By Dr. Michael Smith

“Sunlight is more powerful than any drug; it is safe, effective and available free of charge. If it could be patented, it would be hyped as the greatest medical breakthrough in history. It’s that good.”
~ Mike Adams, consumer health advocate

It has been drilled into our minds to wear sunscreen to protect us from the sun’s rays. But what if the combination of toxic ingredients in sunscreen and the inhibited production of Vitamin D (as a result of the increased use of sunscreen) are contributing to the increasing rates of melanoma? This debate continues. There are mixed views in the medical community and studies that support both sides of this debate. Will conventional wisdom change in the years to come? Will it be similar to the margarine and trans-fat era? Will we again realize that we should appreciate what mother nature has provided, instead of trying to change or fight it?

The ABC’s of sun and sunblocks

UV-A – these rays are less likely to burn, but penetrate the skin more deeply and cause wrinkles. Studies have also shown that UVA rays mutate DNA and promote skin cancers in animals.

UV-B – these rays are known as the “burning rays” because they are the primary cause of sunburn caused by overexposure to sunlight. These rays have long been touted to increase the risk of skin cancer. Additionally, it is also a specific wavelength of the UV-B rays that produces Vitamin D on the skin.

Other important notes on UV-B – the further north you are, the less there is; and as altitude increases, so does the amount of UV-B. The darker your skin color (through natural pigmentation, or tanning), the less UV-B penetrates. Also, essentially no UV-B is available in the U.S. during the winter months.

Physical vs. Chemical sunblocks

Physical sunblocks reflect or scatter UV radiation before it reaches your skin. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are naturally occurring minerals that act as broad spectrum physical sunblocks. Chemical sunblocks work by absorbing the energy of UV radiation before it affects your skin.

Here is a list of common active sunblock ingredients and the type of UV radiation that they block:

Aminobenzoic acid – UV-B
Avobenzone UV-A
Cinoxate – UV-B
Dioxybenzone – UV-B, UV-A
Homosalate – UV-B
Menthyl anthranilate – UV-A
Octocrylene – UV-B
Octyl methoxycinnamate – UV-B
Octisalate – UV-B
Oxybenzone – UV-B, UV-A
Padimate O – UV-B
Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid – UV-B
Sulisobenzone – UV-B, UV-A
Titanium dioxide – UV-A/B, broad spectrum (physical sunscreen)
Trolamine salicylate – UV-B
Zinc oxide – UV-A/B, broad spectrum (physical sunscreen)

Many of the above listed chemical sunscreens have shown to increase the risk of cancer (through cellular oxidation) as well as other health hazards. Nanotechnology, which is defined as the control of matter on a scale smaller than 1 micrometer, is also being utilized in some sunblocks. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are now being “micronized” in order to produce a colorless sunblock. Since this technology is relatively new, there have been no long-term studies on the effects that these nanoparticles may have on the skin and health of humans. Presumably their incredibly small size would indicate that they are absorbed directly into the skin.

The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization that has compiled an extensive database of personal care ingredients and the related scientific studies on their effects. This is a great resource for investigating what is in your sunscreen and other skin and personal care products.

Has the increased use of sunscreen caused the increase in malignant melanoma? A study published in April 1992 issue of American Journal of Public Health suggests that this may be the case. “The countries where chemical sunscreens have been recommended and adopted have experienced the greatest rise in cutaneous malignant melanoma, with a contemporaneous rise in death rates.”

A preliminary hypothesis of a recent study from Stanford University suggests that sun exposure may actually protect the skin from damage. The protection comes from Vitamin D. It is believed that Vitamin D activates a mechanism in the T-cells (important in immune response) that cause them to migrate to the skin, where they theoretically boost immunity. (Alternative Medicine, May 2007). Slathering on sunscreen would therefore prevent the body from producing this important Vitamin, contributing to the increasing prevalence of Vitamin D deficiency.

Historically Vitamin D deficiency was linked to bone problems (rickets) but many studies now suggest that Vitamin D may also be associated with many conditions including many forms of cancer, depression, high blood pressure, dementia, osteoporosis, and auto-immune diseases such as multiple-sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

Lab findings point to Vitamin D suppressing the growth of melanoma cells. It has also been found to diminish the overactive immune response found in auto-immune disorders like multiple sclerosis, lupus and diabetes. There are also some studies that suggest that Vitamin D can reduce blood pressure, and that low levels of Vitamin D may contribute to depression and other psychiatric conditions.

The only way to know if you are deficient in Vitamin D is to have your levels checked. This is done with a blood test and is available through Carolinas Natural Health Center. There are different forms of Vitamin D found in the blood, and it is the level of cholecalciferol, or 25-OH D that should be tested. If levels prove to be low, supplementation and/or sensible sun exposure are good ways to increase levels. Unfortunately, to increase levels through sun exposure alone, you would need full body exposure without any form of sunscreen for several minutes each day. For most people this is not practical, therefore supplementation is usually a more likely option. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, and therefore can reach toxic levels, so it is important to know your Vitamin D levels before supplementing.

How to protect yourself this summer

  1. Use a hat, umbrella, or cover up with clothing whenever you can.
  2. Start with small doses of sun exposure, gradually increasing as the summer continues.
  3. A non-toxic, physical (one that contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) sunscreen should be used if you will be exposed to the sun for long periods of time, to prevent burning. I would avoid any “micronized” ingredients in your sunscreen. More information is available at www.ewg.org.
  4. Increase your intake of anti-oxidants like beta-carotene, green tea, lutein, lycopene, and selenium before and after prolonged sun exposure. Beta-carotene is naturally present in many fruits, and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, spinach, apricots, and green peppers. It has the strongest scientific evidence in the prevention of sun damage. Good quality anti-oxidant supplements are also available and Carolinas Natural Health Center.
  5. Use a good quality, non-toxic after sun lotion that is rich in anti-oxidants. Our favorite is Burt’s Bees Carrot Nutritive Body Lotion.

As the heated debate of toxic sunscreens, Vitamin D and the sun persists, we will continue to question and evaluate conventional wisdom.