Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer found in the U.S., and the most common of those are basal and squamous cell cancers.1 Although death from these types is uncommon,2,3 the consequences of treatment may be disfiguring.
Despite recommendations for people to stay out of the sun and use sunscreen, current estimates4are that the lifetime risk for skin cancer is 20% for Americans. Approximately 9,500 skin cancers are diagnosed every day. But, sensible sun exposure, while taking care to avoid getting burned, is one of the best ways to optimize your vitamin D level.
Researchers estimate 85% of children living in urban areas, and half of all adults and the elderly suffer from vitamin D deficiency.5 This is in spite of the fact that Americans are used to eating fortified foods.
Vitamin D deficiencies may be due in part from recommendations by dermatologists to avoid sun exposure6,7 as they attempt to curb the rising number who suffer from skin cancer. As researchers have found,8 it is UVA rays that trigger cell damage that leads to skin cancer. You can be exposed to UVA rays both inside and outdoors.
Nonmelanoma types of skin cancer, including squamous cell and basal cell, affect more than 3 million people in the U.S. each year, demonstrating the need for more effective preventive strategies to be used.
Study Shows Vitamin A Reduces Skin Cancer
In a recent study9 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association it was reported that researchers sought to find out whether vitamin A was associated with a reduction in the incidence of squamous cell skin cancer. The team enrolled 123,570 men and women and followed them for more than 26 years, evaluating their dietary intake of vitamin A.
Any incidence of skin cancer was confirmed by pathology reports. The researchers believe the data suggest increasing your dietary intake of vitamin A reduces your risk of squamous cell carcinoma. This team, from Brown University, was led by Eunyoung Cho, who commented on the results:10
"Our study provides another reason to eat lots of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet. Skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma, is hard to prevent, but this study suggests that eating a healthy diet rich in vitamin A may be a way to reduce your risk, in addition to wearing sunscreen and reducing sun exposure."
The researchers accounted for factors such as hair color, number of severe burns participants may have experienced and family history.11 Participants were not asked about their exposure to the sun during the middle of the day.
Participants who ate the highest amount of vitamin A consumed the equivalent of two large carrots each day. Those who ate the least amount had the equivalent of one small carrot, which the researchers note is well within the U.S. recommended dietary allowance.
Data indicate that those who ate the highest amount of vitamin A during the day had a 17% reduction in the potential for skin cancer, as compared to those who consumed the lowest. Evaluation of dietary intake also showed vitamin A from the group eating the most came from fruits and vegetables rather than animal-based foods or supplements.12
Vitamin A plays an important role in regulating cell growth and differentiation. Thus, it participates in mitigation of the development of cancer and modulates age-related macular degeneration and vision loss.13 Although frank deficiency is rare in the U.S., it is not uncommon in developing countries where people have limited access to vitamin A rich foods.14
Vitamin B3 and Vitamin D May Offer Additional Protection
Two other vitamins important in the prevention of skin cancer include vitamin B3 (nicotinamide) and vitamin D, metabolized in your skin during exposure to the sun. In the third phase of an Australian study15 evaluating the effect of vitamin B3 in individuals with nonmelanoma skin cancers, researchers enrolled participants who had at least two nonmelanoma skin cancers in the past five years.
They assigned participants to receive either 500 mg of vitamin B3 twice a day or a placebo over the course of the following 12 months. The data showed no side effects with the placebo or vitamin B3. In the 12-month study, those taking vitamin B3 experienced a 23% lower rate of new skin cancers. However, once the vitamin B3 was discontinued, there was no continued benefit.
Sunburns, especially when you're young, are associated with an increased risk of melanoma. Yet, melanomas often appear in areas of the body rarely exposed to the sun. Also noteworthy, though, is that a lack of exposure to the sun reduces the amount of vitamin D your body produces, which is protective against melanoma. In a study published in the Lancet, researchers wrote:16
"Paradoxically, outdoor workers have a decreased risk of melanoma compared with indoor workers, suggesting that chronic sunlight exposure can have a protective effect. Further, some melanomas form on sun-exposed regions; others do not. Although some melanomas arise from pre-existing melanocytic naevi (moles), many arise de novo."
Evidence suggests it is wise to get sensible unprotected sun exposure on a large amount of skin to a point just short of your skin turning pink. Then, cover up with a thin layer of clothing to protect your skin from burns. If you're outdoors for long periods of time, wear a wide-brimmed hat since the skin on your face is more prone to damage but does not add much to the manufacture of vitamin D.
Avoiding the sun may be dangerous to your health as a Swedish study17 demonstrated. The researchers looked at sun avoidance as a risk factor for all-cause mortality in 29,518 women over a 20-year period. They concluded that avoiding sun exposure is a risk for all-cause mortality and restricting exposure in countries with low solar intensity may be harmful.
Do Avoid Sunburns and Chemical Sunscreens
The American Academy of Dermatology18 recommends staying out of tanning beds and protecting your skin by "seeking shade, wearing protective clothing and using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher."
As you consider the recommendations for sun exposure, it's important to remember that avoiding it altogether places you at greater risk for several internal cancers, which I discussed in my past article, "Vitamins That Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer."
It is also important to avoid sunburn, since overexposure can result in cell damage and raise your risk of skin cancer. If you plan on spending a day at the beach or engaging in outdoor activities for long hours, you'll need some form of sun protection. Light clothing is the ideal choice, but most people still opt for sunscreen.
Unfortunately, many sunscreen products contain toxic ingredients. The 2018 Sunscreen Buying Guide from Consumer Reports19 notes that many products did not provide the level of UVB protection printed on the label.
As a result, you may be exposed to toxic chemicals and end up getting sunburned anyway. For a more thorough discussion of the toxins found in, and the effectiveness of, sunscreens see my past articles:
Use Your Diet to Increase Vitamin A
Increasing your food sources of vitamin A is the most effective means of achieving optimal levels. Foods high in vitamin A include sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe and mangoes.20 Other vegetables that offer this same benefit include kale, mustard greens, collard greens and turnip greens.21
Vitamin A is a group of nutrients that falls into two different categories: retinoids found in animal foods and carotenoids found in plant foods. The two are chemically different and provide different health benefits, but both are necessary for optimal health.
Most carotenoids function as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents while retinoids are important for red blood cell production. They're especially necessary during pregnancy and in helping the body resist infections.
Choose Astaxanthin to Protect Yourself From the Inside Out
Astaxanthin is a part of the carotenoid family and may be one of the most potent antioxidants. It's produced by microalgae as a protective mechanism to shield it from ultraviolet light and other environmental stressors.22 It has a unique molecular structure that helps protect your skin from the inside out.
Specifically, it helps protect against UV-induced cell death. Unlike topical sunblock, it does not block UV rays, so it doesn't prevent the conversion of vitamin D in your skin. In addition, it increases your skin's elasticity and reduces the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.
Astaxanthin is a powerful antioxidant exhibiting neuroprotective effects. It benefits your cardiovascular system and also protects your vision. It can help reduce post-exercise recovery time and soreness and is being considered by NASA to offset the damage from radiation exposure in space. Read more about the rising number of benefits researchers have discovered that are associated with astaxanthin in these articles: