Vitamin D

Sunscreen and Vitamin D

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It’s getting near summer again and we must be nearly due for the annual ‘slip slop slap’ message pounding the airwaves. Horror stories will emerge about people who did not follow this advice and ended up with melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer.

The unbalanced nature of the message has left many people believing that all sun is bad, and historically some experts have even gone so far as to tell us there is actually no safe level of sun exposure at all. What is true is that due to atmospheric factors, it takes less time to get sunburnt in New Zealand, and therefore we have a greater risk of getting skin cancers than people in other parts of the world. Two very vocal charities, the Cancer Society and Melanoma Foundation are behind the sunscreen message and because of their standing we tend not to question this advice.

Perhaps we should. What we were never told was that while sunscreens can protect us from premature aging and some less deadly types of skin cancer, there is scant evidence that it makes a difference to our chances of getting melanoma, yet avoiding melanoma is the primary reason we are told to use sunscreen in the first place.

The stay out of the sun/sunscreen message is further complicated because recent years have seen a boom in research on a once overlooked vitamin, vitamin D. Our primary source of vitamin D is from sunlight; our bodies make it when the sun falls on our skin. You may have heard a lot about vitamin D in the media recently, many studies have been published demonstrating that high levels of vitamin D correspond to significant reductions in the risk of getting at least 17 types of cancer as well as other diseases (some studies suggest a risk reduction of as much as 50%).

One of the reasons vitamin D has attracted so much international research is because of a fascinating local observation – New Zealand has high rates of melanoma, but we actually have a lower than average rate of death from it. It is hypothesised that while our harsh sun is likely causing an increase in incidences of melanoma, it is also causing us to make a lot more vitamin D which has a protective effect.

The ‘stay out of the sun message’ has led to widespread vitamin D deficiency. Apart from the (likely) increases of all sorts of cancers, other diseases such as rickets have also been making a comeback. Rickets is a bone disorder caused by low levels of vitamin D, some estimates suggest incidences of it have increased four-fold in recent times, mirroring the increase in sunscreen use.

There is evidence that sunscreen use can slow down signs of aging and reduce chances of getting less deadly (easily treatable) skin cancers, but even today, the evidence for protection against melanoma is very slim. Ian Wishart wrote in his vitamin D book that there was not a single study that suggested sunscreen use reduced incidences of melanoma and during his debate with Dr Jan Paulson of the Cancer Society she could not refute this point (watch the video below).

Given that fear of getting melanoma is the driver behind sunscreen sales, I would have thought that that the Cancer Society would be able to provide evidence to back up their claim. It is worth noting the conflict of interest as sunscreen manufacturers are big donors to the cancer charities.

Sunscreens do have their use, but the messages are confused. The downside is they block vitamin D creation which may be leading to increases in several other types of cancer. I think the message has to be get sun when you can – but avoid getting sunburnt. Get suspicious moles checked ASAP. Be careful of the sunscreen lotions you do use, as some have dangerous chemicals. The sun remains your best source of vitamin D and any harm that may be caused must be balanced against the protective effect against a host of cancers and other diseases.


  1. Lloyd Derbyshire Reply

    I have some skin in this game because my father was a drover for much of his life and, having mixed Scottish/English ancestry, was particularly susceptible to the large amount of sun he was exposed to during his working life. He got a melanoma on his face, just below one ear, in his fifties. The melanoma was first cut out immediately, by a top surgeon at Middlemore, and he had a couple more subsequent ops, about 5-10 years apart from memory, with each op extending the skin graft area and eventually removing most of his ear. After the ops he was very careful and of course protective of ‘us kids’ (he was in his mid forties when we were born). He eventually died at 87, but not because of his melanoma! The sun has been demonised for most of my life and it’s only after reading Ian Wishardt’s book that I’ve realised that some or all of my own decade of chronic ill health could have been tied to my low vitamin D levels. Unlike my father most of my working life has been in an office. For that reason I have never been exposed to massive doses of UV. I was also trained to be cautious in the sun so I’ve really missed out. After reading Ian’s book I endeavour to get outside on every fine day I can for afternoon tea. BTW my mother who spends hours outside gardening just turned 94. For all her life she’s eaten loads of animal fat & butter. When you see me in outline against a sky filled with the bombardments of conventional health advice . . . colour me sceptical.

  2. Fay Andreassend Reply

    I am extremely low in Vitamin D and it is affecting me, But I had sarcoidosis 8 years ago and if I try to up my Vitamin D it increases my Calcium to dangerous levels. So I am stuck and the Drs. say there is nothing they can do for me.
    Fay Andreassend

  3. My mother was always warned that Vitamin D was cumulative and the leading cause of death for the liver, so who do I believe, my mother who is a healthy 84 or Ian or Jan?

  4. I am a 71 year old female still working fulltime and running a busy household.
    For the past 18 months I have been a participant in the VIDA study and take a monthly vitamin D capsule and fill in a question form relating to the previous month. I do not know if my capsule is the genuine vitamin D or a useless ingredient. I spend a very minimal amount of time in the sun. My health is 100%,I have not had a cold or flue, fallen or broken any bones, suffered from high blood pressure or any medical condition since starting on this programme.
    My skin and hair have improved greatly and I have good energy. I firmly believe that Vitamin D has made a big difference to my life and will continue taking the capsules after the study has been completed.

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