Since Leander Cave hit the news having been diagnosed with a skin cancer I’ve heard from a few quarters a statement along the lines of “this is a timely reminder of the need to use sun cream”. I must admit I found this odd as it was effectively saying that Leander didn’t use sun cream. I don’t know whether she does or doesn’t but I do know that in many years of training and racing around the world I have only met one other person who chooses not to wear sun cream. The message is so omnipotent it’s hard to avoid and very few ever question it. So I’d be surprised if she didn’t. I would suggest that it’s a better reminder that the use of sun cream doesn’t necessarily prevent skin cancer.
For many years now I have only used sun cream minimally, and virtually never wear sunglasses. It’s not laziness – it is based on a lot of thought and reading and having come to my own conclusions based on what I have learned. This piece is intended to get some of you to thinking about it and perhaps prompt further investigation, questions and critical thinking. In no particular order here are, what I hope, some thought provoking points.
- Let’s assume that the debate amongst researchers on the use of sun cream is evenly split between those that think it’s effective and those that don’t. On one side there is the sale of sun cream, which brings big advertising and lobbying budgets. On the other side there are no sales to be made and hence no such incentive to “market” the argument. So, even with an even split of views and evidence, the perception to “Joe Public” would be quite different. Think carefully where your sun cream advice comes from. The perception is further skewed once guidelines have been put in place – no one gets sued if their advice is in accordance with established guidelines (this is also why this piece is meant to be thought provoking and not advice!)
- It would seem pretty remarkable for us to have evolved in sunlight and it is so dangerous to us.
- If sun cream were so effective, wouldn’t we expect to see levels of skin cancer higher before sun-cream (when a far larger proportion of the population probably worked outside) and now rapidly coming down? Go to Cancer Research UK’s website and you’ll find graphs showing Malignant Melanoma incidence growing from 4 or under in 1975 to 17 in 2010 (per 100,000). They put it down to increased holidays abroad, which may be the case, but let’s consider that another possible explanation is the increasing pressure to use sun cream, a product which was only first developed in the 1940s.
- Ultraviolet is split into three types based on wavelength – UVA, UVB and UVC. It is UVB that causes sunburn and this is what the “SPF” rating refers to. However all types are thought to contribute to skin cancer risk. Many sun creams provide little or no UVA protection (though this appears to be changing), which means their use allows you to spend more time in the sun as it prevents one of your bodies main feedback mechanisms to stop (i.e. sunburn), but by allowing this, increases your exposure to UVA (which also penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB). Even sun creams that get the ‘EU’s stamp of approval for UVA protection only need to give 1/3rd of the UVB protection to warrant this.
- We need sunlight for our body to produce vitamin D. Isn’t this alone enough to make you question whether the sun is really that harmful to us? There is some evidence that sun cream reduces our body’s ability to produce this vitamin.
- The active ingredients in many sun creams are pretty nasty. An example is derivatives of benzophenone – which may be carcinogenic.
- Again looking at Cancer Research UK you can find a graph showing the incidence of Malignant Melanoma in Europe. The highest incidences occur in locations including Denmark, Sweden and Holland, and the lowest in places like Greece, Spain, and Romania! The common explanation is it’s because all these sun-starved northern Europeans are taking so many sunny holidays… but does that really scan? It’s also possible that these fair skinned people are the most targeted to use sun cream.
- This increase in skin cancer (along with many cancers) appears to also coincide with the change in dietary advice in recent decades to an increasingly “synthetic” diet.
I take the following approach: Avoid sun cream as much as possible, only applying it to areas that are not easily covered if I plan to be out long enough to get burnt; Build up a tan (your natural defence); If I’m starting to burn, then I’ll cover up rather than apply sun cream (e.g. arm coolers on your arms)