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Leave the sun screen at home!

But isn’t the link between sunbathing and cancer common sense? Well yes, it is, but not necessarily right.

In 1975, faced with 30 years of increasing rates of skin cancer, the State Government of Queensland in Australia followed the medical establishment common sense link between sunbathing and skin cancer, and embarked on a massive campaign to raise their citizens’ awareness of the dangers. At first it appeared to be hugely successful. People quickly accepted that exposure to the sun could give them skin cancer. High-factor sun screens were slapped onto every inch of skin whenever they left the house. If children were even allowed outside they were dressed in long-armed T-shirts, long trousers, socks and hats. The sun screen on their hands and faces was renewed every hour.

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Sunbathing and sun tans became unfashionable. Pasty white was the new bronze, but there was a problem. Someone noticed that the rate of malignant melanoma, the most serious, often fatal, skin cancer, had not fallen but doubled during the ten years since the campaign began, and that the rate in children had risen to its highest ever, 30 cases per million, seven times that in Europe. Furthermore, rickets had made a big come back, as had all the other illnesses linked to vitamin D deficiency, including breast and prostate cancers, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes.

Revised and re-issued in 1988, Australia's Cancer Council's ‘Sun Smart’ guidelines urged Australians to show a little skin as described above, but with no effect. Most Aussies are still paranoid about the sun. Even so, nearly all of the sunbathers you see on Bondi Beach are still foreign tourists.

Vitamin D
Adequate levels of vitamin D are essential to many body functions, which is why vitamin D deficiency has been linked to so many illnesses, from osteomalacia (rickets) and high blood pressure to colon, breast, prostate and ovarian cancer, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes. It can be acquired through food or a food supplement, but the best way is by exposing your skin and eyes to direct sunlight, at least during the summer months.

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From late Spring to early Autumn, in sunny Cyprus or San Francisco, for instance, 30 minutes exposure of the face and arms is sufficient to produce enough vitamin D for several days. In countries further north or south of the 30° latitude lines, where the angle of sunlight is more oblique, at least 45 minutes is required. From mid Autumn to mid Spring, as the angle of sunlight becomes more oblique, more exposure is needed. In countries within 30° of the equator 45 minutes to an hour is necessary. In countries further from the equator, no amount of exposure can generate sufficient vitamin D. Maximising vitamin D-rich foods,* or taking a vitamin D supplement is necessary. Two thirds of Britons fail to do this and are vitamin D-deficient by the end of their cold, grey winter.

N.B. The exposure to the ultraviolet rays in sunlight must be direct, not through glass. This means venturing outside, not taking the car for a stroll, and not wearing sunglasses.

How much vitamin D do I need?
The UK Department of Health’s recommended dietary allowance (RDA) is five micrograms or 200 international units (i.u.) a day. The human body thinks it needs much more. Given enough ultraviolet light on the skin and eyes, it produces 500 micrograms a day for itself. Even more amazingly, it keeps the level of new vitamin D at 500 micrograms. Any excess produced is destroyed! No-one yet knows why, but zoologists do know that Nature never designs such complex systems without good reason. Why is there such a big difference? RDAs were first set during World War II by the US National Academy of Sciences as guidelines for keeping soldiers alive. The body is interested in achieving the best possible health.

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Sun screens
When there is a sudden unexpected epidemic of some illness, particularly of a new illness, scientists quite rightly look for changes in lifestyle which have developed over the same period. Sometimes the link they make is spot on. Sometimes another equally plausible link is missed. Here, the huge rise in sunbathing and the two week bronzing blitz abroad were the common sense links.

It looks like no-one in the scientific establishment, and certainly no scientist employed by cosmetics manufacturers, ever chose to note that the use of sun lotions and sun screens had also soared. Could it be not only sun screens’ ultraviolet light-blocking ability, but also the many chemicals they contain, that are the main problems?

The skin is the body’s largest organ. It absorbs up to 60% of anything spread on it. Most sun lotions and sun screens contain chemicals which are thought to increase the risk of cancer. These include:

psoralen Now restricted to one part per billion in sun screens following the finding that fair skinned people who used sun screens containing psoralen ran a fourfold risk of melanoma

para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) Damages DNA, increasing the risk of skin cancer

titanium dioxide Thought to be cancer-causing, and now used in its more toxic nanoparticle form

six other UVB screening chemical compounds which all made cancer cells grow rapidly in laboratory tests

What to do?
The UK Department of Health recommends against sun screens because many only protect against burning, not against skin cancer, and people think that they can stay in the sun longer. Green Health Watch agrees, but also because of the dangerous chemicals most sun screens contain. In our view, they should only be used when absolutely essential. This goes especially for children, whose smaller body sizes and weights make any toxic chemicals their skin absorbs even more damaging.

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(11701) Nick Anderson. Green Health Watch Magazine