Since the mid 1980s there has been increased emphasis worldwide on the importance of teaching proper sun care habits. While the core message behind teaching sun care is legitimate and necessary, much of recent public discussion about sun care falls in the category of over-stated hyperbole we call “sun scare.”
Whereas the correct spirit of sun care means teaching people to minimize the risks of overexposure to sunlight while still allowing them to take advantage of the benefits of regular exposure to the sun, “sun scare” stretches the science beyond the data, creating an all-out marketing blitz to unnecessarily scare people about any sun exposure.
The science of photobiology suggests that sunburn is the significant UV-related risk factor in skin damage. There is a lack of data to support the position that UV exposure in a non-burning fashion significantly increases the risk of permanent skin damage.
Products and services designed to protect people from excessive sun exposure are a multi-billion-dollar business group controlled by a small number of large players. There is more money made scaring people out of the sun than there is getting people to enjoy sunshine responsibly.
Sun care products and services are legitimate when the public is properly educated about their correct usage. Unfortunately, marketing has driven the science in recent years, overstating the risks of regular sun exposure and ignoring or denying that there are any benefits. This combination results in fear-based marketing initiatives to scare people about sun exposure, or “sun scare.”
There are three major purveyors of “sun scare”:
Cosmetic Dermatology lobbying groups
Pharmaceutical corporations who market skin-care products
Beauty magazines whose editorial is highly tied-in with advertising
Sun scare purveyors often say the wrong thing the wrong way for the right reasons. The fact that the stated intention – to reduce skin damage – is right does not give them a free pass to obscure the facts and ignore conflicting data, as they often do. Such misstatement of fact needs to be scrutinized, especially since these parties stand to profit from overstating the risks of UV exposure as they have. For example:
Since the mid-1990s, dermatology industry lobbyists have maintained that there were no known health benefits of regular sun exposure. This position is totally non-defendable and ignores volumes of research to the contrary. There is plenty of well-researched material documenting the positive physiological and psychological effects of UV exposure, and this research is growing in stature.
Dermatology industry lobbyists, in efforts to increase awareness about sun care, have clearly overstated the risks associated with UV exposure. For example, dermatology industry leaders have gone on record advocating daily use of chemical sunscreen 365 days a year in all climates. This is clearly misbranding the product in seasons and climates where sunburn is not a possibility. Further, this over-use of sunscreen completely prevents the body from naturally manufacturing vitamin D.
Dermatology industry lobbyists have maintained that a suntan does not protect against sunburn outdoors. This contention is also non-defendable. A tan is the body’s natural protection against sunburn. As research dermatologist Dr. Sam Shuster of Newcastle University says, “Excessive avoidance and UV screening is a danger because it does not allow a tan, nature’s own sun block, to develop and as a result exposure is likely to cause sunburn. The dogma, now fossilized in print, is that any tan is a sign of skin damage. Tell that to Darwin. Pigmented melanocytes in the skin are a system that protects it from excessive UV, which evolved long before the advent of sunscreens. Even if there was hard evidence that melanoma was UV-induced it would be all the more important to keep a protective tan.”
Dermatology industry lobbyists, in attempts to scare people out of the sun, often have compared tanning to smoking cigarettes, making the statement that suntanning is like a cigarette for your skin. This hyperbole is fear-based marketing that is fundamentally flawed. On one level, comparing the numbers is ridiculous. Smoking is related to 20 percent of all deaths in the United States and 30 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society. What’s more, lung cancer rates are 22 times higher for current male smokers and 12 times higher for current female smokers. In contrast, no study has ever demonstrated that sun exposure in a non-burning fashion is a significant risk factor for skin damage. On another level, smoking introduces dozens of carcinogenic substances into your body that your body is not designed to process. In contrast, your body IS designed to process UV light, and in fact is reliant on UV exposure for natural body functions. To compare tanning to smoking ignores this fundamental difference: One is a vice, and one is a natural body process.
Dermatology leaders literally have their heads in the sand. “In some vision as I grow older I see use moving to more shelters and perhaps underground living (to avoid the sun).”– Dr. Wilma Bergfeld, then-president of the American Academy of Dermatology at AAD’s annual press day, Nov. 13, 1996.
Dermatology industry leaders do not understand vitamin D and often misstate what we know about vitamin D to defend their anti-sun dogma.” People who practice proper sun protection and are concerned that they are not getting enough vitamin D should either take a multivitamin or drink a few glasses of vitamin D fortified milk every day. The dangers of exposing oneself to carcinogenic UV light from the sun, even for a few minutes, are firmly established, particularly since dietary intake of vitamin D can completely and easily fulfill our needs.”– Dr. Raymond L. Cornelison Jr., then-president of the American Academy of Dermatology, July 3, 2003.
Cornelison could not be more wrong. Three-quarters of Americans and 97 percent of Canadians are vitamin D deficient today, according to government data in both countries. And there’s no doubt that over-the-top sun scare has caused the vitamin D deficiency epidemic. What’s more, other than fatty fish which get vitamin D from eating plankton which get vitamin D from the sun, there really is no such thing as “dietary vitamin D.” It all comes from the sun.
Sources of Vitamin D
Vitamin D Content
UVB exposure from sunlight*
10,000 – 20,000 IU
Cod Liver Oil (1 tsp.)
400 – 1,000 IU
Salmon (fresh, wild, 3.5 oz.)
600 – 1,000 IU
Salmon (farmed, 3.5 oz.)
Fortified Milk (8 oz.)
Fortified orange juice (8 oz.)
Cosmetics make up a $29 billion market today, according to Kline & Co., a New Jersey-based market research firm. According to Kline, more than 1,000 companies manufacture and market more than 20,000 cosmetic and toiletry brands in the United States. What’s significant is that the 10 leading companies account for roughly 63% of total industry sales, and the top five companies represent 46% of sales.
Before the 1990s, sunscreen, as a product, was used only in “suntan lotions.” But in the era of sun scare, sunscreen as a product is now part of “sun block” lotions and is incorporated into most women’s cosmetics. That makes sunscreen a multi-billion-dollar profit-driven force.
Sunscreen is a good product with an intelligent usage: the prevention of sunburn. But it is not necessary to wear this product daily most of the year in most climates to prevent sunburn. Yet many in the multi-billion-dollar sun-care industry encourage everyone to wear products with sunscreen 365 days a year — no matter where they live. This may in fact cause more harm than good in the long run. Consider:
(1) By wearing sunscreen in northern climates most of the year you totally block your body’s ability to produce vitamin D. New research has shown that vitamin D deficiency is epidemic in American adults today, that we do not get vitamin D from our diets and that up to 90 percent of the vitamin D in our systems comes from sun exposure. Ultraviolet light exposure is the body’s natural way, and the only reliable way, to produce vitamin D. In fact, according to accepted anthropologic evolutionary theory, that is why fair-skinned cultures developed fair skin: To better produce vitamin D from sunlight.
Vitamin D Deficiency in the U.S. Population
1989 55% 2009 77%
*Source: Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(6):626-632
(2) While we support the use of sunscreens as a tool to prevent sunburn outdoors only on occasions when sunburn is possible, it is improper to teach people to wear chemical sunscreen during times of the year when one would not be able to sunburn outdoors.That is misbranding the product.
(3) Women’s cosmetics today almost always contain sunscreen. It is very difficult for women to find products that do not block UV exposure. Again, while sunscreen is an excellent product that has an intelligent usage in the fight against sunburn, overuse of the product may have serious consequences as well. Because most women wear foundation products daily, their make-up may be preventing them from producing vitamin D much of the year.
Although their editorial message may come across as helpful to an audience looking for health and beauty guidance, beauty magazines’ positions on issues such as diet, fashion and health care are all carefully crafted to maximize their value to big-money advertisers.
Beauty magazines – with powerful advertising and glamorous photography – are a powerful shaper of public opinion in modern society. While beauty magazine editors will acknowledge that their editorial format is in fact largely an “advertorial” mix of editorial and advertising, few are willing to openly admit that this affects their spin on reporting the true nature of research about UV light. But consider:
The average beauty magazine contains 21 pages of anti-UV skin-care advertising at rates exceeding $50,000 a page. These magazines frequently write misleading one-sided articles about the evils of sun exposure. That’s more than $1 million in revenue per issue from advertisers whose products are being marketed to scare people from any exposure to sunlight.
The average beauty magazine also contains 6 pages of tobacco industry advertising, but seldom writes about the evils of smoking – the single-biggest public health risk today.
Often, when a beauty magazine writes a story with a sun scare angle, products or services provided by advertisers are weaved right into the story. May times that advertiser even sponsors the special section.
Sun Scare has caused epidemic levels of vitamin D deficiency.
Educating people about sunburn prevention – as opposed to “scaring” them with overstatements about any UV exposure – is how we need to teach sun care as a life-long education.
The public should place health skepticism in pharmaceutical claims about sun protection, given the multi-billion-dollar interest that pharmaceutical companies have in the sun care market today and that their competitor – sunshine – is free and is not sold by pharmaceutical companies.
The public and the press look up to medical professionals – including dermatology industry lobbyists – as supposedly objective sources of public health information. But when dermatology industry lobbyists obscure the facts and distort the picture to attempt to influence health policy, that creates an abrogation of trust that is unfortunate for all parties involved, and the consumer suffers.