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Is Sunscreen Killing Us? Or Saving Us?

January 16, 2019

Mr. Sun, Sun, Mr. Golden Sun Please Shine Down on Me


An article ran last week in Outside on the *harm* of using sunscreen. The story, "Is Everything We Thought We Knew About Protecting Ourselves From the Sun Wrong?" was well researched and reported. The basic gist: the benefits of sun, which manifest in a singular and natural alchemy (i.e., a Vitamin D supplement won't do the trick) far outweigh the risks of skin cancer. The theory behind this is sound and supported by a good amount of scientific research (if you want details, read the story).


Stop wearing sunscreen. Wow. That is slaying a sacred cow. I myself have written about the importance of sunscreen. Maybe I was wrong. But maybe not. People like black or white and abhor grey. The case with sunscreen is most likely grey.


Over the last few decades the pendulum swung to the extreme of sunscreen. My mother, who is pretty well-informed, insists I wear sunscreen while driving because the UV rays can penetrate the windows and cause skin-cancer. (I thought this was a little overkill; then my best friend who is a well-trained physician recommended the same.) I've been told by dermatologists to put on sunscreen every morning, no different than brushing my teeth. The story in my head has been: the sun feels good, a tan looks nice, but skin cancer is god awful.


Now, thanks to a handful of researchers and physicians willing to question the establishment, the pendulum may be starting to swing in the other direction. Sun is natural. Natural is good. Yes, sun-exposure can lead to skin cancer, but the incidence of deadly skin cancers is far less than the incidence of deaths caused by cardiovascular disease, which we know sun-exposure prevents and maybe even reverses.


What to make of all this? When the truth is tricky I find it helpful to look to broader patterns:


  • We need oxygen but too much is harmful (oxygen toxicity).

  • We need food but too much is harmful (obesity).

  • We need water but too much is harmful (hyponatremia).

  • We need to be exposed to pathogens but too much is harmful (vaccine vs. virus).


Perhaps the same is true for sun? I don't think anyone would tell you that getting sunburn is good for you (nor particularly comfortable). But it seems that the flipside, not getting enough sun, probably isn't good for you either. The right amount of sun? Somewhere in the middle. My guess is there's also a progressive tolerance at play, meaning the more sun you get without getting burned, the more your body adapts and the more you can handle.


And yet...and yet. The problem with a pendulum swinging from one extreme to another is self-evident. People will undoubtedly read this article and go out from 10AM-2PM with no sunscreen for the the first time. Those people will harm themselves. People with pre-existing conditions that increase their risk for skin cancer (e.g., immunosuppression) will stop wearing sunscreen. Those people will harm themselves too.


The answer is grey. It's the middle-way.


How much sun should you get? It depends. Not too much and not too little. If you don't have a predisposition to skin cancer I'd consider gradually ramping up your sun exposure. If you get burned that's too much. Meanwhile, if you live in a geography where it's not possible to get regular sun-exposure I wouldn't obsess or worry. My hunch is that the stress caused from worrying that you aren't getting enough sun probably outweighs the lack of sun itself.


Coaching Corner: No One Has It Figured Out, And That's OK.


A strange thing happens when you start writing self-help books and articles: people expect you to live up to everything you’ve written. They expect you to have all of the answers, to be able to be their ‘guru’ to a faster 10k time, or for you to have some perfect work-life balance, or to never succumb to the trappings of the latest attention demanding technology.


It’s a strange place to be when you obtain the label ‘expert.’ It’s not that I’m not trying to master the things I write about, I most certainly am. It’s just that…well, I’m human. Mastery is a process, and truth be told, something that few of us will ever obtain.


So until that point, even though I’m an “expert”, I am just like you. And so is just about any other expert out there. If they tell you otherwise you should probably run the other way.


There are hours when the phone, Twitter, Facebook, or whatever the latest attention-sucking gadget totally and completely wins. There are times when I blow up, flip out and lose all emotional control. My athletes have bad races. Sometimes at the most important competitions. There are days when I wake up down, lethargic, and struggle to convince myself that the jogging around for a couple miles is worth it. There are times when I do the exact opposite of just about everything I’ve ever written and professed as important.


And while I might need to work on some of it, I also think it's kind of okay. It’s completely normal to go through the range of human emotions, to experience anger, sadness, frustration, and boredom. To give in to our ancestral need for shutting off and staring off into space, or wasting away hours binge-watching The Office.


We’re all humans with deep flaws, strange habits, and idiosyncrasies. While the self-help genre is worthwhile, it’s also important to live and accept reality: Life is messy. It’s hard. It’s difficult. We all screw it up.


If anyone claims to have it all figured out, mastering the key to productivity, running fast, having perfect relationships, and whatever else, they’re lying. That’s an impossible standard. And it does us harm thinking that any of us can live up to it.


I know one thing for certain: I can’t.


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