“Sun Scare”: How Commercialism Has Twisted Proper Sun Care

tan3Scaring people out of the sun is a multibillion-dollar business. Smart Tan coined the term “sun scare” in 1996 to properly identify those who were distorting the truth about sunshine’s complex relationship with human health in order to scare you out of the sun. Some “sun scare” groups profit by marketing a distorted sun abstinence message, while others simply tell you to avoid any and all sun exposure because they don’t trust you to make your own informed decision about proper sun care:
Cosmetic Corporations – These giant “cosmeceutical” firms are driven by multibillion-dollar profits and are the leading purveyors of “sun scare.” These sunscreen manufacturers are marketing their products to block any and all UV exposure rather than simply for sunburn prevention. Sunscreen companies are enjoying record profits right now. For instance:
$9 billion pharmaceutical giant Schering-Plough (Coppertone) reported sun-care related sales of $204 million in 2005, up 16 percent from 2004 and up 40 percent from 2003, making the division one of Schering-Plough’s best performers by percentage growth.
$50 billion Johnson & Johnson’s consumer products unit – which markets sun care products like Neutrogena and Aveeno, is one of the pharmaceutical giant’s most profitable divisions, with increased sales of $2.36 billion in the first quarter of 2006 alone. Neutrogena’s marketing uses some of the most aggressive sun-scare tactics of any sunscreen company. In marketing its “Age Shield” SPF 45 product, Neutrogena warns people, “As part of your daily skin care regimen, Neutrogena recommends Healthy Defense SPF30 Daily Moisturizer to combat damage from daily sun exposure.”
Beauty magazines – Chock full of cosmetic advertising, the average North American beauty magazine contains 21 pages of anti-sun-related advertising in every issue. That’s an estimated $1 million a month in revenue for many beauty magazines, which explains why their editorial message is so heavily slanted against sunshine.
One prominent example of how advertising affects beauty magazine coverage of this issue: Cosmopolitan magazine sold sponsorship of a cover feature on sun care to Neutrogena in May 2006. The package of stories – as beauty magazines often do – featured and recommended usage of Neutrogena products. Further, Cosmo Editor Kate White personally trumpeted the message of her advertiser on a publicity tour that included a prominent interview on NBC’s The Today Show in April. Neutrogena products were featured on that appearance as well. In essence, Cosmopolitan has compromised its editorial integrity and has officially become a paid lobbyist for the cosmeceutical industry, which markets its product based on all-out fear and denial of the benefits naturally derived from sunlight.
Skin Care Lobbying Groups – The American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation and the National Sun Safety Alliance all are prime examples of groups that the public perceives to be independent and altruistic, but which have strong ties to the pharmaceutical manufacturers of sunscreen products. This is one reason why most of these groups still recommend daily usage of sunscreen 365 days a year for people in all climates despite the fact that such a regimen clearly promotes over-use of sunscreen and may be contributing to the epidemic of Vitamin D deficiency in North America today.
Some purveyors of “sun scare” have deluded themselves into thinking that it is acceptable to overstate the risks associated with overexposure in order to convince people to moderate their sun exposure habits. This segment of the anti-tanning “sun scare” lobby, in an effort to rightfully increase awareness about sun care, often says the wrong thing the wrong way for the right reasons. But the fact that the intention – to reduce skin damage – is right does not give them a free pass to obscure the facts and ignore conflicting data, as they often do. For example:
Some dermatology industry leaders still maintain that there are no known health benefits to regular sun exposure. This position is totally non- defendable. There is plenty of well-researched material documenting the positive physiological and psychological effects of UV exposure. They are in full denial.
“People who practice proper sun protection and are concerned that they are not getting enough vitamin D should either take a multivitamin or drink a few glasses of vitamin D fortified milk every day. ..Dietary intake of vitamin D can completely and easily fulfill our needs.” – Dr. Raymond L. Cornelison Jr., then-president of the American Academy of Dermatology, in a July 3, 2003 AAD press release entitled, “Vitamin D + Sunshine = Bad Medicine.” This isn’t true – sunshine is the body’s natural way to make vitamin D, and the vitamin D community has agreed that one cannot reliably make vitamin D through dietary supplementation alone.
Some dermatology industry leaders, in efforts to increase awareness about sun care, have clearly overstated the risks associated with UV exposure. For example, dermatology industry leaders have gone on record advocating daily use of sunscreen 365 days a year in all climates. This is clearly misbranding the product in seasons and climates where sunburn is not a possibility. Further, this over-use of sunscreen completely prevents the body from naturally manufacturing vitamin D. And vitamin D deficiency in our society appears to be epidemic.
“Overwhelming evidence links the development of most skin cancers to exposure of skin to ultraviolet radiation contained in sunlight. (Vitamin D Scientists Dr. Michael) Holick hints that judicious daily exposures might be safe. However, I believe that every photon hitting the skin could produce a photo-mutation leading to skin cancer.” – Dr. Mark V. Dahl, past president of the American Academy of Dermatology in a 2003 editorial criticizing Holick’s work published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Dahl’s comment that any bit of sun exposure could lead to skin cancer is akin to saying that any car trip is dangerous and therefore people should not drive a car – it’s not the most accurate way to portray the relationship.
Some dermatology industry leaders, in attempts to scare people out of the sun, still compare tanning to smoking, making the statement that indoor tanning is like a cigarette for your skin. This hyperbole is nothing short of ridiculous:
Smoking introduces unnatural substances into your body that your body is not designed to process. In contrast, your body is designed to process UV light, and in fact is reliant on UV exposure for natural body functions.
Smoking is related to 20 percent of all deaths in the United States and 30 percent of all cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.
Lung cancer rates are 22 times higher for current male smokers and 12 times higher for current female smokers as compared to non- smokers. In contrast, there are no studies showing that tanning in a non-burning fashion is related to any increase in skin cancer risk. This is critical, because we believe that burning, not moderate tanning, is the significant UV-related risk factor.
18 of 22 studies ever conducted on indoor tanning and melanoma have shown no connection at all, including the most recent and largest study on the topic. The four older studies that have alleged small increases in risk have all contained unexplained statistical anomalies, such as failing to control for confounding variables such as outdoor sun exposure. In some studies, frequent tanners had lower risk as compared to non- tanners, which also is unexplained.
The public and the press look up to medical professionals as objective sources of public health information. But when dermatology industry lobbyists obscure the facts and distort the picture to attempt to influence health policy, that creates an abrogation of trust that is unfortunate for all parties involved, and the consumer suffers.
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Sun Scare: Calling Any UV Exposure a ‘Carcinogen’
The U.S. federal government in 2000 included ultraviolet light on its list of known human carcinogens – a document it produces bi-annually to warn people about dangerous chemicals and exposure circumstances. In doing so, ultraviolet light became the first item on that list that humans also need in order to live and would die if they didn’t receive. That is nothing less than confusing. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you have heard about this listing:
The criteria to be on the list does not take into consideration the dosage required for a substance to be harmful. That is the problem. According to the listing criteria: “The Report does not present quantitative assessments of carcinogenic risk. Listing of substances in the Report, therefore, does not establish that such substances present carcinogenic risks to individuals in their daily lives.” In other words, the criteria to be on the U.S. government’s list of carcinogens does not differentiate between sunburn and normal daily UV exposure. Purveyors of sun scare conveniently have neglected to disclose this shortfall. This exclusion makes this listing meaningless.
This report means nothing more than this: Repeated sunburn and overexposure may increase your risk of skin cancer. The list does not mean that moderate tanning in a non-burning fashion will cause skin cancer. That’s because there is no research in existence to demonstrate that tanning without burning is a significant risk factor for anything.
Sunburn and overexposure are exactly what we are trying to prevent by teaching moderation and sunburn prevention.
The list does not take into account that there are positive effects of regular ultraviolet light exposure. One thing we know for certain: You would be dead today if you did not receive any ultraviolet light.

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