about six months of the year ... I’d like to see all other cancer units automatically checking their patients’ blood levels. It’s cheap and quick and I guarantee they would be amazed at just how low many were.”
It may sound shocking that the sun -- demonized for decades as the cause of skin cancer -- may actually help protect you from the same fate when sensible exposures are used. There is compelling evidence to support this.
How the Sun Helps Protect You from Skin Cancer
Several studies have confirmed that appropriate sun exposure actually helps prevent skin cancer. In fact, melanoma occurrence has been found to decrease with greater sun exposure, and can be increased by sunscreens.
One such study revealed that melanoma patients who had higher levels of sun exposure were less likely to die than other melanoma patients, and patients who already had melanoma and got a lot of sun exposure were prone to a less aggressive tumor type.
Another Italian study, published in the European Journal of Cancer in June 2008, also confirms and supports earlier studies showing improved survival rates in melanoma patients who were exposed to sunlight more frequently in the time before their melanoma was diagnosed.
Also, melanoma is actually more common in indoor workers than in outdoor workers, and is more common on regions of your body that are not exposed to the sun at all. UVB radiation has been found to delay the appearance of melanoma if you are genetically predisposed or prone to skin cancer.
Why is the sun so beneficial?
Because it's through sunlight exposure that your body is able to produce vitamin D -- and optimized vitamin D levels are key to preventing numerous types of cancer, including melanoma.
You've Got to Get Enough Vitamin D for Optimal Health
Vitamin D is a steroid hormone that influences virtually every cell in your body, and is easily one of nature's most potent cancer fighters. Receptors that respond to vitamin D have been found in nearly every type of human cell, from your bones to your brain.
Your organs can convert the vitamin D in your bloodstream into calcitriol, which is the hormonal or activated version of vitamin D. Your organs then use it to repair damage, including damage from cancer cells and tumors. Vitamin D's protective effect against cancer works in multiple ways, including:
- Increasing the self-destruction of mutated cells (which, if allowed to replicate, could lead to cancer)
- Reducing the spread and reproduction of cancer cells
- Causing cells to become differentiated (cancer cells often lack differentiation)
- Reducing the growth of new blood vessels from pre-existing ones, which is a step in the transition of dormant tumors turning cancerous
A study by Dr. William Grant, Ph.D., internationally recognized research scientist and vitamin D expert, found that about 30 percent of cancer deaths -- which amounts to 2 million worldwide and 200,000 in the United States -- could be prevented each year with higher levels of vitamin D!
Theories linking vitamin D to prevention of certain cancers have been tested and confirmed in more than 200 epidemiological studies, and understanding of its physiological basis stems from more than 2,500 laboratory studies, according to epidemiologist Cedric Garland, DrPH, professor of family and preventive medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. Sunlight is by far the best way to get your vitamin D. So the so-called experts who advise you to avoid all sunlight and religiously apply sunscreen are actually encouraging you to increase your risk of cancer, not lower it …
The Therapeutic Effect of the Sun is a Matter of Proper Dosage
A common myth is that occasional exposure of your face and hands to sunlight is "sufficient" for vitamin D nutrition. For most of us, this is an absolutely inadequate exposure to move vitamin D levels to the healthy range. At the same time, sunburn provides no benefit and is not good for your skin, so the key to using the sun therapeutically is to get the proper "dose."
To optimize your levels, you need to expose large portions of your skin to the sun, and you may need to do it for more than a few minutes. And, contrary to popular belief, the best time to be in the sun for vitamin D production is actually as near to solar noon as possible. Ultraviolet light from the sun comes in two main wavelengths -- UVA and UVB. It's important for you to understand the difference between them, and your risk factors from each.
Consider UVB the healthy wavelengths that help your skin produce vitamin D.
UVA is considered the unhealthy wavelengths because they penetrate your skin more deeply and cause more free radical damage. Not only that, but UVA rays are quite constant during ALL hours of daylight, throughout the entire year -- unlike UVB, which are low in morning and evening, and high at midday.
So to use the sun to maximize your vitamin D production and minimize your risk of malignant melanoma, the middle of the day (roughly between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.) is the best and safest time. During this time you need the shortest exposure time to produce vitamin D because UVB rays are most intense at this time. Plus, when the sun goes down toward the horizon, the UVB is filtered out much more than the dangerous UVA.
In terms of length of exposure, you only need enough exposure to have your skin turn the lightest shade of pink. This may only be a few minutes for some if you have very pale skin.
Once you reach this point your body will not make any additional vitamin D and any additional exposure will only cause harm and damage to your skin. Most people with fair skin will max out their vitamin D production in just 10-20 minutes, or, again, when your skin starts turning the lightest shade of pink. Some will need less, others more. The darker your skin, the longer exposure you will need to optimize your vitamin D production.
What if You Can't Get Out in the Sun?
Unfortunately, the amount of sun reaching most of the United States is only sufficient to generate a healthy vitamin D response for far less than half the year -- and that's only if you take the time to go out in it. So, for those times of the year when access to the proper amount of sun is not possible, another option is to use a safe tanning bed, paying careful attention to not getting burned.
You can also consider an oral form of vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol). Make sure, if you supplement, that you are using vitamin D3 and not the far inferior vitamin D2. As the latest research shows, D3 is approximately 87% more potent in raising and maintaining vitamin D concentrations and produces 2- to 3-fold greater storage of vitamin D than does D2.
If you take a vitamin D supplement, please remember to have your levels tested and regularly monitored, as it is possible to overdose when taking supplements. Plus, you want to make sure you are keeping your levels in the therapeutic range, as noted below.
More Tips for Using the Sun Wisely
You clearly want to avoid overexposure to the sun, as that can cause problems. Remember, more is not better when it comes to sun exposure, so after you've gotten your fill of vitamin D (again, when your skin turns the lightest shade of pink), it's time to cover up. Cotton clothing provides about SPF 15. In other words, you will get about 15 times your skin's normal protection from the sun wherever you cover your body with clothing. Just remember that even with protective clothing on your body, it's still important to monitor your skin for the telltale signs of burning.
For times when clothing will not suffice, such as if you're going to be at a water park all day, choose a safe sunscreen that contains either zinc or titanium minerals, not oxybenzone or retinyl palmitate (vitamin A). My research team has put together what we think is superior sun protection and you can find more about it here.
Consuming a healthy diet full of natural antioxidants is another useful strategy to avoid sun damage to your skin, as fresh, raw, unprocessed foods deliver the nutrients that your body needs to maintain a healthy balance of omega-6 and omega-3 oils in your skin, which is your first line of defense against sunburn.
Fresh, raw vegetables also provide your body with an abundance of powerful antioxidants that will help you fight the free radicals caused by sun damage that can lead to burns and cancer.
The relatively unknown carotenoid called astaxanthin has also piqued the interest of researchers due to its ability to reduce signs of aging by helping protect your skin from sun damage. I personally take 4-8 mg every day to help limit any potential damage from sun exposure as most of the year I am spending 1-2 hours a day in the sun.
So what's the bottom line?
Get out in the sun this summer and enjoy it, but do so sensibly. Your body is made to be in the sun, and, when done properly, sun exposure will be one of the best ways you can help reduce your risk of skin, and many other forms of, cancer. If for whatever reason you are unable to get healthy doses of sun exposure then a safe tanning bed is your next option and finally oral vitamin D if nothing else is available. You will need to measure your blood levels though as that is the only way to know if your UVB exposure or oral dose is appropriate.