The media has been buzzing about a recent study that says that skin cancer deaths among men have soared in wealthy nations since 1985. It goes on to suggest that men are “less likely to protect themselves from the sun” or heed public health warnings. QUICK! EVERYONE PANIC AND GRAB THE SUNSCREEN!
Or don’t! I’m not a scientist but I don’t think this study paints the entire picture. At best… perhaps it merely gives us some interesting insights to consider. I’m going to suggest that you NOT just take it at face value or buy into the idea of slathering chemicals onto your skin in order to avoid the sun – which you are likely already avoiding by lifestyle but probably shouldn’t considering that the sun provides you an abundance of D3 and protection from cancer. Wait… what?
Let’s start with something simple. Sun exposure alone doesn’t explain skin cancers that develop on skin not ordinarily exposed to sunlight. It seems obvious but people get skin cancer in places the sun simply doesn’t shine. Furthermore, the fact is those skin cancers are caused by quite a few different things. However, I’m going to demonstrate that while the sun may be responsible for some, it’s likely not responsible for all.
With that out of the way, let’s dig in. If you were to look hard enough (by typing in a couple of keywords to a search engine), you would find that potential contributors to skin cancer include being exposed to toxic substances or having a condition that weakens your immune system. Welcome to modern life! On these two topics alone, I could write volumes. However, it’s important to keep in mind that our bodies are the judge of what it considers toxic (not the guy in the white coat).
Now before I continue, let me also say that people with weakened immune systems have a greater risk of developing skin cancer as well. This includes the millions of people taking immunosuppressant drugs. Additionally, people who received radiation treatment for skin conditions or who have been exposed to things like arsenic may also be at risk.
But let’s make this simple and look at the biggest clue. The study says specifically “since 1985”. So I set out to discover what all happened in 1985? As it turns out… a couple of fairly significant things actually.
In 1985, SPF 15 and higher became available for the first time.
“That’s when SPF 15 and higher became available, we started doing skin-cancer screenings, and we launched the first melanoma-awareness campaign,” says Darrell Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University and former president of the American Academy of Dermatology.
Essentially, these products typically include a combination of at least two to six of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. We are told that these chemicals are safe and most people believe that in spite of the fact that most couldn’t pronounce them if they had to. We are also told not to worry about any potential issues even though few medical groups have done any kind of extensive research on the aftermath of their use. Perhaps this is innocence by omission? But here’s the thing; some independent labs have reviewed the material and they didn’t like what they found. What are we to believe? What do you WANT to believe?
Personally, I pay particular attention to the laboratory studies that indicate that some chemical UV filters may mimic hormones. The reason is that these labs don’t seem to have a financial gain by saying so. I also pay attention to the physicians that report sunscreen-related skin allergies. This is important to me because it shows clear bodily opposition to what is being slathered on it. Perhaps we should be asking a few questions about the potential unintended human health consequences from frequent sunscreen application… or we can keep taking selfies.
We could probably just stop at the hormone side of things because the aftermath of that almost seems self-evident. Since we know that some chemical UV filters may actually mimic hormones, then wouldn’t it stand to reason that they could be interfering with natural processes? Of course, it would! So if you decided to do some research with that in mind, then it wouldn’t take you long to discover that hormones and hormone imbalances actually play a big role in numerous types of cancers; both protecting against some and helping others along. Bad things are bound to occur when you start playing with things you shouldn’t. Your parents likely taught you that.
For example; we know that estrogens are known human carcinogens. Yes, these hormones have essential physiological roles in both females and males, but they have also been associated with an increased risk of certain cancers when levels are not where they need to be. So imagine slathering something on your skin that puts your hormones out of whack. What could possibly go wrong?
Now I’m not saying that these chemicals are causing cancer. I’m not a scientist. The point here is that we know that some of these products alter hormones and we know that hormones can play a role in both cancer prevention and cancer creation. As a person “on the street” buying these products… do you know which one does what? If not… then why gamble? Let’s take this a step further.
As I was saying… some physicians have reported sunscreen-related skin allergies. I bring this up because of the word “atopy”. Atopy refers to the genetic tendency to develop allergic diseases such as allergic rhinitis, asthma, and atopic dermatitis. It has been hypothesized by some researchers that atopy may affect the risk of some cancers both pro and con. The thing to note, however, is that allergies cause a level of inflammation in the body. This is important because chronic inflammation favors the generation of mutations, and therefore the development of cancer. See where I’m going? So basically, if we are inflaming our skin with things that the body doesn’t want on it, it’s not out of the realm of possibility then to suggest that we could be causing a problem here as well or at least setting the stage.
All I’m saying is that slathering chemicals that affect your hormones or cause inflammation levels to increase might actually contribute to THE POTENTIAL of related issues. The fact that too few have really examined the unintended human health consequences from frequent sunscreen application is frankly alarming. But perhaps I’m barking up the wrong tree here… so let’s shift gears.
In 1985, the government provided new health recommendations.
That’s right! In 1985, our government received the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s new recommendations. The federal government then informed the public about these recommendations and began to push them… HARD. Some of the recommendations were fairly sound; like limiting sugar intake or eating a variety of foods. Some, however, were not sound at all.
While I’m not a fan of the guidelines, I will just provide a couple of examples to help express the point I am trying to make here today. For today’s rant, I will use their suggestion to avoid salt and to eat plenty of starches. I couldn’t disagree with these two recommendations more.
I’m likely preaching to the choir on this one but we know that increased consumption of carbohydrate-rich foods, especially starches, actually boosts the risk of certain types of cancer recurrence (like breast cancer). We also know that consuming processed foods and other energy-dense carbohydrate-containing foods markedly increase the risk of prostate cancer. In fact, the American Cancer Society nutrition guidelines recommend avoiding processed and refined carbs altogether because of their role in various forms of cancer. I could probably write an entire article on the mountain of evidence that numerous organizations have concluded on how starchy / carbohydrate-rich foods are not in your better interests in regard to cancer. The question I ponder is if it can impact so many different parts of the body, is our skin somehow immune? Probably not, and yet… consumption of this was a recommendation.
So what is a starch anyway and why are starches bad for you? Starches are literally a concentrated source of carbohydrates and calories. To simplify this; starch equals sugars. The scientific way to say it would be that a starch (or amylum) is a polymeric carbohydrate consisting of a large number of glucose units. I share this definition with you because you will probably recognize the word “glucose”. Glucose is a simple sugar. This is some of what doctors are trying to get people with insulin resistance to avoid. The problem here is that your body doesn’t recognize the difference between sugar and starch. The best example I’ve seen states that a 2-cup serving of cooked spaghetti or rice contains about 90 grams of carbohydrates, which will turn into the equivalent to over 22 teaspoons of sugar in your blood.
Now, it’s true that not all starches are created equal and some can actually be really good for you. Since this isn’t a nutrition lesson, I’ll simply suggest that you stay away from refined carbs. The point is that sugar (or these particular starches) also causes inflammation in the body. Basically, when you eat sugar (or starch), it increases insulin (making the body insulin resistant), and this drives up the inflammatory signaling in the body. The problem with this is that eating too many inflammatory foods over time can cause chronic low-grade inflammation. Probably the most important part of this is to understand that inflammation is a critical component of tumor progression. So then what about salt?
I’ve written about salt before so I will keep this part relatively short. Forgetting for a moment that anytime you’re sick or seriously injured, someone is injecting salt into you, just know that sodium is a mineral that is necessary for every cell in our body. Quite literally, our bodies don’t make it, can’t store it and if our sodium levels fall too low (hyponatremia), we can slip into a coma and die. Ironically, sodium deficiency is also associated with impaired growth in young children. This is actually a pretty big clue when you think about it. I could go on and on because there is more to this story but it’s a rabbit hole. The point is that clearly, it’s not the best idea to avoid it because by avoiding it, you can cause SERIOUS problems; problems like cancer! And again… it’s unlikely that the skin is somehow immune.
I guess the long and short of this section is to explain that what you eat (or don’t) can have a big impact on what happens to your body. Well, that and to help you explore the idea that government recommendations actually set people up for these horrific things to happen in the first place. Now consider adding everything that I’ve talked about thus far (hormones and food) into one big ball of ouch. It really doesn’t take much of an imagination to see how all of this goes from good intentions to various forms of cancer in a hurry. But while I’m at it… there is one or two more things we should probably discuss. Let me get a bit more technical for just a moment to really help drive the point home.
We know that harmful DNA changes, called genetic mutations, can lead to skin cancer. Take a second to think about some of the things we already know that actually harm your DNA. These might include things like cell phone radiation, insecticides and fertilizers, certain kinds of plastic, alcohol, smoking and even simple stress. I want to reiterate that it doesn’t matter what we say a toxin is… it matters what our bodies think a toxin is. What should matter to you is that certain foods, drugs, and exposure to toxins can cause these problems. And if we have allergic reactions and such, to hormone and DNA altering chemicals, along with a misguided diet… what should we expect?
In all fairness, it’s true that researchers don’t yet know all of the DNA changes that result in skin cancer, but they have found that in many skin cancers the cells have changes in tumor suppressor genes. What causes these changes? I don’t know… and they don’t really know… but I do know that it would sure be hard to find out if we refuse to look, now wouldn’t it?
The Logical Conclusion
For starters, skin cancer can take a considerable amount of time to develop. But skin cancer wasn’t necessarily soaring BEFORE 1985 – when we didn’t have the powerful sunscreens. Cancer Research UK statistics show more than 13,000 people develop malignant melanoma each year, compared with around 1,800 in the mid-1970s. Something has changed. Lots of things have changed. The irony here is that people used to spend MORE time outdoors and had LESS sunscreen.
When we examine the facts, we discover that we are actually spending quite a bit less time in the sun than we used to. According to the National Human Activity Pattern Survey (NHAPS): A Resource for Assessing Exposure to Environmental Pollutants, by Neil E. Klepeis and others, and published by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in 2001, Americans actually spend 87% of their time indoors and an additional 6% in an enclosed vehicle (on average). It seems we would rather sit behind a computer or watch TV than sunbath. In fact, some studies even suggest that people today spend about half the time outside than their parents did.
Wait a second… half the time?
And perhaps that’s the answer staring us right in the face. As a society, we have moved indoors and picked up the phone. Well, we know that a deficiency in vitamin D (which is produced from the sun’s rays) has actually been linked to cancer. Let me say this another way to drive this point home – natural vitamin D has been shown to actually protect you from many cancers… including melanoma.
On the other hand, we now know that radiation from our technology can cause cancer in rats – so it stands to reason that it’s possible for humans too. We also know that indoor toxins can wreak havoc on our bodies and cause cancers. Factor in a messed up food supply (now linked to cancer as well) and a chaotic, inflamed and stress-filled life… it shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that any form of cancer is on the rise.
What if we are simply looking at a perfect storm? There is some really compelling research out there if you are willing to look. Either way, when I review the material, my advice becomes simple – I wouldn’t blame it on the thing that’s been around for millions of years, the thing we need and the thing linked to actually helping us heal. Instead, I would start by reevaluating the things that have ACTUALLY changed since 1985 that just so happen to be linked to cancer causation.
ASK QUESTIONS & RESEARCH. As I said, I don’t have all of the answers for you but I sure do have a lot of questions to share. When you look, you may not find the answers that you’re looking for but you may be able to equip yourself with the ability to not take something at face value. For me… it’s clear that there is more to this issue than NOT wearing sunscreen.