Don’t Overuse Your Sunscreen; Sunlight Prevents Cancer

There’s a nutrient your body can produce with a little outside help that can protect you from cancer, diabetes, depression, and osteoporosis. It’s low in people with autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, and Crohn’s disease.

Doctors of integrative medicine are prescribing it in large doses to their patients for all of these conditions and are finding it beneficial. What’s more, it’s readily available. You can walk into any health food store and get it in supplement form, or you can get it for absolutely nothing.

Unfortunately, your doctor may be scaring you away from taking advantage of this free solution to so many devastating diseases including skin cancer.

What is it? Vitamin D – the sunshine vitamin. If you spend enough time outdoors, the sunlight will help your body make vitamin D. This, in turn, can reduce your risk for a host of health problems.

But dermatologists and other doctors are saying that sunlight, the foundation for all life on this planet, is dangerous. They’re telling you to slather your body with sunscreen before you leave the house to go shopping or spend a little time in the garden. They say that any exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays promotes cancers. This is only partially true. Unlike manmade radiation, which is unsafe at any level, UV rays are harmful only in excessive amounts. Researcher William Grant, PhD, found that small doses of UVB radiation actually protects against 16 forms of cancer.

Sunlight and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
It’s been said that UV exposure increases your risk for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), a group of cancers that begin in the lymph cells. But a 60-year-long study from Australia found the opposite was true. Exposure to the sun actually protected people from NHL. Those people with the most exposure to sunlight had a 35 percent lower risk for getting these cancers than people with the least. What about those who only spent time outdoors on weekends and holidays? They had less than half the risk for NHL over people who remained indoors.

Sunlight and skin cancers
What about skin cancers? It’s true that too much sunlight can be dangerous. It’s not smart to spend hours every day in intense sun. It’s not healthy to get sunburns. In fact, the more you burn — especially when you’re young — the more likely you are to end up with skin cancer later in life. But knowing this shouldn’t prevent you from spending some time outdoors in the sun getting your daily dose of vitamin D.

The most dangerous form of skin cancer is melanoma. Everyone I’ve met who has had a melanoma is afraid to get any sun on his or her skin. Yet, a 10-year study of sailors in the Navy found that sailors who worked indoors had more melanomas than those who worked both indoors and outdoors. What’s even more surprising is that there were more melanomas on their midsections than on their exposed face or arms!

How much sunlight is enough and not too much?
It depends on whom you ask. Traditional doctors say that you can get around 400 IU of vitamin D a day by exposing your face and arms to 15 minutes of light a day. They say this is enough. I don’t agree. It may be enough to prevent rickets and other vitamin D-deficiency diseases, but it won’t give you the same protection as 15-30 minutes of exposure to very bright sunlight each day.

The time of day you’re in the sun determines how much vitamin D your body can make. Dr. Grant points out that we can’t convert vitamin D from UVB radiation unless the sun is high in the sky. So get outside for 15-30 minutes before or after lunch each day. If you go outdoors at other times, you’ll need a longer exposure to get the same protection. During the winter, the sun isn’t high enough or close enough for your body to make vitamin D from sunlight. That’s when you need to rely on supplements and put away your sunscreen.

Four hundred IU a day is the bare minimum vitamin D you need. But you may want to begin with as much as 10,000 IU for a month or two to raise depleted levels. If you haven’t been getting much sunlight, ask your doctor to test you for vitamin D deficiency with a test called 25-hydroxyvitamin D — or 25(OH)D. Then, if you’re deficient, have him or her monitor your levels as you take large doses.

The problem with sunscreens
A lot of them contain some chemicals that promote the production of dangerous free radicals, and other chemicals with estrogenic effects. In fact, most of these ingredients are banned in Europe. Only buy products with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. They’re safe and offer effective protection. You can find them in health food stores and some pharmacies.

Sunscreens won’t work if they have less than SP-15 protection or if they’re out of date. Check the expiration date on your sunscreen and replace it if it’s old.

Your diet protects your skin
Antioxidants in your diet protect your skin from becoming damaged by UV radiation and from nonmelanoma skin cancers. These include carotenoids (vitamin A), tocopherols (vitamin E), ascorbate (vitamin C), flavonoids, and omega-3 fats (fish oil, flax oil). Include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet.

In Norway, where there’s little sunlight during the winter months, vitamin D deficiency is common. More than two-dozen Norwegians were given a diet high in fatty fish and cod liver oil — all high in vitamin D. In fact, the participants were given more than 54 times the recommended daily requirements. All of the people who continued eating diets high in vitamin D were able to sustain sufficient vitamin D in their blood throughout the winter.

It’s important to understand and remember that sunlight is your ally, not your enemy. Be smart. Get outdoors and increase your vitamin D. For more information on sunlight, vitamin D, and cancers, read some of the articles by cancer researcher Ralph Moss, PhD, at

Hughes, A.M., B.K. Armstrong, C.M. Vajdic, J. Turner, A.E. Grulich, L. Fritschi, S. Milliken, J. Kaldor, G. Benke, and A. Kricker. “Sun exposure may protect against non-Hodgkin lymphoma: a case-control study.” Int J Cancer, 2004;112:865-71.

Grant, W.B. “An estimate of premature cancer mortality in the United States due to inadequate doses of solar ultraviolet-B radiation,” Cancer, 2002;94:1867-75.

Nowson, C.A. “Vitamin D in Australia. Issues and recommendations,” Aust Fam Physician, 2004 March;33(3).

Brustad, M., et al. “Vitamin D status in a rural population of northern Norway with high fish liver consumption,” Public Health Nutr, 2004, September; 7(6).

Sies, H., and W. Stahl. “Nutritional protection against skin damage from sunlight,” Annual Review Nutr, 2004;24.

Moss, Ralph, Ph.D.,

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Written by Nan Kathryn Fuchs PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021