Over the course of two decades, a group of scientists at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute conducted a fascinating study. For 20 years, they intensively examined the possibilities of how wearing sunscreen could actually be causing damage to people’s skin over long periods of time. And the results proved to be eye-opening.
The study originated in the early 1990s, when a doctor named Pelle Lindqvist initiated the pioneering study, leading a team made-up of six scientific experts. Together, they recorded some vital information over a two-year period, as the group interviewed nearly 30,000 Swedish women aged between 25 and 64. However, the team’s hard work didn’t end there, though.
After conducting their research, Lindqvist and his colleagues got into contact with the women again between the years 2000 and 2002. By that point, around ten years had passed since their original conversations, as the researchers looked to follow up their initial work. Then, in 2014, they released their findings to the world.
The surprising results certainly raised some eyebrows at the time, leading a number of news outlets to cover the story. However, there were a few skeptical reactions to Lindqvist’s findings too, which compelled many experts to weigh in with their own opinions. Before long, an intriguing debate emerged regarding the potential drawbacks to using sunscreen.
From a young age, the importance of sunscreen is emphasised to us repeatedly, especially if we are heading off to a hot country on vacation. As the name suggests, the cream is meant to protect our skin from the sun when it’s exposed for a certain length of time. The dangers of neglecting to use it seem frighteningly clear.
In fact, prolonged exposure to the sun without sunscreen almost always results in sunburn. It’s something that the vast majority of us have experienced at some point in our lives, and it can be very painful. However, in the long term, the lotion doesn’t just simply protect us from the occasional burns while on vacation.
For instance, if we live in a country where the sun’s out for most of the year, we need to take careful precautions with our skin. This is due to the potentially damaging ultraviolet radiation that the sun radiates. If we expose ourselves to that without any kind of protection over a prolonged period of time, we run the very real danger of getting skin cancer.
In order to emphasise that danger, The Skin Cancer Foundation dedicated an entire page to the importance of sunscreen on its official website. The post provided a detailed description of the science behind the cream, alongside some other interesting points of information. However, that’s not all, as we’re about to discover.
The foundation’s post read, “When used as directed, sunscreen is proven to decrease your risk of skin cancers and skin precancers. Regular daily use of Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 15 sunscreen can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by about 40 percent. And lower your melanoma risk by 50 percent.”
On the basis of those persuasive statistics, the foundation then shared some important advice to people everywhere. As they previously stated, you should be applying sunscreen every day to protect yourselves from the sun’s UV radiation. However, there are certain individuals who don’t need to abide by that particular suggestion.
“Who should use sunscreen?” the post continued. “The short answer is everyone! Men, women and children over six months of age should use sunscreen every day. This includes people who tan easily and those who don’t – remember, your skin is damaged by sun exposure over your lifetime, whether or not you burn.”
However, the Skin Cancer Foundation added, “Babies under the age of six months are the only exceptions. Their skin is highly sensitive. Stay out of the sun. Shade structures and sun-protective clothing are the best ways to safeguard infants.” From there, the authoritative post raised a few more points of interest on the subject.
You may well have always wondered how the strength of different sunscreens were measured. Fortunately, the website laid out an explanation. The numbers on the SPF ratings indicate the length of time it would take for you to get sunburnt when compared to your time without it. And to help illustrate that point, a useful example was employed.
The post continued, “If you use an SPF 30 product properly, it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you used no sunscreen.” On that note, the foundation looked to clear up a regular point of confusion when it comes to buying sunscreen. With all the options available, what product is the best possible one available?
As explained on the website, “The Skin Cancer Foundation believes that the best sunscreen is the one you are most likely to use, so long as it provides safe and effective protection. And is broad spectrum with an SPF 15 or higher. Learn about your options to make an informed choice that best suits your needs.”
Ultimately, the foundation concluded by touching upon the science of sunscreen, and how it actually works. Effectively, there are two distinct lotions that protect your skin in different ways, which comes down to their respective ingredients. These are known as physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens.
“Sunscreen includes active ingredients that help prevent the sun’s UV radiation from reaching your skin,” the foundation’s post revealed. “Here’s how the two types of sunscreen work for you. Physical sunscreen ingredients, including the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, block and scatter the rays before they penetrate your skin.”
The post added, “Chemical sunscreen ingredients, like avobenzone and octisalate, absorb UV rays before they can damage your skin. All active ingredients in sunscreen are chemically derived. Some people may think of physical sunscreens as more natural or even organic, but they’re actually inorganic mineral compounds. The sunscreens many people call chemical are actually ‘UV organic filters.’”
With that in mind, Dr. Pelle Lindqvist of the Karolinska Institute decided to conduct an intriguing investigation into the effectiveness of sunscreen. In turn, he also decided to investigate a possible link between the product and long-term damage to the skin. This important, and possibly alarming, study came to occupy a significant chunk of his life.
In fact, Lindqvist’s exhaustive study was over 20 years in the making. Initial research began in in 1990, and the results were finally published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in 2014. The doctor wasn’t alone, though, as he led six other researchers on the road to compiling this particular paper.
As they began their study, Lindqvist and his colleagues outlined the risks that certain people face when they expose their unprotected skin to the sun. Much like The Skin Cancer Foundation, the researchers made it clear that these individuals were in danger of falling victim to malignant melanoma, or MM. Yet that’s not the only danger they faced.
The paper identified the group of people who were most at risk from the sun. “MM is most common amongst Northern Europeans with pale skin. Individuals with red hair or a tendency to develop freckles are [also] at increased risk of developing MM,” it stated. “The highest risk has been found amongst those of European ancestry living in Northern Australia. This has been the basis for considering UV radiation as the major cause of MM.”
However, the scientists then went on to make a very interesting point. While prolonged exposure to the sun can quite clearly have a negative effect, the UV rays are also an essential source of vitamin D. So if we go too far in protecting our skin, we could be depriving ourselves of a very significant nutrient.
In the light of this, the project had a very specific focus. Lindqvist and his fellow researchers wanted to see if those who shielded their bodies from the sun were actually doing themselves more harm than good. To get their results, they cast a wide net across Sweden, focusing on one group in particular.
“We assessed the avoidance of sun exposure as a risk factor for all-cause mortality for 29,518 Swedish women,” the paper stated. “Women were recruited from 1990 to 1992 and were aged 25 to 64 years at the start of the study. We obtained detailed information at baseline on their sun exposure habits and potential confounders.”
However, the hard work didn’t conclude there. The paper explained, “A written follow-up was then conducted between 2000 and 2002. The questionnaire was a detailed inquiry into several factors of potential interest for longevity, such as sun exposure habits, marital status, educational level, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, number of pregnancies, body mass index and physical exercise.”
When all the data was collated, Lindqvist and his colleagues finally shared their results via the medical journal after two decades worth of research. The paper was subsequently titled, “Avoidance of sun exposure is a risk factor for all-cause mortality.” And as for the figures themselves, they proved to be quite alarming.
The study revealed, “There were 2,545 deaths amongst the 29,518 women who responded to the initial questionnaire. We found that all-cause mortality was inversely related to sun exposure habits. The mortality rate amongst avoiders of sun exposure was approximately twofold higher compared with the highest sun exposure group.”
On the back of this information, Lindqvist and his team cast their minds back to what they wanted to find out initially. Although the results couldn’t be seen as iron-clad proof of a more wide-ranging issue, they put forward a theory. The paper read, “We speculated that insufficient vitamin D levels amongst those who avoid sun exposure might be the mechanism that increases the mortality rate.”
With this in mind, if you’re wondering why vitamin D is so important to the human body, here are a few reasons. For those who are lacking the vitamin, they have a higher chance of developing conditions such as tuberculosis, diabetes, rickets and multiple sclerosis. In addition to that, a particular type of cancer can also appear.
Surprisingly, while overexposure to sunlight can lead to skin cancer, a lack of vitamin D can also be linked to the disease as well. It’s a startling revelation, especially for people who’ve been relying on sunscreen to protect them for years. However, after the paper was published in 2014, a few individuals weighed in with their respective opinions.
One such view came from St. George’s, University of London, as a professor named Dorothy Bennett shared her thoughts. She touched upon the subject while speaking with U.K. newspaper The Telegraph in May 2014. In addition, Bennett offered some important advice to anyone who might be vitamin D deficient too.
Professor Bennett said, “The findings support the consensus that the ideal amount of sun exposure for Northern Europeans is ‘a little’, rather than zero. As the authors comment, our bodies need sunlight to make essential vitamin D, which can help us resist some cancer types. Those who normally avoid the sun and/or cover most of their skin are advised to take vitamin D supplements.”
Elsewhere, the Public Health England organization revealed that it would be taking a closer look at Lindqvist’s study going forward. The U.K. agency ensures that research papers such as this are thoroughly peer reviewed in an effort to learn more. However, there were a few doubters out there as well.
Andrea Darling was one of them, and the doctor shared her misgivings with The Telegraph. To her mind, people who spend a lot of time in the sun are still in danger of developing skin cancer, compared to individuals with low vitamin D. And regarding the results from Lindqvist’s paper, Dr Darling put forward a suggestion.
“The findings from Dr. Lindqvist’s team are interesting,” Darling told the newspaper. “But it is possible that the women in the study who had high sun exposure differed from the women who had low sun exposure, in ways that may explain their reduced cancer risk.” That didn’t signal the end of the debate, though.
A senior health information officer from Cancer Research U.K. also offered their perspective on Lindqvist’s findings. Her name was Yinka Ebo, and she was somewhat skeptical about certain aspects of the published results. However, she did agree that people shouldn’t avoid the sun altogether, whether it’s through sunscreen or staying inside.
Ebo said, “The reasons behind higher death rates in women with lower sun exposure are still unexplained, as unhealthy lifestyle choices could have played a part. Overexposure to UV radiation from the sun or sunbeds is the main cause of skin cancer.” However, Ebo also stressed that, “we all need some sunshine to make vitamin D for healthy bones.”
“Enjoying the sun safely while taking care not to burn should help most people strike a good balance,” Ebo added. Ultimately, a representative from the United Kingdom’s Department of Health made a statement on the matter. Given the findings from the study, they wanted to make a few things clear.
The government spokesperson felt it important to reiterate one of Bennett’s points. They said, “Skin cancer can have devastating consequences and it is vital that people take steps to protect themselves. However, we also recognize the importance of vitamin D for good health. Those at risk of vitamin D deficiency should take daily supplements.”