Stab Magazine | Have We Been Thinking About Sunscreen All Wrong?
997 Views

Have We Been Thinking About Sunscreen All Wrong?

New studies show that sun protection and avoidance may be killing us in the long run.

Words by stab

If you live anywhere near the equator, chances are you wear sunscreen every time you surf.

There are two primary reasons for this:

1. Sunscreen protects against short-term burns and

2. It also protects against long-term health issues, especially melanoma, a lethal form of skin cancer most often caused by sun exposure.

It’s been instilled in us since we were kids to always apply and re-apply sunscreen whenever we’re out in the sun. That UV rays are extremely harmful and, if left un-blocked, they can lead to serious issues or death.

I am not here to refute any of those points. Sunburn is bad for humans and sun-related skin cancer, specifically melanoma, can be lethal.

But comparatively to other sun-related diseases, or should I say recently-discovered sun-related diseases, melanoma is not actually all that likely to kill people, while the lack of sun exposure might just be.

a.baa Hiding from sun on beach
Stay away, UVA!

A recent article in Outside highlighted this point by breaking down recent studies on Vitamin D. We recommend that anyone interested in the sun/skin debate reads the article in its entirety (here), but if you prefer the sparknotes surfer-dude addition, please continue here.

First, let’s talk about one of the biggest indicators of health in humans:

Vitamin D is a group of fat-soluble secosteroids that forms when our skin is exposed to sun. It is vital to human health, as, “People with low levels of vitamin D in their blood have significantly higher rates of virtually every disease and disorder you can think of: cancer, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis, heart attack, stroke, depression, cognitive impairment, autoimmune conditions, and more.”

That’s from Outside, who quoted a litany scientific studies in their piece.

Vitamin D production was never an issue for early humans, who spent the majority of their lives outside – hunting, foraging, or working off the land – and often wore very little clothing. But nowadays most humans spend their days inside, working office or factory jobs and not getting anywhere near the amount of sun as our forebears. Those of us who do spend time in the sun usually wear sunscreen, as is doctor-recommended.

But sunscreen not only protects us from burns and cancers – it also blocks our ability to produce Vitamin D.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, this is okay.

“You need to protect your skin from the sun every day, even when it’s cloudy,” says the AAD website.

Better to protect ourselves with hats, coverups, and sunscreen, they say, and compensate with vitamin D pills. 

George has it sorted.

“Yet vitamin D supplementation has failed spectacularly in clinical trials,” says Outside. “Five years ago, researchers were already warning that it showed zero benefit, and the evidence has only grown stronger. In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of the vitamin ever conducted—in which 25,871 participants received high doses for five years—found no impact on cancer, heart disease, or stroke.”

But how would you go about comparing the importance of Vitamin D in human health to the malignance of melanoma?

Let’s jump to Richard Weller, a Scottish dermatologist who recently made a discovery about Vitamin D.

“Weller’s doubts began around 2010, when he was researching nitric oxide, a molecule produced in the body that dilates blood vessels and lowers blood pressure,” states Outside. “He discovered a previously unknown biological pathway by which the skin uses sunlight to make nitric oxide.

“It was already well established that rates of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and overall mortality all rise the farther you get from the sunny equator, and they all rise in the darker months. Weller put two and two together and had what he calls his ‘eureka moment’: Could exposing skin to sunlight lower blood pressure?

“Sure enough, when he exposed volunteers to the equivalent of 30 minutes of summer sunlight without sunscreen, their nitric oxide levels went up and their blood pressure went down. Because of its connection to heart disease and strokes, blood pressure is the leading cause of premature death and disease in the world, and the reduction was of a magnitude large enough to prevent millions of deaths on a global level.”

That’s a little vague, so let’s crunch the numbers between heart disease and melanoma.

Every year, the amount of Americans that die from melanoma is roughly 3 in 100,000 – a number that’s already low but could be theoretically lowered if Yanks spent less time exposed to sun.

At the same time, more than 300 of 100,000 Americans die from cardiovascular disease, which according to Weller’s study, could be significantly decreased if people spent more time in the sun.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that 30% of Americans spent more time in the sun. In theory, assuming these numbers work on a linear scale, this would decrease the number of cardiovascular deaths by a rate of 100 per 100,000 and increase melanoma deaths by just 1 per 100,000.

vtcs15 strider owen 800 533
WSL commentator Strider Wasilewski was so pasty that he created his own sunscreen company – Shade.

But theory doesn’t mean much when it comes to human lives, so let’s look at the country of Australia, which lives beneath a giant hole in the ozone layer, for comparison.

Australians die from melanoma at a rate nearly 3x that of Americans, which sounds drastic but is actually just 8 per 100,000.

Meanwhile Australia’s cardiovascular-related death rate is only 173 per 100,000, which is right around half of the American equivalent.

Overall, significantly less Australians are dying from the combination of melanoma and cardiovascular-related diseases than are Americans, which could be in part due to their increased sun exposure (among other factors).

If the data is indeed indicative of this, people should be worrying more about heart disease than they do melanoma, which means spending more time exposed to the sun rather than covering up with hats, shirts, and sunscreen.

But not all experts agree.

“‘I don’t argue with their data,” David Fisher, chair of the dermatology department at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Outside. ‘But I do disagree with the implications.’ The risks of skin cancer, he believes, far outweigh the benefits of sun exposure. ‘Somebody might take these conclusions to mean that the skin-cancer risk is worth it to lower all-cause mortality or to get a benefit in blood pressure,’ he says. ‘I strongly disagree with that.’ It is not worth it, he says, unless all other options for lowering blood pressure are exhausted.”

maxresdefault5
Julian Wilson follows the doctors’ orders with his Sunbum blend.

Meanwhile, Weller isn’t the only scientist who has come to sun-positive conclusions.

“Pelle Lindqvist, a senior research fellow in obstetrics and gynecology at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, tracked the sunbathing habits of nearly 30,000 women in Sweden over 20 years,” says Outside. “Originally, he was studying blood clots, which he found occurred less frequently in women who spent more time in the sun—and less frequently during the summer. Lindqvist looked at diabetes next. Sure enough, the sun worshippers had much lower rates. Melanoma? True, the sun worshippers had a higher incidence of it—but they were eight times less likely to die from it.

“So Lindqvist decided to look at overall mortality rates, and the results were shocking. Over the 20 years of the study, sun avoiders were twice as likely to die as sun worshippers.”

Outside posited that with all things considered, the avoidance of sun exposure has a risk factor on par with smoking, in terms of life expectancy.

So how does this make any sense? As long as I can remember, doctors have been telling me to cover up and protect myself from the fiery ball of death. Now we’re being told that sun exposure actually does more good than harm?

“It’s completely intuitive,” says Weller. “Homo sapiens have been around for 200,000 years. Until the industrial revolution, we lived outside. How did we get through the Neolithic Era without sunscreen? Actually, perfectly well. What’s counterintuitive is that dermatologists run around saying, ‘Don’t go outside, you might die.’”

Mick151210 mick 2717 ryan chachi craig main
In his lifetime Mick Fanning has grappled with a Great White Shark, yet he still takes the precaution of applying his Vertra tint.

So what does this mean for surfers?

Probably not much.

If you’re in the water consistently, chances are you’re producing plenty of Vitamin D (even if you use sunscreen), as surfers tend to miss certain body parts when applying sun-block (chest for paddling, foot soles for riding, top-middle of back because we’re too embarrassed to ask our friend), and because sunscreen is less effective when diluted in water.

Plus, the exercise of paddling around is great for your heart, which helps compensate for any Vitamin D lost from sunscreen use.  

The moral of the story is this: If your wife, husband, parent or other controlling entity is giving you a hard time about surfing too much, explain to them that being in the water isn’t pointless or selfish at all – it’s just about your heart health. 

And they don’t want you to die, do they?

Comments

Comments are a Stab Premium feature. Gotta join to talk shop.

Already a member? Sign In

Want to join? Sign Up

Advertisement

Most Recent

Joyride Board Test: The Haydenshapes Hypto Krypto Twin

Critically examining one of the hottest new boards on the market.

Oct 20, 2021

How An American’s Entrepreneurial Spirit Built One The Greatest Surf Accessory Labels Out Of A Workshop In Yallingup, Western Australia

Mick, Steph, & Jake Paterson tell the story of Creatures founder, John Malloy.

Oct 20, 2021

Why We’ll Always Catch One Down The Beach

The Misc: To the left of the stand.

Oct 20, 2021

The Highest & Flyest Performance-Based Challenges From Stab Highway Presented By Monster Energy

Rinse off the hangover and shoot for the sky.

Oct 19, 2021

3:30

Lower Trestles From Unusual Angles Ft. Kolohe, Griffin, And Co.

So much for Stagnant Ambition.

Oct 19, 2021

Are Surfboards Made To Fail?

Industry insiders open up about whether or not boards are intentionally fragile, thus driving repeat…

Oct 18, 2021

1:49

A 14-Year-Old Ladybird Takes On Solid Nias & Desert Point

Bela Nalu will go.

Oct 18, 2021

Premium Peek: Torrey Meister Tempts Fate In ‘Grit n Water’

What's scarier — bull riding or big wave surfing?

Oct 17, 2021

8:22

Someone Sponsor This Kid

Eimeo Czermak is an animal who consistently delivers jaw-dropping clips.

Oct 17, 2021

11:36

Palatable Portuguese Wedges With Mason Ho

Washed down with a pink cosmo and Franchesinha.

Oct 16, 2021

Did You Know The WSL Has A Pension Fund?

CT surfers post-2014 have a nice chunk of cash waiting for them after they retire.

Oct 16, 2021

Stab Podcast: Is Huntington Beach A More Exciting Contest Venue Than Ericeira?

Surf sins, a rundown of this week’s surf cinema, and an unpopular opinion from the…

Oct 15, 2021

The WSL’s 2022 Season Wildcards Revealed

Pray for Matthew McGillivray.

Oct 15, 2021

16:47

Dylan Graves Explores The Topics Of Race And Inclusivity In Surfing

“If you know it’s wrong, say something.”

Oct 15, 2021

Watch: Episode 2 of Stab Highway Presented By Monster Energy

Broken bones, KFC/meat pie collabs, 'feary' river mouth swims, and incredible kneelo tubes.

Oct 15, 2021

2:20

Kolohe Andino Is Doubling Down On Surf Films

"I want to give the world my view of how surfing should be perceived."

Oct 14, 2021

5:12

Jordy Smith Was Stuck In Hawaii For The Best Late-Season Run In Memory

"It was 6-8 foot for weeks straight. I surfed Pipe with one other guy out."

Oct 14, 2021

What Happened To All The Surf Gangs?

Times have changed, for good or ill.

Oct 14, 2021
Advertisement