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Shying Away From Sun Increases Melanoma Risk

By Dr. John Briffa Created: April 21, 2011 Last Updated: April 23, 2011
Related articles: Health » Environment & Health
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DECREASING MELANOMA RISK: Sun exposure actually diminishes likelihood of developing melanoma. (Photos.com)

DECREASING MELANOMA RISK: Sun exposure actually diminishes likelihood of developing melanoma. (Photos.com)

Recently, the weather in London has been glorious and warm. However, an article that appeared in The Daily Mail on April 6 cast a shadow. It concerns the tragic death of a 21-year-old woman from malignant melanoma.

We’re told that that the victim hated the sun and did her utmost to protect herself from it. Yet she still ended up succumbing to malignant melanoma. The subtext message was that any amount of sun is hazardous.

Is it true that exposing the skin to ultraviolet light causes malignant melanoma? I know this link is constantly made, but does it stand up to scrutiny?

In July 2008, the British Medical Journal ran an article by Dr. Sam Shuster (a dermatologist) in which he dissects some pertinent research regarding the link between sunlight exposure and malignant melanoma. Following are some of the points made in this article.

Some forms of skin cancer (relatively harmless basal cell and squamous cell cancers) tend to occur in sun-exposed parts of the body, but 75 percent of malignant melanomas do not.

The relationship with latitude is small and inconsistent. In other words, locations closer to the equator with more sunlight exposure do not see significantly increased malignant melanoma incidence.

Malignant melanoma incidence and death from this condition are lower in individuals with increased sunlight exposure. Eleven studies are cited as evidence to support this.

Incidence of malignant melanoma is not reduced and can be increased by sunscreen use.

Malignant melanoma risk associated with sunbed use is “small and inconsistent.”

Inducing malignant melanoma in the laboratory using ultraviolet light is difficult (in contrast to basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas).

In short, the relationship between sunlight exposure and malignant melanoma is far from clear-cut. There is even some evidence that sunlight exposure might help protect against this condition.

It’s important to bear this in mind when reading stories like the one I mentioned above. The “sunlight at any dose is dangerous” subtext comes from the belief that sunlight is a major cause of melanoma. This appears to be inaccurate.

The balance of evidence suggests some protective effect. Taking this at face value, is it possible that this woman’s death was not in spite of her fear of the sun, but partly because of it?

We are faced with the very real possibility that this death was the result of general misinformation about the supposed perils of sunlight exposure.

Dr. John Briffa is a London-based physician and author with an interest in nutrition and natural medicine. His website is DrBriffa.com

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