We Were Wrong About Butter, Now We Might Be Wrong About The Sun


Between celery juice, medicinal mushrooms and cryotherapy, it seems the wellness industry isn’t running short on ideas. Or cash. There’s a supplement for every deficiency, a superfood for every mood (!!), but we’d be remiss not to acknowledge that for all the amazing things we can do for our health, some of the best are those which are completely free and ours for the taking. Like sleep, or sunshine! Both health freebies, but also both a little “unsexy” which is probably why they don’t get as much air time as juicing an entire bunch of organic celery seven days a week in exchange for a pimple-free complexion.

One of those health freebies was the subject of an article I read on Outside Online (after seeing it on Nike trainer Joe Holder’s Instagram) called, “Is Sunscreen The New Margarine?”, and it Blew. My. Mind. Do you remember about seven or eight years ago when research finally came out debunking the myth that margarine was a “healthier” alternative to butter? It turned out (*churned* out!), that butter was not in fact the devil, that all fat was not created equal, and consuming vegetable-oil ridden margarine (an inflammatory nightmare) with high levels of trans fat was a much faster route to heart disease than the stuff cows made? Well a similar thing has just happened in the debate around sun exposure – with leading scientists, dermatologists and researchers debunking the myth that vitamin D supplementation gives the same benefits as good old-fashioned sunshine.

Supplements in the United States is a $30 billion market. So manufacturers are quick to jump on new products whenever they can. Society has also told us that people with low levels of vitamin D have significantly higher rates of virtually every disease; from cancer and depression to obesity and osteoporosis. There’s no disputing that. And at the same time we’ve been conditioned to fear the sun because of sunburn and melanoma. So modern health guidelines started telling us to cover our skin at all costs, even when it’s cloud, slather on the sunscreen and then compensate for the lack of sun exposure with vitamin D pills. But here’s the problem: the supplement is not the same as that big orange ball in the sky. In fact, researchers are now warning people that vitamin D supplementation is a hoax and has been failing in clinical trials, “In November, one of the largest and most rigorous trials of Vitamin D ever conducted, found no impact on cancer, heart disease or stroke.” That’s because it wasn’t vitamin D that lowered blood pressure, it was exposure to sunlight. And it wasn’t vitamin D that made you live longer, it was how close you lived to the sunny equator. Sunlight triggers the release of serotonin and endorphins. It reduces the risk of prostate and breast cancer. It improves our circadian rhythm. It reduces inflammation. And it’s free.

And what about sunburn and skin cancer? For starters: for every one person who dies of skin cancer, more than 100 die from cardiovascular diseases – diseases that are less common in those getting adequate sunshine in their life. But the term “skin cancer” encapsulates a variety of diseases, from the benign and non-life threatening, like a basal cell carcinoma, to the much harder to treat and often life-threatening, like melanoma. Melanoma continues to be a leading cause of cancer death in New Zealand (around 13 Kiwis are diagnosed with melanoma every single day), is hard to treat and metastasises rapidly. But for more treatable afflictions, Richard Weller, a dermatologist at the University of Edinburgh, says “When I diagnose a basal-cell skin cancer in a patient, the first thing I say is congratulations, because you’re walking out of my office with a longer life expectancy than when you walked in.” That’s probably because people who get carcinomas, which are strongly linked to sun exposure, tend to be healthy types that are outside getting plenty of exercise and sunlight.

As Weller pointed out at the end of the piece, “Homosapiens have been around for 200,000 years and, until the industrial revolution, we lived outside. How did we get through the Neolithic Era without sunscreen? Actually, perfectly well.” As with all matters of health, it’s about balance. Yes people need to be cautious, melanoma is deadly. But living in darkness is more deadly. So get outside. Eat lunch in the park. Walk to work.

Just skip the baby oil, you’re smarter than that.

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