The research on sunlight and cancer puts melanoma scare stories in the shade

Here is the UK the weather has brightened a bit of late and, rather predictably, news stories are already starting to warn us that sunlight can boost skin cancer (specifically, malignant melanoma) risk [click here]. However, I do believe that when it comes to examining the relationship between a lifestyle factor and disease, we should be wary about focusing on just one condition.

Sunlight exposure increases vitamin D production in the skin, and earlier this week I reported on some research linking this nutrient with a reduced risk of raised blood pressure. But perhaps even more importantly, there is a stack of evidence suggesting that vitamin D has cancer-protective properties too.

Not surprisingly, then, there is also a considerable body of evidence that links increased sunlight exposure to a reduced risk of several cancers including some of the ‘biggies’ such as cancer of the breast, prostate and colon. Put another way, reduced sunlight exposure might actually increase the risk of several common cancers.

Now, while malignant melanoma is a condition that is certainly worth avoiding, it remains a relatively rare cancer. So, it is entirely possible that by shying away from sunlight, we might actually be increasing our overall risk of cancer. Also, sunlight exposure is associated with a reduced risk of multiple sclerosis too.

I have written about the broad benefits of sunlight, including its seeming cancer-protective properties in the past. In the last few months have been made aware of the website www.sunarc.org which I think does a very good job of presenting evidence for the health benefits of sunlight and the vitamin D derived from it. Click on the link entitled The role of ultraviolet-B (UVB) radiation (290-315 nm) and Vitamin D in reducing the risk of cancer for a detailed appraisal of this area.

While sunlight appears broadly beneficial, I recommend protecting against sunburn. Protecting the body with appropriate clothing and seeking the shade when the sun is at its most intense are obvious precautions to take. However, that caveat aside, I think its important to bear in mind that the current scare stories about skin cancer need to be tempered with a wider view of the effects of sunlight on cancer risk and general health.

11 Responses to The research on sunlight and cancer puts melanoma scare stories in the shade

  1. Neil 4 April 2007 at 4:58 pm #

    I have read that malignant melanoma is linked to people who normally get little or any sun on their bodies, then overdo exposure on a holiday. There is also a link to severe childhood sunburn.
    The risk for gradual exposure and tanning seems much much less, and personally, I think some regular if brief sun on the skin is a good and protective thing .

    I’ve known two patients who died of MM. It’s not a good one to get, (relatively speaking).

  2. Chris 4 April 2007 at 5:31 pm #

    mmm – i wonder if your friends in dermatology would agree with you. This sends out a mixed message because so many people burn their skin – so I am not quite sure what you are advocating here!

  3. Dr John Briffa 4 April 2007 at 7:30 pm #

    Chris
    Have another read of the last paragraph (which explicitly recommends avoiding sunburn). I don’t think this advice is ambiguous for anyone with a decent grasp of the English language.

  4. Chris 4 April 2007 at 8:37 pm #

    it will confuse people ! and it really does not take much!

  5. Ariane 6 April 2007 at 1:09 pm #

    Do you need to expose bare skin (without clothing or sunscreen) to sunlight in order for your skin to absorb the beneficial effects of Vitamin D?

  6. Robin 6 April 2007 at 2:45 pm #

    Chris,

    I only know of one confused person. Guess the rest of us can read. :-)

  7. Tiggy 6 April 2007 at 9:08 pm #

    The trouble is………it still ages the skin. That may not be a medical concern, but the majority of the population in the UK at least, don’t want their skin to look any older than it needs to.

    I wonder how long it will be before Melanotan pills are available for tanning. These are pills developed by Epitan for medicinal skin protection initially, esp. in places like Australia. They are still doing trials I think. Not to be confused with Melatonin which are for jet lag or in my case to help with insomnia.

  8. Christine 8 April 2007 at 5:29 pm #

    sounds eminently sensible to me – sun in moderation is good for us. However I wonder what your opinion is on sunscreens? personally I think most are quite toxic, and possibly carcinogenic in themselves, although a few are ok to use.

  9. Stratty 10 April 2007 at 5:48 pm #

    Thank you for the summary of the importance of sunlight on health, its relationship with Vitamin D and of course the risks of damage if not taking sensible precautions.

    Not being a doctor I appreciate seeing a sensible ‘easy to understand’ view and of the crystal clear warning re overdoing it as in:

    “While sunlight appears broadly beneficial, I recommend protecting against sunburn. Protecting the body with appropriate clothing and seeking the shade when the sun is at its most intense are obvious precautions to take.”

  10. Helen 13 June 2007 at 8:36 am #

    I had a malignant melanoma 13 years ago. it’s eminently treatable if it’s diagnosed early enough. I was lucky. I was advised by the dermatology dept at the Middlesex Hospital to avoid the sun at peak times: 11am-3pm. Sensible advice. I cover up and I also use sunscreen, though I shall be re-thinking that in the light of the new evidence. A little sun, off peak, is good for us surely. My problem probably stemmed from a childhood spent in India before the dangers of sun exposure were known about. They say that most of the damage is done before the age of 11, so it’s important to consider that.

  11. danny kay 20 June 2007 at 1:03 pm #

    u all need to get out and expeirience sunlight u geeks!

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