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UV light and non-melanoma skin cancer

Posted on: May 23, 2012   by  John Cannell, MD


While too much sun does indeed contribute to squamous cell and probably to basal cell carcinoma, these cancers are easily treated with proper medical care. If caught early, doctors call them nuisance cancers because dermatologists often just burn or freeze them off. However, if you wait, and do not seek medical care, these cancers will grow and can kill you. About 1,500 Americans die every year from these two cancers.

Many dermatologists, however, started warning that any sun exposure at all causes skin cancer. Ask most Americans if the sun causes cancer, and they will quickly answer, “Yes.” Then ask them if the sun prevents cancer, and they will be confused. If you tell them that they are much more likely to die from cancer if they totally avoid the sun, they will tell you to see a psychiatrist, but you’d be right.

Recently, researchers have discovered something unique and remarkable about the skin. It is the only organ that makes activated vitamin D directly from the sun. This ability to make activated vitamin D means nature’s number one cancer fighter is available in the skin to help fix sun-damaged cells, if one goes into the sun on a regular basis. Once you stop doing that, activated vitamin D in the skin would no longer be as available.

Let’s not forget that sunlight helps prevent internal cancers via vitamin D. It’s as if Mother Nature knew we needed vitamin D to prevent internal cancers but also knew we could get skin cancer from the sun and provided ready-made skin chemotherapy in the form of activated vitamin D. Now, modern medicine has made sunlight Public Enemy Number One, encouraging us, in effect, to take away our protection from skin and internal cancers, as well as many other diseases. It is not wise to try to fool Mother Nature.

When we look at skin cancer research, it’s clear that avoiding excessive sunlight, especially sunburns, does reduce the risk of squamous cell cancer. Sunlight’s relationship with the other common skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma, is more complicated, but chronic exposure probably does increase its incidence. One point that gets lost, however, is that sun exposure is only one risk factor for skin cancer. Diet is important, as is genetic tendency. Some research has looked into the possibility that more omega-3s in our diet would help prevent skin cancer.

Without doubting the importance of skin cancer, a key fact to keep in mind is that deaths from squamous and basal cell carcinoma total about 1,500 Americans a year. Dr. Bill Grant has calculated that other deaths—deaths from vitamin D deficiency—kill almost 1,500 Americans every day.


Arends J. Vitamin D in oncology. Forsch Komplementmed. 2011;18(4):176-84. doi: 10.1159/000330725. Epub 2011 Aug 1. Review.

Bikle DD. Vitamin D and the skin: Physiology and pathophysiology. Rev Endocr Metab Disord. 2012 Mar;13(1):3-19.

Tuohimaa P, Pukkala E, Scélo G, Olsen JH, Brewster DH, Hemminki K, Tracey E, Weiderpass E, Kliewer EV, Pompe-Kirn V, McBride ML, Martos C, Chia KS, Tonita JM, Jonasson JG, Boffetta P, Brennan P. Does solar exposure, as indicated by the non-melanoma skin cancers, protect from solid cancers: vitamin D as a possible explanation. Eur J Cancer. 2007 Jul;43(11):1701-12. Epub 2007 May 30.

Fleet JC, DeSmet M, Johnso1(1):61-76. Review.

Black HS, Rhodes LE. The potential of omega-3 fatty acids in the prevention of non-melanoma skin cancer. Cancer Detect Prev. 2006;30(3):224-32. Epub 2006 Jul 26. Review.

Grant WB. In defense of the sun: An estimate of changes in mortality rates in the United States if mean serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D levels were raised to 45 ng/mL by solar ultraviolet-B irradiance. Dermatoendocrinol. 2009 Jul;1(4):207-14.


2 Responses to UV light and non-melanoma skin cancer

  1. Ian

    If vitamin D in the skin is required to protect the skin from sun damage (through controlled and regular exposure) then one of the causative factors is clearly the behaviour (in north and south latitudes) of wrapping up and going inside in the winter, then when summer comes -strip off and off to the beach. This cycle is surely dangerous. At the end of winter, vitamin d levels are at their lowest, then high UV exposure in the summer will cause damage, not prevented by vitamin D.
    My question is this: If you take a vitamin d supplement over the winter (say 5000IU daily) will you be better able to deal with the summer sun when you do increase your exposure?

    • Brant Cebulla

      Ian, research hasn’t quite answered that question, but it’s generally believed that that is the case — the higher your vitamin D level, the less you burn.

      Researchers did an experiment applying activated vitamin D on the skin and found that they needed a larger UV radiation dose to make skin turn pink in those who got activated vitamin D. Really interesting!

      Beyond that, there are several mechanisms that show that vitamin D protects the skin from UV radiation. There’s a great chapter in the book Vitamin D: Third Edition called “Sunlight Protection by Vitamin D Compounds.” Perhaps we should blog on the paper sometime?

      Cheers, Brant

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