For years we’ve been told to stop sunbathing, to stay out of the sun. We slather sunscreen on our children. We buy make-up, lip balm, and hair care products that contain SPF 15 protection. And what is the result of this anti UV ray vigilance? Skin cancer is on the rise.
SPF 15 works very well. It blocks 99% of the UV rays. The problem is that we need UV rays in order to make vitamin D. Vitamin D, the sunshine vitamin, strengthens and builds bones, wards off multiple sclerosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, osteoarthritis, and periodontal disease. It regulates cell growth, and protects against lymphomas and cancers of the colon, prostate, lung, and skin.
Yes, Vitamin D, gained through exposure to the sun, helps prevent skin cancer!
“There are two types of skin cancer,” says Dr. Michael Holick, one of the world’s leading authorities on vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency. “There’s what’s called non-melanoma skin cancer and there is no question that excessive exposure to sunlight and sunburns will damage the DNA and induce skin cells to become cancerous. That is non-melanoma squamous and basal cell cancers. They are typically easy to detect, easy to treat. They’re not lethal, for the most part.
Melanoma is a different story. Most melanomas occur on the least sun exposed areas. Occupational sun exposure decreases your risk of malignant melanoma. We believe that if you have a large number of moles, a number of sun burning experiences, bad genetics, and red hair color—that is very light skin—they will markedly increase your risk of malignant melanoma, and that’s deadly. About 8,000 people die a year of malignant melanoma. But there is no evidence in my opinion that sensible sun exposure increases your risk of that deadly disease. In fact there is good evidence that it decreases your risk.”
Where you live and the color of your skin are significant factors in determining your risk for Vitamin D deficiency and correlating diseases. So is your weight. Though vitamin D is stored in fat cells, obesity inhibits its release. If you live at a latitude above 33 degrees (north of Atlanta, Georgia), you cannot get enough UV rays in the winter months to make vitamin D. And the darker your skin, the more sun exposure you require, no matter the season. Geographical and racial statistics do correlate to higher incidences of all diseases linked to Vitamin D deficiencies.
Unfortunately, not all medical doctors are aware of these links. Dr. Holick is finding many of his patients who come to him with a prior diagnosis of fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome with symptoms of muscle weakness and throbbing, aching bone pain are actually suffering from osteomalacia, a bone disease directly caused by vitamin D deficiency. The good news is treatment with vitamin D supplements and/or sunlight exposure quickly reverses this disease.
Vitamin D is not, in fact, a vitamin. It’s a hormone. “By definition a vitamin means that it has to come from an external source,” Dr. Holick explains, “but when you’re exposed to sunlight, you make it. So by definition, it’s not a vitamin. And more importantly, once vitamin D is made in your skin it goes to your liver and kidneys to get activated. And so again by definition, it’s being generated in one organ system and going to a different place to have a biologic effect and by definition, that’s a hormone.” Dr. Holick suggests using sunscreen in moderation. “People need to be aware that a sunscreen SPF of 15 reduces your ability to make vitamin D in your skin by 99%. So if you’re putting a sunscreen on all the time before going outside, you are definitely going to put yourself at risk forVitamin D deficiency.”
He suggests you start with 5 or 10 or 15 minutes of sun exposure depending upon time of day, season of the year and the latitude, 3 to 4 times a week. Remember, the darker your skin, the more exposure you need. The opposite is also true. The lighter your skin, and redheads know this from experience, the more likely you are to burn.
Sunburn can damage your skin, and does put you at higher risk of skin cancer. So Dr. Holick suggests that if you go to the beach for an hour or two, put on sunscreen after 15 or 20 minutes. “Take advantage of the beneficial effect,” he says. “Then prevent the damaging effects due to excessive exposure.”
Start off slow and don’t expose your skin for too long. Our bodies do have built in protection; we tan. Most of us do, anyway. When it’s time to get out of the sun, put on a hat, get under an umbrella, find some shade, or cover up if you want to avoid sunscreen all together. But don’t avoid the sun. It’s summertime. Go out and make some Vitamin D.