Exploring Human Potential

Sun Facts: The Age of “Sunfusion”

Mike Magee

We’re about to enter the sunny season, and for many it’s “sunfusion” – sunlight confusion. Is sun exposure good or bad? Let’s start here: Sun Beds (tanning salons) – bad.(1)

But what about everyday natural sun? On the positive side: boosts Vitamin D (may protect against diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis and other diseases), elevates endorphins, and increases self esteem (in some). On the negative side: cancer, aging, cataracts and more. (2) Quite a divergent set of realities. No wonder we’re confused whether to seek sun or shade.
Let’s look at some basic sun facts. (3,4)

The Rays: UVA – penetrates clouds and glass, penetrates deep into skin layers (epidermis and dermis), creates wrinkles and causes skin aging, featured in tanning booths. UVB – stimulates melanin, varies with site and environment, penetrates upper layer of skin (epidermis), aids vitamin D production, can cause sun burns. (5,6)

A New Threat: Not really. But our focus has increased for good reasons. Sun worshiping and a “healthy” tan are now associated in our culture with health and wealth. We’re living longer (damage and risk are cumulative), beach wear exposes more skin surface, and today tanning parlors are big business. (2)

Reasonable Levels of Exposure: Some feel that over reaction to sun risk has caused an increase in Vitamin D deficiency. For most in US, up to 30 minutes standard exposure 3 times a week takes care of Vitamin D, which is also available through supplements. (2,7)

The Cancers: 90% are directly linked to cumulative UV exposure. This includes basal cell and squamous cell cancers. Basal cell cancers occur mostly on the face and have a low risk of spreading. Squamous cell cancers often occur on ears, lips and temples and are more prone to spread. As for melanomas,experts say about 2/3 are directly related to UV induced genetic mutations. While only 3% of skin cancers are melanomas, they account for 75% of skin cancer deaths and are the most common cause of cancer for adults age 25 to 29. (3,4,6)

Tan Equals Protection: No. Tan equals skin damage. Melanin is sent to the upper layer of the skin to try to block UV rays. Tan does give some blocking equal to 3 SPF sun screen but skin cell DNA damage is the price you pay for this inadequate response. Tan also equals deep collagen damage which means wrinkles and visibly aging skin. (8,9)

Skin Tones: Six types ranging from freckle-faced fair to black skin face varying levels of risk according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. (2) If you are the former like me, SPF 30 should be your constant companion and you need to head for shade whenever possible. Others can get by with SPF 15. Site matters especially beaches and ski slopes. Clearly lying on the beach all day fully exposed doesn’t make sense for anyone.

Sunscreen Confusion: FDA has acknowledge that standards for protection and terminology need upgrading. That’s to be completed by October, 2010. No more use of the terms “sunblock” or “waterproof”.  And SPF ratings over 50 will disappear as the SPF up-coding between competitors abates. The new system will be a simple 1 to 4 rating and include UVB and UVA rays. (8,9,10)

So those are the basic facts. Hopefully that solves some of the “sunfusion”.  Bottom line – moderation, common sense exposure, increased care for the very fair.

For Health Commentary, I’m Mike Magee.


1. Magee M. Dangers of Tanning. Health Politics. 2006.

2. Beck M. Sun-Kissed or Sunburned? The Wall Street Journal. D1. April 27, 2010.

3. Skin Cancer Foundation. Basic Facts.

4. Skin Cancer Fact Sheet. American Academy of Dermatology.

5. Skin Cancer Foundation. UV Information.

6. Landro L. A Shade Seeker Finds New Ways To Block UV Rays. The Wall Street Journal, D1. April 27, 2010

7. Vitamin D Fact Sheet. American Academy of Dermatology.

8. Skin Cancer Foundation. Sunscreen.

9. Facts About Sunscreens. American Academy of Dermatology.

10. FDA Aims To Upgrade Sunscreen Labeling.

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