TO TAN OR NOT TO TAN?
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States according to the CDC.
Accordingly, more and more Americans are protecting themselves from the sun with copious
the noon hour, and even tanning via sunless tans. It is commonplace to see umbrellas at
sporting events (with no rain), tents at the beach and hats have made a summer resurgence
all in an effort to produce portable private shade.
We spend less time outside and get less sun than ever in the history of mankind.
Yet, for each of the last nine years (of the most current statistics), skin cancers have
continued to rise steadily every year by 2.0%. If exposure to sun was the primary cause, one
would expect this number to at least remain level or decrease.
If exposure to the sun was the primary cause of cancers, then southern states with warmer
climates would have and should have higher cancer rates, ie, the more time you spend
outside, the higher your risk of cancer. The CDC tracks the rate of the deadliest form of skin
cancer, melanoma, by state, and for the year 2009, no such correlation exists.
In fact, many southern states such as Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and
Oklahoma enjoy the lowest incidence rates, with the second lowest rates seen in California,
Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Nevada, and South Carolina. Highest cancer rates
can be found in the more northern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Minnesota,
Vermont, New Hampshire, and Connecticut. Utah and North Carolina are the most southern
of the high risk states.
What are we missing then, as a cause of skin cancer, if not correlated to sun exposure? One answer is our Vitamin D level. It is well known Vitamin D protects us from all cancers, including skin cancers (see Vitamin D Council website). Unfortunately, the primary way we get Vitamin D is from being outside in the sun, and this may at least in part explain why more melanomas occur in northernly states.
Another factor to look at is the extensive use of sunscreen products themselves. With the
introduction of higher SPF products comes increased exposure to concentrated chemicals.
Many of these have been linked to allergic responses, hormones issues, free radical
formation, and tissue damage. Synthetic Vitamin A, aka, Retinyl Palmitate, is suspected of
causing tumor growth when exposed to sunlight. Retinoic acid, another form of Vitamin A,
has been linked to tumors in animal studies as well.
The skin is the largest organ in our bodies. As well as making Vitamin D, it detoxifies our
system by sweating, and is also capable of absorption as well. Many drugs and hormones
are being dispensed this way now, as it is a way to readily get medications or nutrients into
the bloodstream without having to go through the GI tract, which tends to break down
With an estimated 680 million dollars a year spent on sunscreens, we are putting a lot of
chemicals on our skin. We are finding these chemicals in breast milk now. Many are linked
to hormonal issues such as low birth weight babies, endometriosis, estrogen-dependent
tumors, thyroid issues, low sperm production, and even behavioral alterations in animals.
Many primary ingredients in sunscreens have been tested individually, but virtually no
testing includes the interaction between preservatives, colorings, fragrances, emollients, and
In general, I try not to put anything on my skin that I would not, could not eat. With few
Another risk factor is any type of skin damage, the most common being sunburn. Melanoma
is more common in people and in areas of the body that are subject to burning. In those that are fair skinned with red or blond hair and in those with blue or green eyes, there is a ten-
fold increased risk of skin cancer than a person with dark skin. Although sunscreens can help prevent sunburn, nothing seems to be as effective as building up a good tan. Dark
skinned individuals, ie, African Americans, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Hispanics,
and Pacific Islanders, have long enjoyed and continue to enjoy much lower incidences of skin cancers. This perhaps explains why none of the southern states have high risks of cancer.
Those that spend the majority of their day inside are as well at higher risk of cancers than
those with occupations or hobbies that keep them outside more. Perhaps this is because
they tend to burn more, or have lower Vitamin D levels, or use more potentially disruptive/
toxic sunscreen products, or perhaps a combination of all three provides a trifecta.
Safe tanning then, involves enough exposure to the sun to build up significant supplies of
Vitamin D without ever burning. Graduated exposure in late spring is the key, ie build up of
your base. If you are at risk of too much sun before your base is built up, and shade or
cover up clothing is not an option, try coconut oil topically, or zinc oxide, or a safe sunscreen
(see www.ewg.org for safety ratings) until your base is built.