Deciding whether or not to use sunscreen, or which sunscreen to use, is a hot topic among the health conscious community these days. After all, most varieties are full of toxic chemicals, so why would you want to use sunscreen liberally on your skin? To address this, many “all-natural” alternatives have sprung up on the market. Consumers can still use sunscreen without feeling guilty!
Or can they?
Is sunscreen actually healthy?
It’s been drilled into us from childhood: “You better use sunscreen or you’ll get a terrible burn, get skin cancer, and die!” With such a significant push to use sunscreen coming from doctors, parents, teachers, and even peers, it’s truly amazing that anyone would question whether or not it’s safe to use sunscreen, particularly the “all-natural” products.
But I do.
Why? First and foremost, it has to do with Vitamin D. Vitamin D is synthesized in your skin when the skin is exposed sunlight, and the vast majority of us have insufficient amounts of Vitamin D in our bodies (source).
What does that matter?
Well, insufficient levels of vitamin D can result in all kinds of maladies, including osteoporosis, autoimmune diseases, rheumatoid arthritis, birth complications, depression, low libido, and (shockingly!) even cancer (source)!
What’s that? Vitamin D helps prevent cancer?
Yet, when you use sunscreen, you block your skin’s ability to synthesize Vitamin D (source). So, does it follow that if you use sunscreen, you’re increasing your risk of cancer?
It has been known for several years that sun exposure might have a beneficial effect on certain cancers. A 1999 publication of the National Institute of Health (NIH) entitled Atlas of Cancer Mortality in the United States revealed that among caucasians in the United States, cancer mortality for several prominent cancers, including cancer of the breast, prostate and colon, shows a striking latitudinal gradient. Specifically, people living in northern states have much higher rates of these cancers than those residing in the southern states.
The reason for this? Northern states get a whole lot less sunshine than southern states.
As early as 1990 it was proposed that vitamin D, which is synthesized in the skin upon exposure to UV light, might be the agent that accounts for these geographical patterns. (Garland et al. 1990) Less exposure to sunshine means less production of vitamin D. It is known that calcitriol, the active form of vitamin D3, has multiple cellular affects that could confer protection against cancer. The ability to convert the precursor to vitamin D to the active form of D3 (calcitriol) is greatly reduced at northern latitudes, and populations living far from the equator are at increased risk of vitamin D deficiency during the winter months. (Tangpricha et al. 2002)
Even more significant may be the observation that patients with malignant melanoma exhibit low levels of vitamin D3 in their blood, and that others have a problem with the receptor for vitamin D. (Hutchinson et al. 2000; Green et al. 1983) The incidence of melanoma of the skin on sites of the body intermittently exposed to sunlight is reduced among outdoor workers compared with indoor workers. (Elwood et al. 1985)
All of this points to a protective role for vitamin D against cancer in general, and melanoma in particular. But the final nail in the coffin of the “sunlight causes melanoma” hypothesis is this:
A comprehensive review of research studies from 1966 through 2003 failed to show any association between melanoma and sunscreen use! (Dennis et al. 2003)
Say what? Sunscreen doesn’t prevent skin cancer, that’s what.
(For more on this, read: Does Sunscreen Prevent Skin Cancer?)
But, you ask, can’t you get Vitamin D from your food? Is it really necessary to expose your skin to the sun’s harmful UV rays to get sufficient levels of Vitamin D?
Well, let’s think about that for a moment. Vitamin D is only present in large amounts in certain kinds of seafood, and the highest sources for Vitamin D in food are anglerfish liver, cow’s blood, and cod liver oil. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t been eating large amounts of anglerfish liver or cow’s blood recently.
Next, I would like to question whether the sun’s UV rays are actually all that “harmful.” UVB, for example, is responsible for interacting with the cholesterol in our skin to produce Vitamin D (source). Sounds super beneficial to me!
And while it’s true that excessive exposure to UVA rays can cause sunburns or premature “aging,” even those effects can be mitigated by a proper diet (see below).
Exposure to sunlight can prevent melanoma, balance our natural circadian rhythms, lower blood pressure, protect against heart disease, and even protect against many auto-immune diseases (source).
Is it really worth throwing the baby out with the bathwater?
Let me tell you a story.
It’s my own story. I am fair-skinned, and I grew up knowing that a sunburn was just a half hour away if I didn’t use sunscreen. It has always been true.
True, at least, until I changed my diet to Real Foods: only eating wild/pastured/grass-fed animals, drinking raw milk from grass-fed cows, and switching to healthier, more traditional fats. I even started taking daily doses of cod liver oil.
Then I noticed a change. I’d go out in the sun, get flushed pink, and be certain that a bad burn would soon follow.
It never did.
Instead, the pink flush would calmly turn into a light tan.
How can food do this? How can it help prevent sunburns?
Well, remember how UVB interacts with the cholesterol and fats in your skin’s cells to help create Vitamin D?
I’m no scientist, but this seems like a worthy hypothesis to test: If the balance of fats in your skin is off, then does it follow that the sun’s UV rays will interact differently with your skin’s cells?
A few studies have been done on specific foods and how they can protect the skin from cancer, sunburn, and photoaging (aging caused by sun exposure). In one, they found that monunsaturated fats like those found in pasture-raised pork, avocados, and olive oil were protective against photoaging (source). Another found that eating fermented soy could boost collagen and protect against wrinkles (source). And one discovered that diets high in Omega-3 fats protected against skin cancer (source).
In other words, a diet based on Real Food (a diet rich in Omega-3s and with considerably less Omega-6s) can help prevent a range of human ailments — from obesity to cancer.
One of the primary benefits of switching to a diet of Real Foods is that you also return to a much more traditional balance of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fats.
In traditional cultures, that ratio was anywhere between 1:1 and 3:1, and studies have shown that when it goes above 4:1 we start to experience negative consequences to our health (source, source 2, source 3). Thanks to corn-based industrialized agriculture and food products (corn has an Omega 6:3 ratio of 46:1), the average American is eating a ratio between 17:1 and 30:1 (source)!
But eating grass-fed meats and wild-caught seafood, eating whole foods and healthy fats? That returns that ratio back to the one traditional cultures enjoyed.
It only makes sense, although it’s not been directly studied yet, that this better balance of fats (which is already proven to be protective against so many other diseases) also protects against any harm that may be caused by UVA and UVB exposure.
To Use Sunscreen Or Not To Use Sunscreen
For myself and my family, we haven’t used sunscreen in years.
We prevent sunburns by getting a diet rich in the proper fats and supplementing with extra cod liver oil when we know we’re going to have prolonged sun exposure. (We also take extra cod liver oil during the winter months, when we know our sun exposure will be limited and that we need an extra good source of Vitamin D to make up for the lack of sunshine.)
If we know we’ll be spending all day in the sun, we’re sure to wear hats. But that’s about it.
If we do ever start “turning pink” as we call it, we use this trick to heal the sunburn in fewer than 24 hours.
If you’re interested in starting to take cod liver oil or switching to grass-fed meats, check out the listings on my Shopping Guide for some smokin’ good deals.
What about you? Do you use sunscreen? Have you experimented with taking extra cod liver oil, or having a more traditional balance of fats in your diet? How’s that working out for you?