Well that was interesting. After 15 months and 45 blog posts, who would have thought the one that really sparked a fire in those reading it, and led to such a great debate would be the one on a topic seemingly as banal as sunscreen use (link here if you missed it). I expected some commentary, but I certainly did not expect the reaction I got. It was great, I loved it. However, as I fielded questions and accusations on the day after I published the piece it struck me that a follow up was probably required. Not everyone will have seen the many many articles and videos I posted up on Instagram as the conversation raged on. As I sit down to type this it is Wednesday 11th September, which also happens to be Diada Nacional de Catalunya (National Day of Catalonia). I’m currently on my 7th day in Barcelona, I opted to extend my stay to see the Festival, and then I decided I wanted to see Barcelona FC take on Valencia on Saturday, so I’ve just booked a further three nights. This is the beauty of travelling without a plan, the flexibility, going with the flow – it felt right to stay here, so fuck it, why not hang out longer. I might write a post about that at some point too.
It was an awesome experience, walking around the city, Catalonian flags everywhere, the people excitedly chattering endlessly (as the Catalans are prone to do), posters and yellow ribbons hanging in every shop and window. Whilst I strolled around my phone repeatedly buzzed with comments and questions from readers of the blog all around the world, on the subject of sunscreen, vitamin D and skin cancer. Normally I would have turned my phone off, but I’m travelling alone, and I was game for some interaction, so for once I didn’t dwell on my phone usage and got stuck in.
To address what came up in the conversation I figured I’ll take some of the comments and address them directly below. But first let me say this:
I am not condoning or suggesting anyone go out in hot midday sun and burn themselves to a crisp. Take responsibility for your own health. Tap into what your skin is telling you when you’re out in the sun. I can’t imagine anyone read the post and thought “oh Chris said to forget the sunscreen, nothing to worry about“, but I figured I should clarify just in case… The message contained in the original post was simple, we need more sun exposure than we think we need, and we need to be mindful about how quickly we reach for the sunscreen. And do not forget the dietary factor – sun tolerance is linked to having sufficient quantities of good quality saturated fat in the diet. Diets high in sugar, refined grains, alcohol, caffeine and vegetable oils are inflammatory – being in a state of inflammation will reduce your skin’s ability to properly process the sun’s rays.
Ok so let’s dive into my responses:
1. Someone nominated me for a Darwin award. For those who don’t know, a Darwin award isn’t a real award, it’s whimsical, but to be nominated for one you essentially have to have ended your own life in an idiotic, possibly funny fashion.
Response: Well first off – LOL. But seriously, sun exposure is hellish important, and done properly, mindfully, it’s actually really sodding beneficial. Homo Sapiens evolved in outdoor environments. The invention of house, office, car and train are relatively brand new in the grand scheme of things, and let’s not forget to leave sunscreen off that list – it was invented in the 1930s. For millions of years we have evolved in tandem with the natural world. Living our lives out in the open, and sleeping under the stars. Obviously these primitive living quarters came with their drawbacks; think weather; big fuck-off cats wanting to eat you; other tribes wanting to steal your food and women; creepy crawlies; bugs, natural disasters, etc. You get the picture. However, drawbacks or not, one cannot deny that this is the environment we evolved and thrived in, over millions of years, and guess what? We got a lot of sun on our faces and bodies living this kind of life. If you go back and re-read the original post you’ll see that the overarching theme was one that suggested we should be getting a hell of a lot more sun than we are. I’ll take the Darwin award, he was the godfather of evolution after all, and that’s where the basis for my argument lies.
2. Someone told me that I should not be out in the midday sun without sunscreen on, because if I go even slightly pink or develop new freckles then I’m damaging my skin.
Response: Newsflash! Just being awake takes a toll on the human body. Eating, shagging, drinking, smoking, walking, cranking out some burpies, taking a dump, and even yoga (gasp) are a form of stress on our physical being. From the moment we are born we are aging and headed towards an eventual and inevitable death. That does not mean that the above is bad for you (okay maybe smoking is bad for you). As any bodybuilder knows, you have to stress the muscle for it to grow, and really, I see sun exposure a bit like this. YES, of course you shouldn’t burn, but being outside, developing a slight pinkness to the skin, and maybe a few additional freckles ain’t gonna kill anyone, if anything, it’s the opposite….and that leads me to my next and primary point.
3. “Where’s the proof that sun exposure is as important as you make out, Chris?”
Response: Right, so I figure none of you want to trawl through a heap of scientific journals, but I rather enjoy it, so here’s a few snippets of what I found, (Note; if you want to skip ahead you could probably jump to #6 and read the footnote):
- A Swedish study of 27,000 women over 20 years, found that those who avoided the sun had twice the likelihood of dying of any cause. Not just cancer. Heart disease, diabetes, etc. (link here)
- The European Journal of Cancer put together a review of a whole bunch of other studies and came to the conclusion that having optimal levels of vitamin D protected against a whole range of cancers, including; prostate, colorectal, non hodgkins lymphoma and breast. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have a preventative effect on other cancers, but it’s extremely possible that we just don’t have the info yet (speculation) (link to study here)
- This study found that cancer incidence for all invasive cancers and for 11 of 22 leading cancers significantly decreased with increased solar radiation (link here)
- Nearly every cell in your body has Vitamin D receptor sites, even the ones in the brain. So I ask the question, why is that? Is it possibly because every cell needs vitamin D to function effectively? This study (link here) states: “Vitamin D regulates the expression of more than 900 genes involved in a wide array of physiological functions”. and it concludes: “Vitamin D is associated with immunity against certain infections and with the prevalence of some autoimmune diseases”
- The Endocrine Society has come out and stated that vitamin D plays a crucial role in the functioning of the immune system, enabling the normal response to infection and regulating inflammation. It’s also important in maintaining muscle mass, and potentially cardiac function (the heart is a muscle after all) – link here.
- Data from the National Diet and Nutritition indicated that 61.4% of UK adults have insufficient levels of vitamin D in their blood. Now, bear in mind that fair Caucasian people like myself need considerably less sun exposure to optimise vitamin D, our fair skin and light eyes are optimised for making the most of the diminished sun on offer. Darker skinned people require three to five times more sun than their lighter skinned compadres. (link here – and I thoroughly recommend reading)
- The endocrine society’s levels should be considered the lower end of the required levels. If you’re sick, loaded with toxins, depressed, overweight or ‘metabolically challenged’ you may well want to be aiming for much higher levels of Vitamin D in order to facilitate healing.
- We should not rely on vitamin D from food or supplements. A decent portion of wild salmon (not farmed) will give you approximately 1/6th of the minimum daily dose of vitamin D. Not many people I know are eating wild salmon once a month, let alone 6 times a day. And remember, that’s the minimum dose, if you’re already deficient you need much more than the bare minimum.
- Sun exposure has been shown to protect against digestive tract disease and inflammation, specifically IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) and diverticulitis (link here). It can also reduce eczema (link here)
- SPF30 Sunscreen blocks around 96% of UV rays, SPF50 blocks 98%. If you’re wearing it all day it’s going to be preventing your Vitamin D production dramatically.
I could go on and on here, but I don’t want to overdo the science.
4. “Everyone knows sun exposure is important, Chris, but that’s not a reason to tell people not to use sunscreen!” . Interestingly, the author of this even admitted in the same message that sunscreen is toxic, but said we should still use it. To me it’s evidence of the power of marketing, that these companies have been able to persuade us that something toxic is good for us….comparisons could be drawn with cigarette smoking, and Guinness…).
Response: Ok, so firstly, hopefully we’ve established from the evidence above that sun exposure and vitamin D is VERY important to the healthy functioning of a human being. I’m also cognizant of the fact that prolonged sun exposure, especially in midday sun, and especially for fair-skinned people is damaging, very damaging. It’s 12.30pm here in Barcelona, it’s 28C outside and so I’m sat inside working on this until at least 3 or 4pm when I’ll head out to soak up some of the good stuff. At no point, and in no way am I suggesting that anyone go out and burn. If you live in Australia and are reading this I recommend a weather app called OzWeather, it will give you hourly UV rating updates. Anything over a rating of 6 and I’m keeping my exposure to short bursts. Arm yourself with knowledge. Knowledge is power.
5. Do you also believe in ‘Flat Earth Theory’
Response: HAHAHAHA. No.
6. Three people wrote to warn me of the risk of melanoma, one was personally affected by a close family member suffering from the disease, one works in the field, and the other’s parent was a dermatologist who spent three decades cutting skin cancer out of people. These people have made me appreciate the sensitive nature of what I have writing about, for them my piece was ‘triggering’. This follow up was largely motivated by their words to me, it made me realise I needed to dig deeper and maybe clarify some of what I had proposed. I am sorry if I caused those people any mental anguish. But I’m also writing about something I believe in, and I make no apologies for that.
Response: This study (link here) is quite frankly, incredible, I’m just going to pull out the bits about melanoma first:
“The only identified risk associated with the amount of non-burning sun exposure needed to achieve serum 25(OH)D levels of 30 ng/mL is some possible increased risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer.”
So, non-burning sun exposure is not seen as a risk for melanoma.
“the relationship between melanoma and UV radiation is 2-sided: non-burning sun exposure is associated with a reduced risk of melanoma, while sunburns are associated with a doubling of the risk of melanoma. It has long been observed that outdoor workers have a lower incidence of melanoma than indoor workers”
In fact it’s seen as a positive factor in reducing the chance of melanoma
“The incidence of melanoma in the United States has increased dramatically from 1 per 100,000 people per year in 1935 to 23 per 100,000 per year in 2012. Various explanations for this phenomenon have been suggested, including diagnostic drift, depletion of the ozone layer, the widespread use of artificial UVR devices (sunbeds), and the proliferation of large windows in office buildings. None of these explanations is particularly satisfactory for the reason that none explains the steady increase in melanoma incidence since 1935″
A more plausible explanation for the rise in melanoma incidence since 1935 may be the continually-increasing insufficient non-burning sun exposure and related increasing vitamin D deficiency/insufficiency
This is mad! Everyone thinks the sun causes melanoma, but in fact it appears that not getting enough sun is the culprit.
It’s also worth sharing this:
This review considers the studies that have shown a wide range health benefits from sun/UV exposure. These benefits include among others various types of cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer disease/dementia, myopia and macular degeneration, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. The message of sun avoidance must be changed to acceptance of non-burning sun exposure sufficient to achieve serum 25(OH)D concentration of 30 ng/mL or higher in the sunny season and the general benefits of UV exposure beyond those of vitamin D.
I make no money from this blog, it’s merely a hobby. Regular readers will know that I share my thoughts on all manner of topics, some theoretical, some deeply personal. The blog has provided a creative outlet for me, which in retrospect was missing prior. The blog is not an ego piece, but at the same time I cannot claim it to be entirely intrinsic, I can’t deny feeling a rush of pride when someone tells me that I’m a good writer or that they’ve enjoyed a particular piece. Primarily though, I write it for the enjoyment of the writing, and the subsequent engagement of my friends in lively debate and conversation. As I delve more and more into the topics of health and ‘wellness’, inspired and motivated by my own periods of poor health, I feel the urge to share this newfound knowledge, in the hope that my own suffering may bring some light or assistance to someone in need (for instance a friend of a friend just moved out of her mouldy apartment having read my piece on that – hearing that almost made my heart burst). The blog may be written by me, but it is not just about me, it comes from a place of love, for everyone, for the world. The last thing I want is for people to be upset by the blog, so please always bear in mind that the opinions written here, and the experiences described, are mine alone. That does not mean I am right, and yes, it’s remotely possible that I’m wrong on certain things <insert winky face>. Like the rest of us, I am on a journey of life, unlike most of us I’ve opted to start sharing some of that journey with anyone who wishes to read, and this leaves me somewhat vulnerable. I am human, I am (relatively) young, I will make mistakes, and my inexperienced writing will sometimes get the tone wrong, sometimes it will offend. BUT to censor myself, to not write from my heart, as I always try to do, would be a disservice to me, and to you. When I try to polish and structure my posts too much they fail, they lose the relatable nature of which people often comment positively. The fact that Tuesday’s post created such a response, some supportive, some challenging – is great. I welcome the discourse, it means people care, that they’ve taken the time to read what I’ve written, which in a world of work stress, mortgage stress, changing nappies, netflix, instagram, and god knows what else, is an incredible complement, one for which I’m very grateful.
I’ve started ending my posts with the signature:
I mean it.
Now go get out in that sun, BUT FOR GOD’S SAKE DON’T BURN 🙂