Sunscreen vs. Cancer vs. Vitamin D ~ via Ryan Wanger.

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Too Tan

Warning: this article has been called pseudoscience by enough readers that we’re putting a few other articles up top here with links:

Sunscreen Protection: New Options, New Research.

 In any case, his article has obviously succeeded in getting folks to think about their decision, instead of unconsciously going out and getting burned. Even good science is often improved or proved wrong. I personally wear sunscreen (organic, don’t love the chemicals) and a hat when I’m out. Another article:

How Much Faith Do You Put in Your Sunscreen?

Another, with current research:

NY Times: “Slathering on Sunscreen Shows Results, Researchers Find.”

Melanoma is serious stuff. Be safe out there.
Original article follows:

My entire life, I’ve been told over and over and over: exposure to the sun causes cancer. But what if it were the other way around? Exposure to sunlight actually prevents cancer?!?

I’ll describe this in more detail shortly, but first, a quick summary:

  • Plenty of studies have reported that Vitamin D prevents many types of cancer
  • Sunlight accounts for up to 75% of our daily Vitamin D intake
  • Skin cancer rates for Caucasians in the US have almost tripled in the last 30 years. The rate for African Americans has actually decreased.
  • On a state by state basis, the sunniest states do not have the highest rates of skin cancer

Now clearly, I am not a doctor, so consider this information and do your own research. And don’t necessarily trust doctors! For years they’ve recommended products which are later shown to be horrible for your body (cigarettes anyone?).

Vitamin D Seems to Prevent Cancer

While no one is staking their reputation on this, over and over and over again, studies are showing decreased cancer rates (for MANY types of common cancers, not just skin) in people with higher Vitamin D intakes. Many of the stories seem to hedge their bets (Vitamin D “may” prevent cancer), which I can understand. It’s hard to prove definitively in a study that spans decades and has an almost impossibly complex set of variables to control for.

Although the American Cancer Society says “evidence isn’t conclusive”, they admit the majority of studies they’ve analyzed agree that Vitamin D prevents cancer. They go on to say:

Many studies have looked at the relationship between cancer and vitamin D, but they have not been able to pinpoint exactly how vitamin D might influence cancer development..

Which leads to their specious conclusion that: “…it’s too soon to recommend taking vitamin D supplements for cancer prevention.” Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be too much risk of overdosing on vitamin D from exposure to the sun or a regular diet. Only excessive amounts of dietary supplements seem to have any potential downside. (Google “too much vitamin d”).

Caucasian Skin Cancer Rates Are Skyrocketing

Sunscreen started to become widespread in the 1950s, and our skin cancer rates (as well as all other types of cancer) have been exploding ever since. With all we “know” about skin cancer, why is a product like sunscreen, which is designed to prevent skin cancer, actually failing to do it’s job? Well, guess what? Sunscreen is filled with chemicals, often allows UVA rays to get through (which are primarily responsible for skin cancer), while blocking UVB rays – which provide us with lots of healthy vitamin D.

African American skin cancer rates have actually dropped during that time frame, and stand at about 1/17th of the incidents found in Caucasians. Remind me again why having darker skin is a sign of skin cancer?

More Sun Does Not Equal More Skin Cancer?

This map shows the daily amount of sun radiation received in a given location:

The next map, shows the rate of skin cancer by state:

Why don’t the states with more sun have more skin cancer? In fact, you’ll notice that many of the least sunny states have the highest rates of skin cancer (particularly the northeast and northwest). Perhaps the real problem is lack of sunlight?

How I Plan to Fight Cancer

After doing this research, I have a new plan: instead of fearing the sun, and applying sunscreen by default, I will only use sunscreen when I will be in the sun long enough to burn. Sunburns are definitely still something to avoid. Getting color in small doses is not. The sun is particularly less harmful early and late in the day, so I’ll probably only use sunscreen between 10am and 3pm.

When I do use sunscreen, I plan to use the most natural kind possible. The fewer chemicals that get absorbed into my skin the better obviously.

Anyone else following a similar plan?

This article first appeared August 31, 2009 at

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39 Responses to “Sunscreen vs. Cancer vs. Vitamin D ~ via Ryan Wanger.”

  1. Yoga Spy says:

    General statistics mean little without analyzing details. For example, race and ethnicity could be relevant. Hawaii, a high-UV state (why is it absent from UV figure?), has a large percentage of non-Caucasian residents. These Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, and Pacific Islanders are less likely to die from skin cancer.

    Another conjecture: the Pacific Northwest (Washington and Oregon) is an outdoorsy place where residents are into hiking, cycling, running, and other outdoor sports. Maybe, due to the cooler and rainier climate, they forgo sunscreen and yet venture outside, exposing unprotected skin. (And I'd guess that this demographic comprises lots of scruffy white REI types.) As for Idaho and Utah, one word: skiing. Or maybe a sentence: white people skiing. Don't many skin cancers develop on people's noses?

    My guess is that UV is more culpable than lack of vitamin D! (All we need is five to 30 minutes of sun exposure, twice a week, the minimum exposure depending on season, cloud cover, latitude, etc.)

    Only time will tell. Bottom line: Moderation. And enjoy life!

    Yoga Spy

  2. EvanRavitz says:

    I've been a high-altitude sun worshipper for 40 yrs. No skin probs. I often sunbathe naked at over 13,000', getting 50X the recommended 15 minutes sun at sea level. My theory: Since the skin is an organ of excretion, if you eat a bunch of indigestible chemicals or just more than your body needs, some gets sweated out and THAT gets tanned into your hide, causing problems. I reformed my diet 35 yrs ago. I just put on clothes when I've had enough. Vitamin D is also good for many other problems including mood and sleep problems.

  3. Ryan says:

    Evan, I LOVE that theory.

  4. Lew says:

    Hi. What is with the disturbing photograph of the woman? Is she the "to do" or the "not to do" illustration.

  5. elaine says:

    (rest of comment) It's important to understand that your body MAKES vit D from sun exposure. Either you get it from the sun or from supplements. Getting it solely from food is difficult at best. I now take a daily supplement. So does my 10-year-old son, whose recent bloodwork showed that DESPITE playing sports nearly every day outside, his level of vit D was only a few numbers above the "deficient" cutoff. It's too early for me to say whether giving him this supplement has improved his mood and behavior (as some say vit D will). In any case, it appears that FOR MOST PEOPLE, both taking vit D supplements AND getting moderate sun exposure without sunscreen (preferably on legs) is advisable.

    • Blue says:

      Interestingly enough the only true food source of Vitamin D is Lard from pastured pigs. All other foods are fortified with vitamin D so not a true source. Lard has been given a bad rap (when Cisco appeared on shelves and wanted the market on shortening) but high end Lard (its white, not yellow colored) from pastured (preferably organic) pigs is one of the only food sources vitamin D occurs in.

  6. *K* says:

    I've often wondered about the connection between the increased rates of sunscreen use and simultaneously increasing rates of skin cancer, especially because I am extremely fair and have a family history of skin cancer (resulting in a life-long admonition from docs to use strong SPF regularly) and also happen to have really sensitive skin. I find the majority of sunscreens to be very irritating and inflammatory to my face, which is frustrating, and also makes me wonder whether the exchange (no sunburn, but harsh irritating chemicals on my skin) is worth it…thanks for posting! Very timely with this summer weather we are having!

  7. rayna says:

    there are lots of things to consider… moderate sun vs. sun burns? and at what stage in life (sun burns in childhood are more deleterious than sun burns in adulthood). there's also a lot of chatter in the cancer research community about the vitamin D receptor gene – some variants of this gene are linked with increased risk of a number of cancers, including melanoma, breast, and colon cancer. there are also different types of skin cancer. i think the thing to do is get a moderate amount of sunshine daily – it's great for lots of things, like better mood! 🙂 and supplement where daily sunshine is not possible.

  8. Martin says:

    When reeading this carefully I had a reaction that was interesting. I got pulled into the, hey, am I killing myself with the sunscreen I am using. Questions came about weather I am doing the right thing by lathering up. I have come to a conclusion after a short while of thinking about this. The most dangerous words in this story are "evidence isn't conclusive". At least this story has those words. So many people stopped vaccinating their kids because the evidence in the Autism study looked credible, even though it was highly tainted. I work outside and once a year I forget to lather up. I get burnt and am more tired. My skin hurts. I feel crappy. Another point. The most viscious sun days are the cloudy, after a shower sun days when the sun pops out and reflects off the clouds.

  9. Pat says:

    I am a native Floridian. All my family are native Floridians dating back tot he 1800s. No one in my family has ever had skin cancer and all of us spent quite a lot of time in the sun fishing, boating, swimming, etc. No skin cancer. Northerners come to Florida, skin cancer. What gives? Is it the native Florida diet over the years of fresh vegs, fruit and fish? Don't know.

  10. Pat says:

    Oh, and we never used sun screen, either. Just oil or regular lotion.

  11. Kyla says:

    Good insights, but they sooooo only scratch the surface. And I am afraid they will give people the WRONG idea.

    Culturally, we only started worshipping the sun in the 1950 when skin cancer rates started rising. Look cultural attire across the globe. Head to toe dress in the middle east. As a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines I swam in long shorts and long sleeve shirts because anything else was culturally unacceptable. Throughout history and across cultures, white skin was valued as beautiful because it meant you did not have to work in the fields, to be in the sun. Only in the 1950s did being tan signify that you were wealthy enough to go on vacation, to have leisure time, and to worship the sun. Doctors and scientists best intervention was to create sunscreen, but I agree that it is highly flawed and it does seem that we are constantly finding out that chemicals are not good for us.

    The best solution, in my opinion, would be to protect our ozone layers. Mother nature knows whats best. In looking at maps of skin cancer deaths worldwide, it seems they are at the poles, where we have no ozones left (and where white skinned people worship the sun). The destruction of the ozone also correlates with increasing rates of skin cancer, and is a much more likely cause of skin cancer than sunscreen. While Vitamin D may have beneficial effects, I believe that pesticides and stress are a much more likely cause of may types of cancers.

    As a primary care Nurse Practitioner, a yoga teacher, and vitamin D deficient Caucasian living in Boston, I have done alot of thought and made some personal decisions on this subject. While it seems that studies are constantly coming out regarding the pros and cons of Vitamin D, we do not know the answers as of yet. There is debate on types and quantities of Vitamin D to prescribe, and even if increased levels in the blood even have any benefit at all. My own personal decision are that I take my natural Vitamin D supplements and I go to the beach, but I also wear my big hats and sit under an umbrella when possible. While studies on vitamin D are coming to no real conclusions, there are numerous studies that confirm the causational link between sunburns and skin cancer, which as you said is increasing in prevalence. I have seen young people die from Melanoma and it is not to be taken lightly. Blueberries have also been shown to have antioxidant effects and in my opinion, are a much safer natural product to hedge your bets on.

    • Blue says:

      Blueberries are also one of the "dirty dozen" that are sprayed with most pesticides unless you source organic blueberries and even then they are likely using sprays approved by the NOP. Too bad big agri business ruins the foods that could help us.

  12. […] season, Skin Cancer (and photoshop) is in: “H&M is under fire from public health and cancer groups for hiring […]

  13. Karen says:

    I was a baby oil and iodine girl. Tin foil covered album cover out in the sun for hours. Summer did not start until you had your first really painful sunburn. I am fair, freckled and blue eyed and at 44 petrified I will get skin cancer for my former sun worshipping self. My three daughters and husband have the same complexion that I do. I have kept the girls slathered in sunscreen very few sun burns if any. Only to find out now that some sunscreens are so poisonous the sun would have caused less harm. So I have done my research and purchased the safest sunscreen I can find. I am now severely vitamin D deficient . So I wear a big hat, good sunscreen and take my supplements and hope that my girls follow my lead.

  14. Emer says:

    Is Donatella Versace rocking the Too Much Vitamin D look?

  15. […] report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), there is surprisingly little proof that sunscreens prevent most skin cancers! […]

  16. Roger Wolsey says:

    As I understand it, a recent European study determined that sunscreens over 35SPF do more harm than good. So, I'll stick with 35 if spending a long time outside.

  17. Chloe says:

    Skin cancer our not, I'll be applying my spf to avoid looking like an old leather shoe as I age.

  18. Adrienne White says:

    I think this is the start of a great conversation on how the government and media have a lot of health stuff backwards (read vegetable oils vs. saturated fats). One thing you might want to research a bit more though is WHEN the sun is at a high enough angle to produce vitamin d on the skin. It's actually usually at the time when it's reported the sun is the most dangerous i.e. between the hours of 10-2. Check out this sun azimuth calculator to determine when you should be exposing your skin with no sunscreen until it just begins to slightly turn pink: Type in your city and then check to make sure that there is at least a 50 in the right hand column. Anything less than that and your only getting the "bad" rays that cause skin cancer. Always question and never accept what your doctor, government, and media report as fact!!

  19. Erica says:

    Thanks for bringing some awareness to this issue, Ryan. For years, my intuition has told me that the natural sun is a better alternative to chemical sunscreens. I've been judged by my friends and family as being careless and foolish. All we've done is made ourselves sicker and made the sunscreen companies a bunch of money.

    • Laura says:

      Same here! I don't burn easily, I'm half Mexican so I just get a wonderful olive tan….what's the harm in that lol. I do wear protection for prolonged exposure, but I also make sure I get some natural vitamin d time.

  20. Ashley says:

    This is a poorly researched article. I’m 30 and was diagnosed w melanoma this year. I’ve had plenty of sun exposure and will continue to wear sunscreen even more since my diagnosis. I want to hear from others who have been diagnosed not those who are merely speculating.

  21. gabrielle says:

    I am a redhead with freckles and green eyes, the most sun-sensitive skin type on earth. I have been using suncreams rigorously and vigorously my entire life, and I am in my forties now. But lately I have been thinking and re-thinking whether this has been a good idea. This year I have decided to forgo the cream except on my face, where I continue to use SPF 50 in the summer and SPF 30 in the winter to avoid wrinkles, freckles and liver spots. But I NO LONGOR SLATHER ON THE GOOD STUFF even when I go to the beach. I try to stay out of the sun entirely between 11 am and 2 pm but i am no longer hysterical about this. when i walk the streets in this timeframe i cross over to the shady side. if i go to the beach i stay under the umbrella or a palm tree. but whatever sun i do get in this time frame, i figure what the hell, it is actually good for me. and i try to get exposed regularly to the sun before 10 am or after 4 pm. the result? a beautiful, healthy brownish skin color – with my skin type truly tan is impossible – and i haven’t burned once. i feel strong, happy and healthy, partly as a result of my more relaxed ideas about the sun. the sun cream industry is huge business, educating people about the harms and BENEFITS OF THE SUN MAKES NO PROFIT FOR ANYONE. SO I SAY NO FEAR, BE INTELLIGENT AND ENJOY THE SUN.

  22. Canadian Friend says:

    Interesting article but…

    Why have cancer rates for black people gone down since 1950???

    Am I the only one intrigued by this one???

    Are they consuming more vitamin D than they were before 1950?

    Are they getting more sun than they were before 1950?

    Yes dark skin or a tan does offer some protection from the sun BUT OBVIOUSLY blacks had dark skin BEFORE 1950 so what has changed since 1950 that lowered the rates of cancer among African Americans???

  23. Green says:

    I only use sunscreen on myself and my 2.5 year old daughter if we are going to be out too long to actually burn. I feel like we, as a culture, do not get enough vitamin D and try to encourage healthy amounts of sun. We live in New Mexico and we get a lot of sun. I encourage hat wearing and long sleeves to cover up during the sunniest part of the day.

  24. Amaterasu says:

    I am a skin cancer – Malignant Melanoma – survivor.
    Lived in Sweden for 22 years and got diagnosed/treated there.
    I have followed this and a bit more.
    Despite being blond I hardly ever burn. In Sweden they now have a 10 minute burn time. Thanks greenhouse emission industries and unengaged world leaders… … …

    I have since then STOPPED using ALL non-organic and conventional cosmetics.
    Use extra virgin olive oil on wet skin and then dry off.
    Train my skin by introducing sun 15 at a time minutes around March and can eventually be out for two to three hours – No problem.
    Eat only organics.
    Do Bikram Yoga every day and take as many saunas as I can get a hold of if/when possible – Sweating is good for the skin.
    Have a natural "tan" look year around because of eating mainly PLANT BASED.
    If I am to be on a boat or some place in the sun for longer than 4 hours I put on zinc or titanium based sunscreen and wash it off immediately when I'm out of the sun.
    I then use SPF 15.

    I REALLY FULLY THOROUGHLY BELIEVE that the cosmetic and food industries are to blame for the skyrocketing cancer statistics we are seeing today. Especially in women. It's ALL RIGHT THERE!!! In the statistics. Use common knowledge. Eat plant strong and unprocessed and be logical and smart…

  25. Amaterasu says:

    Just take a look at our world and see who is targeted the most when it comes to advertising all the cosmetics and foods…

  26. Jill says:

    YES WE DO KNOW WHY VITAMIN D PREVENTS CANCER. Here's how. Vitamin D acts like a hormone. It lines your intestines and grabs minerals such as calcium and magnesium and drags them into your body. Without the vitamin D, the minerals pass through unabsorbed. Minerals are what keep your pH balanced in a nice alkaline base range of about 7.5. With inadequate minerals, your pH begins to drop down into the acidic range like say 6.5. When your body's tissues and fluids become acidic, it will not hold oxygen. An acidic low-oxygen body chemistry is an ideal environment for all sorts of anaerobic organisms who thrive in that environment. Examples of such anaerobic, acid loving, oxygen hating organisms are… Yeast, mold, fungus, bacteria, and CANCER. Cancer loves acid and hates oxygen and thrives in this environment. So if you want to prevent cancer, take LOTS of minerals, and get adequate sunshine. Feel free to google cancer and pH for more details. An excellent natural cure for cancer is "high-pH cesium therapy". Google that also. My ex husband used this low-cost therapy to cure his lymphoma. 🙂

  27. bev sankey says:

    Thankyou for this Jill , its is the point i had reached in my own understanding of good health (age 52 ) and is the most simple logical explaination of reason for cancers . I myself eat organic and use organic and vegan certified products inc vit D spray . I strive to check my alkalinity levels , what i didnt know is the vit d acts to help absorb minerals of hich i have always been deficient . Having worked indoors for the majority of the last 30 yrs its no surprise . Thankyou .

  28. @whizkid7 says:

    It is only between 10 and 3 that you can get vitamin D from sunlight since it comes from the UV-B light. You can get nitric acid from the UV-A light any time of the day that it is sunny. This helps cardiovascular health. There is one thing that is bad is about sunlight! It is free so no one can make money promoting it.

    There are billions of reasons to buy sunscreen. It is a multi-billion dollar industry so lots of money is made getting people to buy it. If pregnant mothers and babies got enough sunlight (vitamin D), type 1 diabetes and autism would be a rare thing.

  29. hermione says:

    Thanks to the rest of the world’s past cfc use New Zealand (where I’m from) has a thin ozone layer. It used to be a hole but is no longer as bad. Down our way the burn time in summer can be as little as 15mins, it is very very difficult to have fair skin (like me) be outside at all, and not to get sunburnt without sunscreen on down there! (Plus we have high rates of melanoma (skin cancer)

  30. @EllenPetty says:

    My dermatologist told me, years ago, that he rarely sees farmers and people who work out in the sun every day come in with signs of skin cancer. Instead, it's the people who sit behind a desk all day, inside out of the sun, and only go outside a few times a year and end up getting burned to a crisp each time…instead of slowly building up a base of color and allowing the skin to naturally build itself up against the sun.

    Sounds like the author has exactly the right idea. Sun, just like everything else, is fantastic in moderation, and even very good for you, but is very dangerous if you binge on it. Being outside for an hour or so every day is obviously much better than being out in the sun for 10 hours a day, only on your annual vacation.

  31. me2 says:

    What if the sunscreen causes cancer

  32. Sri says:

    I'm all for avoiding chemicals and part of that for me is eschewing sunscreen in general. I did notice, however, that the CDC map you offer in this article that seems to indicate lower melanoma rates in sunnier US states includes text at the bottom of the map that attributes the higher rates in Northern states to having a higher percentages of non-white people as citizens. Important detail don't you think?!

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