Despite perennial warnings regarding the capacity of ultra-violet light to induce skin cancer, plenty of us are still to be found soaking it up the sun when the opportunity arises. I was interested to read some recent research from America which suggests that many individuals keen on sporting a tan exhibit signs of addiction to the sun’s rays. Psychological assessment reveals, apparently, that more than half of beach-goers can be classified as ‘ultraviolet light tanning dependent’. It seems to me that this piece of research is another example of the dim view health professionals tend to take of those who like to darken up in the sun.
Advice regarding solar protection focuses on the supposed link between exposure to the sun’s rays and malignant melanoma – the most deadly form of skin cancer. There is indeed a body of evidence which suggests that sunburn and intermittent exposure to sunlight are risk factors for melanoma. However, the relationship between sunlight exposure and melanoma is not as clear cut as it seems: for instance, studies show that high, consistent exposure to the sun’s rays (such as with outdoor workers) is associated with a reduced risk of melanoma.
Further confusion has been added to this subject on the publication of a study earlier this year examining the relationship between sun exposure and survival in individuals affected by malignant melanoma. This research, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, found that evidence of sun exposure in the skin (as evidenced by something known as solar elastosis) was strongly associated with a reduced risk of dying from melanoma.
The apparent ability of sunlight, in certain circumstances, to protect against melanoma may seem utterly paradoxical, but is actually in keeping with a significant body of evidence which links increased sunlight exposure to a reduced risk of a wide variety of cancers including those of the prostate, colon and breast. While the mechanism to explain this association is not known for sure, many researchers are suggesting that vitamin D is a likely protective factor. This nutrient is known to have a range of anti-cancer properties, and its production in the body is stimulated by the action of sunlight on the skin. It might be argued that while sunburn and sun damage in the skin may increase melanoma risk, more consistent and sensible sun exposure may help to protect against this disease by boosting vitamin D levels in the body.
While most of our requirements for vitamin D are met through our exposure to the sunlight, this nutrient can also be found in oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring. Other nutrients that may help to protect against melanoma include the so-called carotenoids which include beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene which are found most abundantly in deeply-coloured fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, carrots, spinach and red peppers. One study published earlier this year found that high intake of these nutrients was associated with a reduction in melanoma risk of about a third. It seems that, in addition to sensible sunbathing, the eating of fruit, veg and oily fish can help to save our skin.