Soaking up sun has its defenders
Natural health fans doubt warnings, worry about chemicals
Another summer has faded away, and all that’s left is a dimming glow from time spent frolicking in the sun. How many rays did you soak up this year? Did you get a tan?
That’s a hot topic. Dermatologists are more strident than ever in warning against the damage caused by the sun, going so far as to encourage using sunscreen yearround.
Practitioners in the natural health movement, however, are saying we need to rethink how we protect ourselves.
“There’s no question that sun exposure causes skin cancer,” says Dr. Michael Todd, educational spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation.
“The pattern I see over and over is having patients in their 30s, 40s, early 50s saying how stupid they were when they were teens or in their 20s: ‘I thought I was so cool, putting the baby oil or iodine all over me in the sun, and tanning like crazy,’ “ he says.
The Skin Cancer Foundation is perhaps the most adamant organization against “unprotected” sun exposure. Among its year-round sun safety tips are using sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day, reapplying it every two hours after swimming or excessive sweating, examining your skin once a month and seeing a doctor once a year for a skin care exam.
And yes, the foundation really does mean every day. The latest edition of the Skin Cancer Foundation Journal has a Sun Safety Calendar that describes all the reasons people need to wear sunscreen year-round.
So, does Dr. Todd wear sunscreen every day, as his foundation implores us all to do?
“No. A lot of my patients do. It’s weighing the risks,” he says. “If I go to the beach, I do. If I go in to the office, I don’t. It’s about weighing your risks.”
On the other side of the coin, the natural health movement, most evident in the organic boom seen in supermarkets all over the country, has many widely known figures who insist that open exposure to the sun not only is not dangerous but is necessary for optimum health.
Dr. Joseph Mercola, who runs the popular mercola.com Web site, which claims 1.4 million subscribers, says he starts his workday in the wee hours of the morning just so he can get out in the midday sun every day. He claims vitamin D deficiency from lack of sunlight is one of the leading health problems in America and that the sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) rays must be present for the body to absorb Vitamin D.
To Dr. Mercola, the hottest part of the day is the healthiest part of the day. Scores of his fellow alternative health practitioners make similar claims.
Krispin Sullivan, a clinical nutritionist based outside Los Angeles, has spent the past decade studying the sun and its effects on humans and is author of the provocatively titled book “Naked at Noon: Understanding the Importance of Sunlight and Vitamin D.”
“First of all, very few people die of skin cancer.” Ms. Sullivan says. “Melanoma is treated, but it is essentially a very rare cancer. Most skin cancers dermatologists are talking about are very minor cancers that are burned off.
“The better question is: Will you get skin cancer?”
To her, it’s not a simple question of too much sun.
“It depends on your genetics; it depends on the color of your skin, where you live now; it depends on whether you have a natural source of vitamin A in your diet like liver once or twice a week, the content of vitamin C in your diet. Skin levels are lowered by exposure to UV light, and if you’re replenished, your skin is able to repair itself.”
“Naked at Noon” makes the argument that nutrition can strengthen one’s ability to handle the sun. In the book, Ms. Sullivan laments the decline of all those healthy foods common in American homes not so long ago:
“Let’s assume nature intended us to get some sunlight. Before 1955, butter, cream and whole milk, daily, and liver once a week were commonly served in many American homes. In 1909, the per-capita intake of butter was 17 pounds per person per year. By 1945, this had dropped to 11 pounds per person per year and by 1970 a further drop to 5 pounds per person per year.”
Dr. Todd says he does not believe in using diet as a means of sun protection.
“There are so many factors that can play a role. Diet, antioxidants can help, but immune systems evolve over time,” he says. “I don’t promote [diet] as a first line; the first line is protect yourself.”
Dr. Todd says he isn’t against being in the sun, he is against being out there without protection. As for those worried about vitamin D deficiencies, he maintains that they can absorb all the vitamin D they need every day while still wearing sunscreen.
Ms. Sullivan disagrees about the causes of skin cancer.
“Excessive exposure to sunlight will damage human skin. [. . .] However, the increase in incidence in skin cancer doesn’t have everything to do with sun exposure or ozone layers or anything else.”
She tells the story of a woman living in Australia who had to have 50 or more small skin cancers or precancerous lesions removed from her skin every year.
“Fifty or more little spots every year,” Ms. Sullivan says. “And she had to use sunscreen, and she had to stay out of the sun, and it drove her crazy. She ate well, she had a decent diet.”
The woman then heard Linda Chae, a developer of organic and toxin-free cosmetics, speak about how the chemicals we put on our skin — cosmetics, cleansers, soaps and shampoos — destroy the stratum corneum, the skin’s natural protection against the sun’s UVA and UVB rays.
“Our ancestors did not bathe every day like we do,” Ms. Sullivan says, “and they certainly did not use detergent soap. Those are all new inventions, these are all new to everybody. [. . .] And when you’re using different soaps and exfoliants or whatever, it strips off and destroys the stratum corneum. And when you destroy the stratum corneum, then UVA and UVB both do profound damage to the skin.
“So for a year, this woman washed only with water. [. . .] Within one year’s time, she went back, and she had no skin damage whatsoever, and she had been spending more time in the sun than ever before. And to this day, she has not had it because she quit stripping off the top layer of her skin.”
To Ms. Sullivan, the woman’s story rings true. “Naked at Noon” cites a detailed work by professor Ronald Marks of the University of Wales and two associates titled “The Essential Stratum Corneum,” published in 2002. In it, the authors write:
“Even amongst both physicians and biologists, the stratum corneum [. . . ] has been a much undervalued structure and dermatologists have not, until quite recently, thought of this membrane as being of major importance. The reasons for this misperception are, first, that routine histological preparations deform and distort the stratum corneum so that appears wispy and insignificant. Secondly, there has been [a] paucity of techniques that can afford an accurate view of this horny structure.”
To Ms. Sullivan, there is nothing wispy or insignificant about this layering.
“It is our covering. It’s our skin. It’s the thing between us and the sun, us and pollution and us and chemicals, and we take it off every day with chemicals that we put on our skin. So it plays a huge role in skin cancer.”
How I spent my summer vacation: Darly Or tega of New York applies sunscreen on her son Sabatian. Dermatologists and others concerned about skin cancer would applaud, but natural health advocates tout sun benefits.