Does the Sun Actually Cause Skin Cancer?

(photo by Chris Child)

My friends, why are we so afraid of the sun? We've become a white-coated generation, bottles of Coppertone in our beach bags and large sun hats gracing our heads. And we look kinda ridiculous, don't we?
But really, isn't it odd how terrified we've become of the most life-sustaining thing in our universe? The sun is actually amazing. So why have we vilified it? Skin cancer. Right? That's what the sun does to us if we lay in that grassy field for too long.
First of all, skin cancer is a irregular growth of the skin cells. Once this happens, they can then mutate and lead to tumors in the body. And the leading cause of these mutations is exposure to the sun... right?
If that were the case, you'd think we'd see a fall in skin cancer cases in recent years. But despite our decrease in sun exposure and increase in sunscreen use, skin cancer numbers are actually rising.
Still, we're still constantly told to just put on more sunscreen. Use a higher SPF. Reapply every hour. Maybe that'll work.
But what we're doing is clearly not working. So I think it's time we reevaluate what we think we know about sun exposure, and maybe realize the sun isn't the antagonist of our health.

Burning is dangerous.
Let's get that straight. Extensive and damaging UV exposure does lead to an increased risk of mutation in the cells. But proper sun exposure prevents skin cancer in the first place. So it's the avoidance of burning that we need to focus on. Sun exposure doesn't equal skin cancer. It's not a simple cause and effect. The correlation between sun exposure and skin cancer is more complicated than we've been led to believe.

UVA and UVB.
You're probably familiar with the two types of UV rays that affect us, UVB and UVA. Here's an easy to understand explanation from NPT, Liz Wolfe:
Keep in mind that the rays we're most concerned with (UVA rays and UVB rays) do very different things to the body. UVB rays stimulate vitamin D production and cause burns. And UVA rays cause deep damage to the skin. Now even the fanciest broad spectrum sunscreens really only block UVB. They cannot completely block the UVA rays of the sun, which are the dangerous, cancer causing, DNA-damaging ones. Think about it: We slather on sunscreen, block the rays that burn us so we can't yield our body's natural burn signal, and we stay out for hours on end soaking up dangerous UVA rays.
Here's the thing: our bodies are incredibly smart. We have a built-in system that let's us know when we've had enough sun. (aka when the sunlight starts to feel hot and intense instead of nice and warm) But sunscreen inhibits our bodies from doing their jobs. When we spray ourselves head to toe with sunblock, we're bypassing our internal feedback. So maybe sunscreen isn't the solution after all?
Oh another thing about sunscreen...

Toxic Sunscreen.
There's two types of conventional sunscreen, chemical and physical. (or, sunscreen and sunblock) Chemical sunscreen absorbs the sun's rays, whereas physical sunscreen physically blocks the UV rays from coming in contact with your skin. Physical is that stereotypical pasty white sunblock that doesn't blend in well and makes lifeguards look like nerds. Chemical blends into the skin well, but doesn't protect against UVA rays.  (Here's a full chart of the differences between the two if you're curious!)
Now, physical sunblocks typically contain just two ingredients: titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. And while zinc oxide is fairly safe, titanium oxide is a possible carcinogen.
And for chemical sunscreens, they contain a handful of industrial chemicals. Oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreens, is a possible allergenic and hormone-disruptor. Now I don't know about you, but that's not really something I wanna be slathering all over my skin.
So if you're going to be exposed to the sun for long periods of time, I'd suggest a more natural sunblock like Badger Balm (a physical sunblock without titanium dioxide), or even making your own! (did you know coconut oil has a natural SPF of about 4? yeah, cool, I know)

The importance of vitamin D.
Ahh, the so-called sunshine vitamin. Vitamin D plays a vital role in our health, and sun exposure is one of the most efficient way to get it. But, unfortunately, most Americans are lacking sufficient amounts of this vitamin. And as it turns out, vitamin D deficiency is likely a leading cause of cancer and a number of other health issues. Is this not ironic? We're told to stay out of the sun, which has likely led to this deficiency; but the lack of sun exposure may actually be making the body more susceptible to cancer and other diseases.
From a recent extensive study on sun exposure:
Insufficient sun exposure has become a major public health problem, demanding an immediate change in the current sun-avoidance public health advice. The degree of change needed is small but critically important.
And beyond that, the sun affects our mental health as well. Ever heard of the winter blues? November rolls around, and suddenly you feel sluggish, fatigued, and just sad. This is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, and is often attributed to a lack of vitamin D exposure in those months when we're mostly indoors.

Eating your sunscreen.
I believe diet plays an important role in our overall health, and this area is no different. As a general rule, reducing grains, polyunsaturated fats that are largely found in vegetable oils, and sugar from your diet reduces the amount of inflammation in the body, which has a hand in cancer.
But as far as preventives go, lycopene, a carotene found in a number of red fruits and veggies, has been shown to protect against harmful UV rays. Specifically, the consumption of tomato paste reduced the amount of photodamage from ultraviolet radiation when tested in a small group.
And this study suggests that the consumption of tomatoes (in the form of tomato powder) may protect skin from potential UV damage:
Human clinical data suggests that continued consumption of tomato paste can dampen UV-induced skin erythema (i.e., sunburn). It has been hypothesized that carotenoid pigments are the compounds responsible for this biological result, as one of the principal functions of carotenoids in plants is to act as photoprotectants . . . Following consumption, carotenoids are deposited in the skin of humans where they are, in theory, present and able to protect from UV damage. 
So what do we do?
Skin cancer is a big deal. It's scary, and it sadly affects way too many of us.
But there are better ways to protect ourselves from it than refusing to sit in the sun or drowning our skin in harmful chemicals. Here's some practical tips to follow:

  • Switch from using a standard chemical sunscreen to a safe sunblock like Badger Balm. Or make your own!
  • Avoid grains, processed vegetable oils, and sugar. 
  • Eat some tomatoes! Cooked tomatoes actually showed to have a better affect for inhibiting UV rays, so I personally just try to eat a tablespoon of tomato sauce daily. It's much tastier than plain tomato paste, lemme tell you that. 
  • Get a healthy amount of sun, which will increase your vitamin D levels. Make it a habit to get a few minutes a day. 
  • Cover up! When you're outside, the easiest way to protect your skin from UV rays is simply to remove yourself from them. Hats, coverups, and of course, the all-important shade.

So. Tanning beds? Not good. Sitting in the sun long enough that you resemble a very ripe tomato? Yeah, not good either. But demonizing sun exposure altogether? No no no, that's not the answer either. We need to find some middle ground. There's no need to sway from one extreme to the other. (I swear, our culture has some major beef with moderation)
I'm not afraid of the sun, and you shouldn't be either! I go out of my way to make sure I get at least a few minutes of sun exposure every day, and dang, I love it. It's an instant mood lifter. And when I look in the sky on a bright blue day, I'm thankful for the sun and all it does. I acknowledge that it has incredible power to do both harm and good. So let's not be afraid of it, but give it the respect it deserves by utilizing its benefits while also protecting ourselves from its potential harm. And eating tomatoes.

Happy tanning,

(photo by Natalie Collins)


  1. I was just reading last week that there's a chemical in certain sunscreens (maybe it was the oxybenzone) that when reacted with chlorine in the pool turns that chemical into a carcinogen. And the scary thing is that this is a pretty common thing to do: put on sunscreen and then get into the pool.

    1. Wow, I hadn't heard of that. It's crazy how we willingly put things in or on our bodies, when we really have no idea what really in them.

  2. Okay but I'm ginger, so... *applies mountain of toxic sunscreen* *gets burned anyway*

    But seriously, I may check out Badger Balm.

    1. Haha, I understand dude. Do the best you can for yourself! :)


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