Friday, June 17, 2011

Sunburns, Melanoma and Vitamin D: Why I (Mostly) Ditched Sunscreen

After four years of dutifully slathering my kids with sunscreen so that their delicate little baby bottoms wouldn’t burn, one day I just…stopped. I felt like a rebel. Perhaps I was a rebel without a cause, at least I thought I had a cause! I made little fanfare about it. I didn’t discuss it with the hubs and I didn’t tell any of my friends. I mean…what kind of mother takes her toddlers out to play in the sun without putting sunscreen on them?

I have tried moisturizers with SPF. They sat on my skin like a wind breaker. When I would wash them off at night they still felt greasy and heavy, even the 'lightweight' versions. And don't even get me started about the smell. I stopped using them, even though everyone of my friends swore I was going to get skin cancer from my 20-30 minutes of daily sun exposure. I was sure of it too.

But there is something about this thinking that seemed counterintuitive. Rates of skin cancer have skyrocketed in the last hundred years, sending us to hide under sunscreen. In fact authority after authority has proclaimed even small exposure to sun as a major health risk! And then to replicate that bronzey glow we have turned to sunless tanner or rather creams that dye the skin an unnatural orange. I tried them too. And I couldn't get past the smell and uneven, unnatural color. I simply would rather be pale than orange.

But, in all our attempts to save ourselves from melanoma and wrinkles, have we? Skin cancer (both malignant and nonmalignant) rates have gone up dramatically since about 1950, but they have jumped even higher in the last 20 years. While countless doctors claim that this is due to increased awareness and better access to preventative medicine, is it? Overall cancer rates (and cancer deaths) have increased dramatically in the last 50 years and everyone is in agreement that the increase cannot just be attributed to better medical care. But in the last 30 years that we have been hiding ourselves from the sun, have we accomplished anything at all? In fact we have! When one is covered up by sunscreens it turns out that one cannot synthesize Vitamin D. Remember Vitamin D? It is the vitamin that is really a hormone. In food, it is fat soluble and comes with sun related items, think green veggies (chlorophyll needs sunlight to turn green) and animals products from animals who have been outside (think pastured eating green grass not penned eating yellow corn). Vitamin D can also be found in great quantities in oily fish like sardines and salmon. Vitamin D is now thought to be a key player in immunity, making the irony of 'that healthy glow' all the more ironic. Vitamin D is also crucial in keeping cancer from forming, suppressing cold viruses and all around good health. While my kids measure up pretty well in their Vitamin D levels (I had Thing 1 checked), I am still considering a supplement when they start school and daycare in the fall. Perhaps we can have fewer absences as a result. Though to be sure I will use a Cod Liver Oil supplement, or a D3 supplement, rather than the less effective D2.

The American population is currently believed to be Vitamin D deficient in epidemic proportions. It is estimated that up to 40% of the US Population is deficient in Vitamin D near the end of the winter time, when Vitamin D levels are at their lowest because of lack of sun exposure. A healthy measure would be 50 nmol/L. When my son was tested he measured a 90 nmol/L, and that was in the middle of a New England winter. He also doesn't (willingly) eat that much fish nor does he eat an overwhelming amount of greens, though he will eat some. What do we do? We eat fat. Even our milk is unsupplemented, but it is from cows that are outside, and it's whole. Us adults, we eats lots of leafy greens. Hopefully that behavior will be properly modeled and the kids will start to do it soon too! Your levels should never be below 32 nmol/L though, because that can set up children up for rickets (a bone disorder causing curvature of the bones, think bowed legs) and for adults, osteomalacia. As recently as last year the BBC reported a rise in rickets in the UK. And in the US rickets has been on the rise too, though most articles cite only babies as being tested, not all children.

The one thing I am still afraid of afraid of is sunburns. My kids are little bitties and their skin is so soft. So long exposure to sun particularly at the hottest times of the day will require some sun lotion. However do I need to slather every inch of them in it every time we leave the house? I don't think so. And what about SPF? 20 was common when I was growing up, 30 was for the overachievers. Today 50 is common for children's lotions and I have even seen 70. Really? 70 SPF? I wonder if I can even find 20 SPF anymore?

So this summer I am mostly ditching sunscreen, though to be sure I am taking some precautions. I won't be sunbathing specifically for a tan. Whether or not sunbathing causes melanoma, excessive sun exposure sure does cause premature aging, and I am finally old enough to actively fear wrinkles. We will probably avoid the beach during the hottest hours of the day, 12-2. Incidentally the hottest hours of the day are the same time as lunch and nap. And since a beach only intensifies the sun's rays due to the white sand, I will use some sunscreen during our infrequent trips to the beach. We don't want to spend our vacation nursing a sunburn. But if we are going to the playground and the park or just taking a quick walk on the beach boardwalk, I am ditching the potentially risky sunscreens. I am even ditching hats which my kids hate anyway. And if someone asks why I am not taking care of my kids and covering them up, expect the long answer. So, judgers beware, I can TALK your ear off.

Common sense kept us healthy for so long, why did we abandon it in the last 50 years for something newer and shinier? All our attempts to make life better with chemicals and manmade unnatural products have only served to make us sicker. Save money this summer! Ditch the sunscreen and use some common sense instead! Maybe then the rates of melanoma and nonmalignant skin cancers will start going down.

More References:

Articles, Dr. Mercola: Some Spray Tans Stop you from producting Vitamin D

Dr. Mercola's Book on the Propaganda of the Evils of Sun Exposure: Dark Deception Melanoma related to the Consumption of Polyunsaturated Oils (Will you just give this up already?)

CA Cancer J Clin: Malignent Melanoma (Includes Risk of Skin Cancer in the Last 80 Years

National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements: Vitamin D

This post is shared with Food Renegade's Fight Back Friday and Traditional Tuesdays and Simple Lives Thursdays at Sustainable Eats and GNOWFLINS and Others


  1. We're with you! Even in our hot Moroccan sun we go sans sunblock. We avoid midday sun and opt for early morning or late afternoon, and when it's really bright and sunny we bring our beach tent with us and the kids wear hats. So far no one in the family has experienced a sunburn. I think our parents were on to something when they said just a little each day to build a base, instead of going out and frying our bodies. As for other sources of D3, we've all taken to eating a tsp to tbs. of fish roe each day. It has the synergistic combo of A, K, and D (so many people forget D is uneffective and can be toxic without A and K). The kids love the texture of the roe and think they're fun to pop in their mouths- I like it better than Cod Liver Oil because I only know of one source (green pastures fermented cod liver oil) in which the Omega 3s don't go rancid- and I can't buy it here. So we opt for the real deal. Good for you in being loud and proud about skipping the sunblock.

  2. We lost my Dad to melanoma in the late 90s. My Dr insists on sunscreen with of SPF 30 or higher.

    We only use sunscreen where Titanium Dioxide are the Zinc Oxide major ingredients (Neutrogena Pure & Free). They don't absorb into the skin but act as a barrier. Protection is instant. The down size, it can rub off on you clothes, it's harder to rub in, sometime you look a little white.

    I don't go around telling anyone, but we have only been using sunscreen when we are out for an extended amount of time, where I think we will burn. If we are out at the beach, zoo, etc. If we are just going to play in the yard at 4, mostly in the shade, then we skip it. I do try to get them to wear hats. I worry about sun in their eyes. I'm super sensitive and worry about theirs. I never wore hats/sunglasses growing up.

    I'd love to hear your thoughts on sunscreen. There is controversy on whether Titanium Dioxide is actually "safe". Right now I choose it over the other chemicals ;)

    Linda E

  3. Just a little PSA: It's important for everyone to get their skin checked, at least every other year. The best way to prevent skin cancer of either type is to catch it early.

    My father's was not seen until it was a large patch in the middle of his back. He worked an office job, never wore sunscreen. Personally, I believe they haven't really figured out the best way to prevent melanoma. You have to do what you think is best.


  4. We're on board too. :) Part of my Dh's job involves going to water parks 2-3 days a week. In the last few years, we've been intentional about getting plenty of omega 3s and avoiding sugar, and he has yet to burn, in spite of not wearing sunscreen.


  5. I thought you might find this interesting since you are ditching sunscreen. Most sunscreens are made with toxic chemicals anyway and aren’t that great for us. My husband and I just got back from a 2 week vacation in Mexico. We went snorkeling and scuba diving every day. We walked around Playa del Carmen and went on tours and didn’t use sunscreen. We also didn’t get burnt at all and here is why. About a month ago I heard about Astaxanthin. It’s from marine algae that live in some pretty harsh environments. I started taking it for my bad knee which now feels great. It’s good for a lot of things one of which is to protect against sun damage. After a day at the pool where my husband slathered on the spf 30 and I used nothing he was amazed I didn’t any tan burn, nothing. So he started taking it before we went on our trip. Of course you still need to be smart. It won’t give you a super human ability to withstand any amount of sun but if you aren’t the type to lie on the beach and try to bake yourself coffee colored then it’s just the right amount of protection.

  6. I came to a similar conclusion last year and blogged about this just last week! This year I needed to find a sunscreen to use occasionally as my red-headed baby is burning in the sun. I used EWG's 2011 Sunscreen Guide to find a less toxic variety and also use hats, rash guards, and staying out of the noon-time sun when possible to protect us as well.
    Here's my post:

    Thanks for the great information. I'm glad I'm not the only one to reach these conclusions.

  7. Thanks for talking about this. It seems like a very taboo subject. I, like the previous posts can't say anything about not using sunscreen or people freak out. I do make my own with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. We only use it when we are going to be outside for long.
    I was very paranoid of my family getting skin cancer because I know I had been brainwashed by the media. Now I am trusting that since we don't eat anything that isn't real or I didn't make and We have no chemicals being used in our house or on our bodies, we will stay healthy.

  8. Great post, I've been thinking the same thing. I find sunscreen extremely unpleasant and am resistant to using it although I work outside and am very fair. I do sometimes wonder if the sun is more harsh than it was 30 years ago....

  9. I think you've confused the units - it should be ng/ml not nMoles/L (ng/ml is used in the US and nMoles/L is more frequently used in canada and the EU). You seem to have the correct numbers but with the wrong units. One should keep their 25-OH-D3 level between 50-80ng/ml optimally to prevent cancer and other chronic western diseases. Btw...if you have a vit D level in nMoles/L and you want to convert it to ng/ml you divide by 2.5. And if you want to convert from ng/ml to nMoles/L you multiply by 2.5.

  10. Anonymous July 31st, thanks for commenting. But I have double checked my measurements and I think I have it correct. My son's measurement was 90. According to the Vitamin D council, that would be within a healthy range for Vitamin D when measured in nmol/L. My doctor gave me a reading of 27 recently, which she said was above the 25 that she usually recommends for patients. I have to assume that she is using the ng/mL. Neither my son nor I were measured to have excessive Vitamin D, neither of us take supplements. So with with my reading at 27 and his at 90, I have to assume that my units are correct.
    But thanks for making me double check. It is always good to do so.

  11. I'm with you! One of our baby-shower gifts was a bottle of baby sunscreen, and after looking up the ingredients we resolved to use it on the baby only for extended sun exposure. We found that he just didn't burn during normal outdoor excursions, and neither do we, even though our skin color matches the second-lightest shade of make-up. We do wear floppy hats to shade our faces since that's where we're most likely to burn--makes it easier to see without squinting, too!

    The funny thing is that both my partner and I used to be prone to sunburn when we were younger. We think changing our diet has made us less burnable. We don't eat quite like you; we eat no meat other than fish, no lard, a little less dairy than USDA recommends, mostly plant foods and olive oil. We think maybe avoiding processed foods with all their soybean oil, corn syrup or white sugar, white flour, and weird additives has made our skin healthier.

    Thanks for spreading the word!

  12. My hubby started a website with a page on this subject, after our son got badly burned at school. He gets info from an astro-physicist in England who has been right on in predicting effects from solar flares. You can go on there and check to see what to do according to fairness of skin, length of exposure, and how much "gear" to put on the kids. Hope this helps!

  13. I have ditched the sunscreen too. We have significantly reduced/eliminated PUFA consumption and increased saturated fat in our diet. I also use coconut oil exclusively on the skin now. It's been about 2 summers and while we still have aways to go, I see a significant difference in the way my skin reacts to the sun from one summer to the next. I can stay out longer with skin exposure and have it tan instead of burn.