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Against Sunscreen Absolutism


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Australia is a country of abundant sunshine, but the skin of most Australians is better adapted to gloomy England than the beaches of Brisbane. The country’s predominantly white population has by far the world’s highest rate of skin cancer, and for years the public-health establishment has warned residents about the dangers of ultraviolet light. A 1980s ad campaign advised Australians to “Slip, Slop, Slap”—if you had to go out in the sun, slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat. The only safe amount of sun was none at all.


Then, in 2023, a consortium of Australian public-health groups did something surprising: It issued new advice that takes careful account, for the first time, of the sun’s positive contributions. The advice itself may not seem revolutionary—experts now say that people at the lowest risk of skin cancer should spend ample time outdoors—but the idea at its core marked a radical departure from decades of public-health messaging. “Completely avoiding sun exposure is not optimal for health,” read the groups’ position statement, which extensively cites a growing body of research. Yes, UV rays cause skin cancer, but for some, too much shade can be just as harmful as too much sun.

It’s long been known that sun exposure triggers vitamin D production in the skin, and that low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased rates of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, osteoporosis, and many other diseases. It was natural to assume that vitamin D was responsible for these outcomes. “Imagine a treatment that could build bones, strengthen the immune system and lower the risks of illnesses like diabetes, heart and kidney disease, high blood pressure and cancer,” The New York Times wrote in 2010. “Some research suggests that such a wonder treatment already exists. It’s vitamin D.” By 2020, more than one in six adults were on that wonder treatment in the form of daily supplements, which promise to deliver the sun’s benefits without its dangers.:snip:

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