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Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer: Is Sun Protection as Important As We Think?

Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer: Is Sun Protection as Important As We Think?

Does sun exposure increase your risk of skin cancer? What are the best, and safest, forms of sun protection?


Summer’s officially here, which means a whole lot of people are planning a whole lot of fun in the sun.

For many that are trying to be health conscious, it also means avoiding the sun’s rays as if we were vampires, slathering on copious amounts of sunscreen lotion until we have a pale, white shine.

We all know why people do this: according to “experts,” the more we’re in the sun, the more we damage our skin and the greater our chances of developing skin cancer are.

Are these claims true, though? And are traditional forms of blocking the sun’s rays the right way to deal with potential risks?

Let’s find out.

The Truth About Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer

We’ve all heard the story many times before.

“Many doctors believe” that sun exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, which is the most common of all cancers.

Well, many doctors also believe that carbohydrates make you fat, fruit is unhealthy, and skipping breakfast makes you gain weight. So forgive my irreverent skepticism about their claims against the sun.

The first red flag with such a correlation is the simple fact that our ancestors spent much more time in the sun than we do, yet our skin cancer rates are exponentially higher.

Some researchers claim that ozone depletion accounts for this, but they fail to address the fact that the depletion and replenishment are seasonal and occur primarily in the Arctic, Antarctic, and equatorial regions of the planet, yet we don’t see higher cancer rates in those areas. Cancer is just exploding all over the place.

Well, while that scientific debate rages on, let’s look at what is currently known about sun exposure and skin cancer.











According to research conducted by the University of Texas, only 5-10% of cancer cases can be attributed to radiation, of which sun exposure is a small part. 5-10% of cases can be attributed to genetic defects, and the remaining percentage can be attributed to poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, diet (high intake of unhealthy fats, processed red meats, etc.), obesity, alcohol, and physical inactivity; as well as other factors like pollutants, infections, and stress.

The relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer was the subject of a meta-analysis of 57 skin cancer studies conducted by the European Institute of Oncology. Researchers found is that lifetime routine sun exposure was not associated with skin cancer. In fact, they found it had an inverse relationship–it reduced the risk of developing skin cancer. 

Two things were associated with an increased risk of skin cancer, however: intermittent sun exposure and sunburn. It’s also noteworthy that those often go hand-in-hand: people that only go in the sun occasionally are most likely to burn.

A pooled analysis of 5700 cases of melanoma conducted by the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine reported similar findings. Recreational sun exposure and sunburns go hand-in-hand, and are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer.

Other studies are in agreement as well, such as those conducted by the University of MinnesotaUniversity of Otago and University of Nijmegen.

So, then, if sunburns are the culprit here, not mere sunlight, all we have to do is coat ourselves in SPF 9000 cream on our beach days and we’re good to go, right?

Not quite.

Sunscreens: More Harmful Than Helpful?

A quick glimpse at the ingredients list of your average sunscreen is enough to give anyone pause:

  • Phenylbenzimidazole sulfonic acid
  • 2-Cyano-3,3-diphenyl acrylic acid
  • Isopentenyl-4-methoxycinnamate
  • 4-methyl-benzylidenecamphor
  • octyl-methoxycinnamate

Couple that with the fact that the skin is an incredibly absorbant organ, and we really have to wonder: what kind of chemical concoctions are sunscreens, and are they a cause for concern?

Well, let’s dive in.

The first thing you should know is that many sunscreens are quite effective at blocking UVB rays, which are the rays most responsible for burning, but not are not nearly as effective at blocking UVA rays, which cause more subtle damage, including ageing. Spending hours in the sun covered in sunscreen still results in skin damage.

Quite a few chemicals often found in suncreens do give a reason for concern. We simply don’t want them in our bodies.

In animal research, the application and illumination of these nanoparticles has been shown to alter DNA and increase the risk of skin cancer. Scientists dub these types of chemicals “photocarcinogenic,” meaning they can cause cancer after they are exposed to light.

Some suncreens are advertised as “non-nano”, but these claims are misleading. Sizes of particles vary, but nearly all ingredients in sunscreens would qualify as nanomaterials under the general definition.

  • More than 20% of sunscreens contain a form of vitamin A such as retinol, retinoic acid, or retinyl palmitate to purportedly slow skin ageing. According to research conducted by the US National Toxicology Program, these forms of vitamin A increase the risk of skin cancer when topically applied and illuminated.

The SPF rating system is also problematic. Just like how people used to believe that “low-fat” meant a food was automatically healthier, many assume that the higher the SPF number, or sun protection factor, the better the protection.

Ironically, the actual protection from the sun’s rays changes very little as SPF increases. SPF 50 will block about 98% of the rays, and SPF 100 about 99%. 100 is not twice as effective as 50, as many people assume, which is why the FDA said that offering high-SPF products is misleading.

Not only that, but the higher the SPF is, the higher the concentrations of the troubling chemicals are. Yup, all a high-SPF product does is increase the health risk while providing basically no protective benefits.

As if all the above isn’t enough to find alternative ways to protect yourself from sunburns, there’s more.

Sun Exposure and Vitamin D Levels

If we’re talking about how the sun affects our bodies, then we have to talk about vitamin D as well.

As you may know, our body can’t produce vitamin D without sun exposure, and this molecule plays a much larger role in fighting disease than we once thought. Vitamin D deficiency has been associated with an increased risk of developing a wide variety of diseases, such as osteoporosisheart diseasestrokesome cancerstype 1 diabetes, and multiple sclerosistuberculosis and even the flu.

Well, according to research published by the Center for Disease Control in 2011, 8% of Americans are vitamin D deficient, and 25% are considered “at risk” of a deficiency. Other research published in 2010 showed that nearly 70% of breast-fed babies were vitamin D deficient at one month, which can be particularly harmful considering how important this vitamin is in overall health and development.

Now, when our skin is exposed to UVB rays, they interact with a form of cholesterol in the body to produce vitamin D. The more skin that is exposed to the sun, and the stronger its rays, the more vitamin D you produce. Research has shown that, with 25% of our skin exposed, our bodies can produce upwards of 400 IUs of vitamin D in just 3-6 minutes of exposure to the 12 PM Florida sun. 

How much vitamin D should we be getting every day, though?

According to the Institute of Medicine, 600 IU per day is adequate for ages 1-70 (and 800 IU per day for 71+), but these numbers have been severely criticized by scientists that specialized in vitamin D research. They call attention to the over 125 peer-reviewed studies that indicate such recommendations are too low, and are likely to lead to vitamin D deficiencies.

A committee of the U.S. Endocrine Society recently convened to review the evidence, and concluded that 600-1,000 IU per day is adequate for ages 1-18, and 1,500-2,000 IU per day is adequate for ages 19+. 

Considering the fact that overdosing isn’t likely to occur until intake skyrockets to 40,000 IU per day for several months, or 300,000 IU in a 24-hour period, these are very safe recommendations.

So, as you can see, with just 15-20 minutes of exposure to the sun each day, your body can produce most, if not all, of the vitamin D it needs. But not if you’re wearing sunscreen.


Because sunscreen significantly reduces your body’s vitamin D production while you’re in the sunSo, it not only presents health risks, it basically negates a huge health benefit we derive from sun exposure.

If your diet is low in vitamin D, if you don’t supplement with it, and if you religiously wear sunscreen when you’re in the sun, there’s a very good chance you’re deficient, and will benefit from raising your levels.You can raise them by going in the sun a bit every day if possible, or by supplementing–there’s no evidence that once is ultimately “better” than the other in this regard.

I’m not in the sun much–maybe 30 minutes, twice per week–so I just supplement with 5,000 IU of vitamin D per day to keep my levels within the healthy range. In case you’re interested, here’s the exact product I use:

raw code vitamin d

 Click here to buy Garden of Life’s Raw Vitamin D on Amazon.com

This exact product isn’t available on Amazon.co.uk, but NOW Foods’ is:

now foods vitamin d

Click here to buy NOW Foods Vitamin D on Amazon.co.uk

Safe, Natural Ways to Protect Yourself From Sunburn

So if chemical sunscreens are best to avoid, how can we naturally, safely protect ourselves from sunburn?

There are several ways:

  • The easiest and most obvious way to prevent burning is to limit your skin’s exposure to the sun using clothing. For instance, a shirt provides SPF protection of about 5, which is, ironically, higher than under-applied SPF 100 sunscreen. A hat is an easy way to protect your face.
  • Coconut oil applied topically helps prevent skin damage from sun exposureIt doesn’t block nearly as much radiation as chemical sunscreens, but if applied regularly, it can help extend the amount of time you can remain in the sun before having to cover up. Many people also buy non-nano zinc oxide powder to mix with the oil, which greatly enhances the UVB (sunburn-causing) protection.
  • Make sure your vitamin D levels are in a healthy range. Research has shown that vitamin D increases sun tolerance and protection against skin damage. Nature’s characteristic elegance at work.
  • Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acidsYet another reason to make sure you’re getting enough of these wonder molecules: research has shown that higher blood concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids protect the skin against sun damage and decrease the risk of sunburn.
  • Increase your intake of antioxidants, whether by food or supplementation. As we would expect, the very nature of antioxidants protect the skin against sun-induced damage (they counter the effects of free radicals that result from sun exposure, and which cause sunburn).
  • Increase your intake of fruits and veggies. Vegetables like tomatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, and other dark, leafy greens all contain molecules (in addition to antioxidants) that help protect the skin against sun damage.

So, there we have it. I hope this article helps you enjoy the summer sun safely and healthily!

What did you think of this article? Have anything you’d like to add? Let me know in the comments below!

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Leave a Comment!
  • Bryn Hughes

    Interesting post, as a construction worker I’m exposed to sun light all day, 8-9 hours, It’s very rare for my skin to burn, but I get a tan, would this be due to the fact that my skin is ‘used’ to exposure?

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Bryn!

      Yeah, the more you’re exposed, the better your body can deal with it. Routine exposure like yours wasn’t associated with and increase in the risk of developing skin cancer.

      To quote one of the studies:

      “Intermittent sun exposure and sunburn history were shown to play considerable roles as risk factors for melanoma, whereas a high occupational sun exposure seemed to be inversely associated to melanoma.”

      That said, if you do burn at all, I would recommend limiting your exposure. It would also be smart to take other measures to help your body deal with the free radicals that do result from sun exposure, like the fish oil, antioxidants and such.

      • Bryn Hughes

        Will do, thanks

        • Michael Matthews

          My pleasure!

  • Martin

    Again a great article Mike ! Good job, it is very interesting !

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Martin! I’m really glad you liked it!

  • Chris Baxter-Parr

    I hate the feeling on sun cream so any excuse not to wear it is fine by me.
    Thanks for the info!

    • Michael Matthews

      Haha you’re welcome! Make sure to avoid getting burned though!

  • Rob

    Hey Mike,

    Informative as always. One question though. What are your thoughts on Calcium supplementation? I often hear about Calcium and Vitamin D supplementing going hand in hand.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Rob! I think both are smart to supplement if you’re not getting what you need from your diet (and the sun, in the case of D).

  • Jenny Leadem

    I demand a followup article telling me how my pale Irish ass can get a tan. Muscles look so much better when you are not Casper white :'( I try but I just buuurrnnnn. I live in Florida so it should be easy so whhyyyyy

    • Michael Matthews

      Hahah. Would be an interesting subject to research actually. I’m not actually sure what you can take/do to improve “tannability.”

    • Alexa White

      I also have extremely pale skin with similar lineage and live in Florida. I notoriously avoid the beach because I burn easily.

      However, I seem to be tanning this year with little or no intention. I think it’s because I’m mowing the yard for 30 minutes once or twice a week, and spending another 15-30 minutes in the pool (under a cage) once or twice a week. I’ve only used sunscreen once since mowing the lawn regularly, and found that all the grass clippings liked to stick to me because of it, so I stopped using it when I mow.

      My only explanation of why I haven’t burnt and instead have gotten a modicum of color is that I’m in the sun with some regularity and for short periods of time. If you don’t have a yard to mow, maybe a 15-30 minute walk a couple times a week would do the trick for you. This is the tannest I’ve been in 15 years, and the least effort I’ve put into “getting a tan.”

      • Michael Matthews

        That’s very likely Alexa. The more often you’re in the sun, the better your skin learns to deal with it. Getting 15-30 min of sun 2-4x per week is a great way to not only get a tan but stimulate natural vitamin D production without burning.

  • Carlos Anderson

    Hello Mike,

    About the ingredients below, you have something to say?

    Well researched whether they are harmful to health and found no evidence:

    Tinosorb M and Tinosorb S: sunscreen.

    Uvinul ® – The Plus: Effective protection against UVA.

    Uvinul ® 150 T: UVB sunscreen.

  • Carlos Anderson

    Hello Mike,

    About the ingredients below, you have something to say?

    Well researched whether they are harmful to health and found no evidence:

    Tinosorb M and Tinosorb S: sunscreen.

    Uvinul ® – The Plus: Effective protection against UVA.

    Uvinul ® 150 T: UVB sunscreen.

    • Michael Matthews

      From what I’ve seen bisoctrizole looks much more promising in terms of health. No estrogenic properties and minimal photodegradation and skin penetration.

      Not approved by the FDA though, of course. Typical.

  • Quentin

    I love how you look after your British followers too 🙂

    • Michael Matthews

      Brits are the shit! 🙂

      • Quentin

        That’d be all the fibre and roughage we eat 😉

        • Michael Matthews


  • Tish Harris

    Good, albeit intense writing re: skin cancer and “protection”. Because I’ve had melanoma, that thankfully was handled with an outpatient surgery, I must be very, very careful. I’ve been in the sun “playing” all my life, starting as a teen surfing in California. I just turned 60 and believe me when I say, the sun can be your enemy. Whatever you do, be careful. Melanoma is a killer. I do use skin protection, usually an SPF of 30 and clothing that supposedly provides some UVA/UVB protection. I still enjoy the sun during my activities: bike riding, gardening, surfing/boogie boarding, but again I’m very careful. Thank you for shedding some new light on the topic.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks for the comment Tish! I’m really glad to hear your melanoma was handled.

      Yes, the sun can definitely be your enemy, but its danger is exaggerated in most mainstream advice. And the harmful chemicals of sunscreen are rarely talked about.

      Keep enjoying your time outside! 🙂

      • Tish Harris

        Yes, Michael, I did very much appreciate your sharing of the harmful effects of those chemicals. Always a good reminder that yes, our skin does “soak” up what we put on it.
        Thanks for the well wishes! Have a great holiday.

  • Quentin

    Hey Mikey,

    I love the article and I’ve heard similar things before about sunscreen. I believe in the US it is wore than Europe because the FDA has not yet given their approval for ‘safer’ chemicals that are in use in European sunscreens. I personally am still very unsure and avoid sunscreen, so I just cover up as much as I can.

    It got me thinking about hand-creams too, and I wonder how safe a lot of them really are?! It’s scary to think what is absorbed by the skin.

    • Quentin

      An article on moisturisers: http://tryingtobegreener.wordpress.com/2008/10/21/how-safe-is-your-moisturizer/

      It’s funny the one I use (Vaseline Intensive Care) has a very high hazard rating. I think I’ll be switching to Neutrogena!

      • Michael Matthews

        Heh there you go. Not surprised.

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Quentin! Yup you’re totally right. The EU has access to much better chemicals–better protection and none of the health issues surrounding what’s used here in the States. Typical FDA bullshit.

      As far as I know most run-of-the-mill moisturizers have all kinds of junk in them. Same old story.

  • Mariana

    I read this article after buying 5 cans of Banana Boat sunscreen for my pale significant other -_-, luckily, none of the ingredients you pointed out were on there. Score!

    Seriously, great article. I had no idea coconut oil had that added benefit. Like I didn’t love it enough for the million other things I use it for, now I can lather it on instead of crap-ass sunblock

    It’s really scary once you do research on skin products and the ingredients they use. If anyone else is interested (and paranoid) like I am, the least expensive lotions I found for everyday use that don’t have parabens and a million other things you can’t pronounce are Dr. Bronner’s lotions ($9 on Amazon) and Everyday Coconut ($10 at Target).

    • Quentin

      I decided to buy Argan Oil and Shea Butter to use as moisturisers – as Argan Oil especially seems to get good reviews. I don’t know how good they’ll be, but I can only try. I’ve just been put off skin products for life – thanks Mike!

      • Michael Matthews

        Cool, let me know how they work! As a guy I don’t worry about moisturizers but it will be good to know, haha.

        • Quentin

          Lol! I’ve seen your medicine cabinet full of moisturisers! 😉

          • Michael Matthews

            Okay I admit it. I’m a closet moisturizer. 🙁

      • Mariana

        I’ve tried Argan Oil on my hair and I thought it was great. I don’t think you can go wrong with shea butter either 🙂 It might be runnier than what everyone’s used to but I think it’s like the suds in shampoo…chemicals, chemicals, chemicals. Works just fine!

        • Quentin

          Thanks 🙂

          It’s one of those areas: the more you look, the more you find. It’s like Sodium Lauryl (and Laureth) Sulfate is in everything. It’s a chemical detergent and has been shown to thin the skin and damage it’s protective layer. It’s scary – yet doctors are happy to prescribe ointments and moisturisers with these chemicals in for eczema and psoriasis sufferers for example.

    • Michael Matthews

      Are you sure on the BB? I would be very surprised if it didn’t contain any of the harmful chemicals.

      Thanks on the article! 🙂 Coconut oil is the shit! Buy some zinc oxide powder off Amazon and mix some in. It might come out way too white but maybe not–give it a try.

      Yeah many skin products just suck. You really do want to be picky as the skin is incredibly absorbent.

      • Mariana

        Well, I’m a moron and illiterate. I thought maybe it was different because it was spray but BB has retinyl palmitate. On top of that, I researched oxybenzone and that’s the main ingredient in everything. FM. I’m leaving on vacation Monday to your neck of the woods, so I’m going to try and hunt down some zinc oxide powder in person. If not, coconut oil and a prayer it is!

        Have you seen the crap they put into all those smelly lotions, soap, and shampoo? I make my own shampoo and soap now. Screw that.

        • Michael Matthews

          LOL yeah I figured it would be full of shit.

          Remember sun clothing works as well. The key is that you don’t just sit and bake for hours and hours. Getting a tan is healthy, getting burned is not.

          Yeah trying to read the ingredients list of personal care products is freaky… Wow that’s neat. How?

          • Mariana

            You mean peeling isn’t attractive? 🙂

            There are tons of ways of doing it. I make my soap and shampoo the easy AKA lazy way. Messing around with lye and things like that kind of scares me. For soap, you can purchase a good glycerin soap base (I buy this organic kind off of ebay for super cheap), and all you have to do is add any essential oils, shea butter, coconut oil, etc to the base. I usually just weigh a chunk of the soap base, melt it in the microwave or on the stovetop and add the extra stuff before putting it into a mold. The soap comes out great.

            For shampoo, also the lazy way, I bought a castille soap, Dr. Bronner’s specifically, and mix 1tbsp of soap with 1 tsp of coconut milk. You can make the coconut milk or if you don’t have time for that shit, buy one without Guar Gum, ex. Goya brand, and fill up a small bottle with that percentage. Give it a good swirl before you use it each time to mix the ingredients again. If you or your wife want to do it, you can also do an apple cider vinegar rinse after that. 1:3 ratio of ACV to water. I promise, my hair and scalp have never been shinier, healthier, and my hair falls out less. I swear by this stuff now.

            Hopefully that all made sense!

          • Michael Matthews

            Well I’m sure there are some people out there that find it attractive. 🙂

            Cool on the soap and shampoo creations. I’m going to give it a go just for fun. 🙂

  • Guest

    Hey Mike, thanks for another great article. I recently had my vitamin D blood levels checked, as I live in the north of England. Just wondering if you knew what a good result should be? My result was 52 nmol/L? I only recently started supplementing with vitamin D.

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  • Adel-Alexander

    Hmm.. Still.. Skin damage/aging is still a problem when it comes to being exposed to the sun rays right?

    • Adel-Alexander

      As in, your skin still receives damages from the UVA rays right? How do you avoid that while still getting a tan? If that’s possible 😛

    • Yeah that’s still a problem.

  • Jim Walker

    Hello Mike, very informative article,
    Are you concerned about the estrogen-like compounds in other products like shampoo as well.

  • Charles Kendrick

    Hi Mike, curious if you have an opinion on melanotan II, which boosts production of melanin by simulating MSH (melanoctye stimulating hormone). It was initially created to help prevent cancer in lighter-skinned people, but never approved for that purpose, because the FDA does not regard it as self-evident that higher melanin reduces skin cancer. So to prove a benefit, you would need a massive, 20+ year study to demonstrate reduction in skin cancer rates. Apparently nobody had a spare 10 billion on hand to run that study.

    Anyway, melanotan II is legal, available, and what limited clinical information is available shows very mild side-effects at something like 4x the dose needed to enhance tanning. The prospect of a year-round tan from very little sun exposure sounds great, especially since a tan is effective against all the indoor UVA exposure most people don’t realize they’re getting (driving a car, sunny living room or bedroom, etc).

    I haven’t yet found a reason *not* to try it out – do you know of any?

    • I’ve heard of it but haven’t looked into it, really. Personally I don’t use it.

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