sun protection

After years of having it drilled into our heads to stay out of the sun and to coat ourselves with sunscreen or cover our skin, a new comprehensive study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden has shown that avoiding sunlight can double your risk of premature death.

The researchers at the Karolinska Institute evaluated close to 30,000 Swedish women, aged 25 to 64 years, over the course of twenty years. The study focused on the avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for all-cause mortality, and tracked the outdoor behavior of the women in conjunction with cancer and early death. At the end of the study, many of the women who spent little or no time in the sun had died, while those who spent regular time in the sun had lower rates of early mortality. The conclusion was that women who deprived themselves of sunlight by either staying out of the sun or covering themselves with sunscreen during all outdoor activity actually doubled their risk of premature death. The guidelines advising people to stay out of the sun unless they are wearing sunscreen, especially in countries with low solar intensity, might actually be harming women's health.

But how can this be?

If we have been told that exposure to UV rays is a cause of cancer, how could being exposed to those rays prevent cancer? The answer lies in vitamin D. Low levels of vitamin D have been linked to cancer, as well as cardiovascular disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and diabetes. Since vitamin D deficiency is caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight, the ironic result is that staying out of the sun may increase cancer risk.

Although this Swedish study has demonstrated the importance of sun exposure sans sunscreen for our health, it also seems obvious that it shouldn't be taken as a green flag to ignore the proven risks from sun's ultraviolet rays. The study itself raises questions about what other factors besides sun exposure were taken into account, such as a healthy versus an unhealthy lifestyle of the participants.

Truth In Aging founder Marta Wohrle took a controversial stance on sunscreen in her article, Sunscreen: Myths, Truths and Alternatives, where she questioned the daily use of sunscreen, rain or shine. Her statement that "a daily sunscreen is potentially harmful and not proven to be effective against cancer" stands even more strongly in light of the Karolinska Institute's study. However, Marta is a firm believer in the sun-protecting power of antioxidants, and recommends that when you do wear sunscreen, you choose a formula that is boosted with antioxidant power, such as Suntegrity Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen and Primer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 ($45 in the shop) and Snowberry Every Day SPF15 - Broad Spectrum Sun Protection ($36).

As we consider the evidence of the Karolinska Institute's study, how should we find a safe middle ground between protecting our skin with sunscreen and letting our skin absorb the sun's rays in order to obtain healthy amounts of vitamin D? "Enjoying the sun safely while taking care not to burn should help most people strike a good balance," is the advice from Yinka Ebo, senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK. Dorothy Bennett, Professor of Cell Biology at St. George's, University of London, acknowledges that "our bodies need sunlight to make essential vitamin D, which can help us resist some cancer types," and advises that "those who normally avoid the sun and/or cover most of their skin are advised to take vitamin D supplements."

In other words, and as in so many other areas in our lives, moderation is the key.

Read more:

Sunscreens are Better with Antioxidants

Vitamin D for Skin, Hair and Antiaging

How to Treat Sun-Damaged Skin