The great sunscreen fallacy: Lack of sun exposure might be killing us

girls tanning on beach
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Experts suggest that the health benefits of sunlight may outweigh the risks.

Slathering on some sunscreen before heading outside on a hot summer day has become a collective cultural habit. When we don't do it to ourselves or our children, we feel irresponsible, as we've been told that neglecting to apply sunscreen on a regular basis will result in skin cancer.

Sunscreen, however, may not be the miracle solution it's cracked up to be. Controversial research from a dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh suggests that unprotected sun exposure is precisely what more of us need for overall better health. Richard Weller told Rowan Jacobsen of Outside Online that he's "not by nature a rebel" and that he used to "swallow the party line about the destructive nature of the sun's rays."

Until he didn't.

After realizing that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the further you go from the equator, and that all of these rates go up during the dark winter months, Weller wondered, "Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?"

"Sure enough, when he exposed volunteers to the equivalent of 30 minutes of summer sunlight without sunscreen, their nitric oxide levels went up and their blood pressure went down. Because of its connection to heart disease and strokes, blood pressure is the leading cause of premature death and disease in the world, and the reduction was of a magnitude large enough to prevent millions of deaths on a global level."

What about skin cancer? It's not as serious a problem as it's made out to be, killing less than 3 per 100,000 people in the United States every year. And to put that into perspective, "For every person who dies of skin cancer, more than 100 die from cardiovascular diseases." Melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, accounts for only 1-3 percent of diagnosed cases; and curiously, Jacobsen reports, people who work outdoors have half the melanoma rate of indoor workers.

It turns out that getting a bit of sunlight on your bare skin, without a protective layer of sunscreen, offers numerous health benefits. Most well-known is vitamin D production, but just as crucial is the release of nitric oxide, serotonin, and endorphins:

"[Sunlight] reduces the risk of prostate, breast, colorectal, and pancreatic cancers. It improves circadian rhythms. It reduces inflammation and dampens autoimmune responses. It improves virtually every mental condition you can think of. And it’s free."

The key is to get regular sun exposure, rather than stay indoors for most of the year and then go all out during a week-long tropical vacation or a summer holiday. That's when serious burns occur, which increase one's risk of skin cancer, especially if the burns happen during childhood and adolescence.

Skeptical? Just think how our ancestors lived in bygone centuries. They were outside all the time in hot and cold climates, relying on melanin as a natural protector for the skin. Jacobsen writes, "Our dark-skinned African ancestors produced so much melanin that they never had to worry about the sun."

This leads to another issue with modern day sun exposure guidelines. Weller and Jacobsen challenge the fact that they're geared toward white people, despite the fact that darker-skinned people are more tolerant of sunlight – and even need more of it to produce vitamin D because they cannot store it as easily. The American Academy of Dermatology perpetuates this, saying it "recommends that all people, regardless of skin color, protect themselves from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays."

On a related note, the sunscreen industry is now focused on marketing sunscreen to darker-skinned people, which Weller calls a marketing ploy. Jacobsen likens the industry push to the one that convinced our parents and grandparents that margarine was healthier than butter, despite the fact that it was harming far more people than it was helping. This is supported by the Environmental Working Group's most recent sunscreen guide, which found that only one-third of sunscreens are effective. Even the FDA, National Cancer Institute, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer have stated that sunscreen isn't a magic one-size-fits-all solution: "The available data do not support the assertion that sunscreens alone reduce the rate of skin cancer." Clearly its efficacy has been overstated.

Weller isn't a lone voice any longer. Australia, New Zealand, and even Britain have recently altered their stances on sunlight, encouraging some unprotected time outdoors each day to boost vitamin D production, even during peak summer.

It may feel strange to go without that trusty bottle of sunscreen, but Weller raises some valid points for consideration. As a pale-skinned redhead who lives in a sunny beach town and rarely uses sunscreen, his research intrigues me. I don't like the health and environmental side effects of chemical sunscreens, nor do I like the sticky, pasty whiteness of the mineral blocks. So I generally go without, relying instead on clothing, hats, sunglasses, and timing my outdoor excursions to avoid peak hours. It works just fine for me.

The great sunscreen fallacy: Lack of sun exposure might be killing us
Experts suggest that the health benefits of sunlight may outweigh the risks.

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