Does Sun Exposure Really Damage Our Skin?

Our star, the sun, is what gives this planet life. A perfect spherical ball of incandescent plasma at the heart of our solar system—sol is the most important source of energy on Earth. Every living creature worships it. Every language has a name for it. Sun gods and goddesses have infused our mythologies since ancient times. So why is our culture growing more afraid of its warm touch? What would Apollo and Helios think?

The culprit of our fear is a disease that we’re all too familiar with: cancer. The bubonic plague of the modern world, cancer is on the verge of overtaking heart disease as the No. 1 cause of death. Skin cancer affects 2 million Americans each year. Awareness has spread like wildfire that excessive exposure to sunlight can cause cancer. The CDC reports that 61% of American adults claim they use protection against the sun, a continual increase since 2005.

We already know almost everything about sunscreen, right? A generous dollop or two, rigorous slathering and, voilà, you’re ready for a day in the sun. Sunscreen is meant to protect us from UV radiation, but as more people use sunscreen, skin cancer continues to rise. This alarming fact forces a question to surface: do sunscreens really protect the skin from cancer? Or could the dangerous chemicals found in most popular sunscreen brands be a contributor to cancer?

Nadine Artemis, creator of Living Libations Skin Care, spoke about this concern at the Longevity Now conference. Poppy and Seed attended the event and Artemis’ talk inspired us to research sunscreen and sun exposure in relation to skin cancer. The results are extremely complicated with some studies revealing sunscreen does protect us from types of less threatening skin cancers, while others have found sunscreen contributes to the risk of the worst kind of skin cancers.

The Environmental Working Group claims that regular sunscreen use lowers the risk of squamous cell carcinoma, but researchers have not found strong evidence that it prevents basal cell carcinoma. Sun exposure plays a role in the development of melanoma, but the complexities are high and many questions remain unanswered.

Both UVA and UVB rays can cause melanoma; in fact, there is a strong correlation between melanoma risk and a person’s number of sunburns, but scientists do not know whether sunscreen can help prevent melanoma.

Artemis touched upon this puzzling fact: melanoma does not usually appear in areas of the body that receive daily sun exposure. The EWG supports this claim by stating paradoxically, outdoor workers report lower rates of melanoma than indoor workers. These factors suggest that regular sun exposure may not be as harmful as occasional high-intensity sunlight.

Vitamin D is easily one of nature’s most potent cancer fighters. A steroid hormone that influences virtually every cell in your body, vitamin D is best absorbed through a small amount of sunlight without sunscreen. Yes, you heard me right—without sunscreen. Even SPF 15 blocks the body’s ability to convert rays of sunshine into vitamin D by 99%. Researchers speculate that higher vitamin D levels from regular sun exposure may play a role in reduced melanoma risk.

You must get sunshine. Your body needs a balanced serving of pure, unadulterated energy from the sun’s life bearing rays. Withholding your body from the sun due to fear of cancer is detrimental to your health in its own way.

The science may seem incomplete, but the consensus among researchers who study skin cancer is that the most important step people can take to reduce melanoma risk is to avoid sunburn, but not all sun exposure (EWG).

If you choose to wear sunscreen, try safe products that are mineral-based (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide), paraben free, range from SPF 15-50, unscented, lotion-based, water resistant, non-nano, and broad spectrum. The EWG site provides an updated guide to the safest sunscreens and provides a rating for most on the market.

Again, hiding in a dark cave like a Gollum-esque creature is not only unrealistic, but will lead to vitamin D deficiencies. After doing my research, I am again reminded that balance is absolutely everything. Make smart decisions about sun exposure. Get vitamin D. Do not get burned. Do not wear chemical-based sunscreens. Do not use sunscreen as a tool to prolong your exposure or as protection from skin cancer (the evidence is just not there—yet). Cover up if you plan on basking in the sun for extended periods of time.

The sun’s embrace releases a kind of euphoria in the brain, a feeling of warm elation. I will never reject the sun in my life, but I will create a balance that works specifically for me. I recommend you do the same. Apollo and Helios can be our friends. Research. Look into the facts. And create your own sun protection decisions based on what you believe is right for you.

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