Sunday, June 15, 2008

My Unpopular Hypothesis

Another one so soon?? Yes indeed! I choose to post this even though every time I mention this to other people I usually get weird looks, even though it is not one of my usual highly contested political/religious 'hot button' issues, but hey, maybe somewhere out there is someone who agrees with me on this one. (If this is the first time you've checked my blog for a while because you know me and know i don't post regularly, make sure not to miss my last post, which is only a few days old)

Do you remember when you were in science class as a student and you had to come up with a hypothesis to test? You remember, the Scientific Method? Observe, Hypothesize, Test, Repeat. Well I’ve observed something that is commonly pushed upon the public as a ‘fact’ that I do not believe actually stands up to the Scientific Method. (And for once I’m not talking about evolution.) Now I will never have a chance (or at least it is extremely unlikely that I will have the chance) to test my hypothesis, but I can at least take the opportunity to share my observations and hypothesis with others.
Now its common knowledge that in the last generation skin cancer occurrences have greatly increased, we’ve all been told since we were children to slather on the sunscreen, stay out of the sun, wear hats and long sleeves, and in every way to minimize our sun exposure. Why? ‘Common knowledge’ will tell you it’s because sun exposure increases and/or causes skin cancer. Now certainly there is a proven link between SUN BURNS and an increased risk of skin cancer, but does sun exposure itself equal skin cancer? (For the purposes of this debate ‘sun burn’ means a painful reddening of the skin that emits heat and is sensitive to heat/cold/and touch. It may or may not include blisters or peeling.)
Like all problems and questions I always suggest approaching it from a logical basis, so let’s look at what we know.
1) Overall exposure to the sun has decreased greatly since our grandparent’s time.
2) Overall use of sunscreen has greatly increased since our grandparent’s time.
3) Occurrences of skin cancer have greatly increased since our grandparent’s time.
4) Racially (and historically) speaking the closer the race is to the equator, the lower its overall occurrence of skin cancer.
5) Sun exposure is greater the closer one gets to the equator.
6) Our bodies need the sun to produce vitamin D, a necessity.
7) Our bodies have a built-in filter that builds over time in response to sun exposure.
8) The race with the lowest occurrence of skin cancer world wide lives very close to the equator, at very high elevations, and participate in a daily sunning activity that exposes a large portion of their skin to the sun during ‘peak’ sun hours.

Given these 8 points one can immediately rule out general unprotected sun exposure as a causality of skin cancer. Logically life-long sun exposure should actually reduce ones likelihood of skin cancer. But we know that sun burns do greatly increase an individual’s likelihood of skin cancer, and we know the UV rays of the sun are (usually) responsible for skin cancer so, where’s the catch? Where does a healthy, beneficial, and necessary thing (sun exposure) suddenly turn into a (potentially) deadly disease?
My hypothesis is that skin cancer is on the rise because we intentionally remove our body’s defensive filters. When a babe is born he has smooth, soft, and pale skin (even darker races are paler as children than as adults). When he is exposed to the world around him, wind, texture, and sun, his skin automatically matures to help protect him from the world. (Remember two things, 1) we are in a fallen world and the fallen world is innately dangerous and 2) the purpose of the skin, the largest organ in the human body, is to protect.) It does this by becoming rough where it was once smooth, first calluses on the knees from crawling, then on the hands and feet from walking and working; firmer where it was once soft, like the general hardening of the hands or soles of the feet and the overall texture difference; and darker where it once was pale, producing more melanin in response to the sun, in other words, tanning.
All of these things are the body’s natural way to protect us from the world and what do we do? Intentionally use products to remove our body’s protection. Let us look at this from a slightly different angle for a moment to help put it into perspective. Remember a time where you had to do physical labor you were unaccustomed to for a time, let us use digging as an example. The first day, probably within the first hour for truly ‘new activities, you get blisters from the shovel. Your hands are unaccustomed to the texture and friction that goes along with both your grip on the shovel and the pressure caused by digging. Everyone knows blisters don’t last forever though, they’ll grow, painfully, eventually burst (if the activity is not discontinued), and the skin that grows back in afterwards is thicker, harder, better able to stand up to the texture, friction, and pressure of this now understood activity. If the activity continues, calluses will form over those initial pressure sores to further protect the delicate nerves, blood vessels, and musculature. What was once extremely painful is now painless due to our body’s natural protection. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
Now, image for a moment that every time that tougher skin started to grow you took a piece of pumice to it and ground it off until the skin was as smooth and soft as it had been before. Guess what’s going to happen the next day? Yep, that’s right, another painful blister because you just removed your skin’s protection. And guess what, if you continue to remove the stronger skin every time it tries to grow in, not only will you be in constant pain from blisters, but the repeat damage to the nerves and lower levels of the skin may cause permanent damage.
So let’s apply this logically to our skin cancer hypothesis. If the body naturally grows darker, firmer, and stronger skin in response to the sun and we continue to remove that protection what is likely to happen? Not only will you get more sun burns, but, as we see in today’s society, more occurrences of skin cancer. Makes sense right? So why would anyone in their right mind get rid of their bodies protections? For vanity.
We as a culture have a very aristocratic view on beauty, which means we find traits that portray a certain social standing, weather actual or perceived, to be more desirable as a cultural than reproductive beauty. Let me explain, because this is important and very few people really think about ‘beauty’ or what that means.
There are two distinct types of ‘beauty’ that the human mind registers, there is sexual, or reproductive, beauty, and then there is cultural, or social, beauty. Reproductive beauty is a trait that varies very little between different races, cultures, ages, or classes. Social beauty, however, varies greatly between races, cultures, ages, or (to a lesser degree) classes.
There have been many studies on what humans find sexually beautiful, and no ones really surprised by the results since its what nearly everyone will automatically recognize as a ‘good mate’. Men prefer symmetrical, mid-toned (tanned) young women with large breasts, wide hips, straight teeth, oval faces, mid range body fat (about 25%), and as close to ‘perfect’ proportions as possible. (for those of you who aren’t artists and don’t have the standard human proportions memorized the basic measurements *there are a great deal of more precise ones but this gives you an idea* for the human form are about 7 heads tall, females have a shoulder width of about 2-2 ½ heads, males about 3, the torso is 2 heads tall, thighs 2 heads, lower legs 2 heads, elbows to the inner curve of the waist, which is where the ribcage ends, feet length equal to lower arm length, hands the same length as chin to hairline and outstretched fingers the same chin to hairline measurement.) Females prefer symmetrical, mid-toned (tanned) mature men with facial hair, wide shoulders, square-jawed faces, straight teeth, mild body-fat (lower than for females, about 18-20%), visibly developed musculature, and as close to ‘perfect’ proportions as possible.
We intrinsically know these characteristics will make a good mother/father and caregiver/protector, and even at only a few months old babies will already choose people/pictures that portray these characteristics.
Reproductive beauty doesn’t care if you have crow’s feet, weather-chapped or ‘leathery’ skin, or calluses. Social beauty, however, looks at an entirely different set of markers.
Social beauty is defined by class markers specific to each society that indicates social standing and class ranking. It is learned, not automatic, and is more important in cultures that have advanced to a point where social standing has more to do with putting food on the table than physical ability. In our European based society social beauty is still largely based on the aristocratic markers common to the upper classes during the pre-industrial revolution era.
For instance pale skin is considered socially beautiful because it harkens back to the day when only the rich were able to afford the leisurely life that kept them out of the sun year round. In fact the term ‘blue blooded’ which we still use to refer to old-money, powerful people/families was a term for the aristocrats of Europe because their skin, unlike that of the working class, was pale enough for blue veins to be visible. Smooth skin is admirable for the same reason. Woman so thin the are nearly pre-pubescent in their forms touch on a few different aristocratic concepts but the most important ones are 1) the woman clearly were wealthy enough to avoid any labor, and 2) were wealthy enough to afford wet-nurses and nursemaids to rear their children so they could retain their ‘young’ appearance. I could continue, but you get the point.
We as a culture have been trained since early childhood that these social indicators, such as fair, fine, unmarked skin, are more important than natural beauty. From a very early age children are taught by the culture, heavily influenced by the media and grown-up interactions, that these social indicators make people more desirable as friends, peers, and even future mates. Peer-pressure to conform to these social indicators is tremendous and is further fueled by the rampant advertising campaigns of beauty product manufactures. The simple fact that it is much easier to change ones social beauty than ones reproductive beauty (moisturizers vs surgery for instance) and that changing ones social beauty can help them change social standing (or at least other people perception of their social standing) makes it seem almost illogical to resist this peer-pressure.
Which is why, I believe, no one in the general scientific community will ever question the actual benefits of such ‘beauty’ products as moisturizers and general ‘skin care products’. And, even though we are now seeing an increased number of American’s suffering from a lack of vitamin D or even vitamin D deficiency (especially among children and the upper classes), I highly doubt anyone is going to advise people to do the logical thing and go sit in the sun for a while because, as long as we as a society are obsessed with keeping adult skin in its immature ‘baby fine’ condition, we will continue to see nothing but an increase in skin cancer.
Of course, take it or leave it, it’s only a hypothesis after all, one I have no way of formally testing. If I could I’d ask a few thousand skin cancer suffers how frequently they used moisturizers or anti-aging/rejuvenating products and compare their answers with an equal amount of people (of the same age/race/latitude) that have never had skin cancer. Follow that up with a 10 year study of people who did everything they could to avoid the sun and keep their skin ‘young’ in comparison to people who spent time every day sunning themselves and avoided all such skin care products, and I think we’d have an answer to my hypothesis (and, I think, a new way of looking at cancer prevention and skin care). Unfortunately, such statistical gathering of raw data is far beyond my ability as a private citizen, and given the huge monies involved in skin care products, I doubt we’ll ever read such a study.
For me, logic rules and the choice is easy, with or without any further statistical data. The previously made 8 points is enough to convince me. So I get as much sun as I can, make sure I don’t burn, and avoid all moisturizers, any product that is supposed to ‘repair’ or ‘rejuvenate’ skin to a ‘healthy youthfulness’, and all anti-aging products. I also make the mental choice to ignore social beauty and look upon people with weather-worn tanned skin, callused hands, and healthy fat deposits with all the admiration that they, in their natural, healthy beauty deserve, looking forward to seeing the warm, natural beauty of my own features as I age, crows feet and all, perfectly happy to ‘look my age’. And I’m willing to bet that I’m far less likely to develop skin cancer than the 40 year old women who are slathering on anti-aging creams and sunscreens with equal abandon in hopes of looking 20.


Blogger Jennifer said...

so I'm leaving a comment b/c the MAN told me to.

that and I wanted to say alien baby with tiny head and HUGE eyeballs is uber cute!

11:31 PM  
Anonymous Nicholas Fogelson, MD said...

I didn't read the whole thing, but I think you are falling into a bit of a fallacy. You have made 8 points which seem to lead to your conclusion (at least to you) but have failed to consider many others that may detract from that conclusion. Your underlying process isn't really science, its actually empiricism. You have no test of your hypothesis, just an idea and an conclusion.

Something for thought -

maybe all these near the equator people don't get as much skin cancer because they are genetically resistant to it. They do, for the most part, have much darker skin than us sunscreen slathering North Americans, which is clearly protective. You won't find a lot of black people in your local dermatology office getting skin cancers removed.

I think the connection between prolonged sun exposure and development of skin cancer is reasonably strong.

Thanks for your comments on my blog.


1:57 PM  
Blogger Jespren said...

Dr Fogelson, if you didn't get through the whole thing you may have missed some of the points that may have made you more comfortable with the post. I do say that its only a hypothesis, I can't test it or prove it. And its actually less about sun exposure in general and more about stripping the bodies natural defenses by using 'anti-aging', 'moisturizors' and other so called 'skin care' products.

8:37 AM  
Blogger Jespren said...

Here is an interesting and related article showing new research that sunscreen, at least much of it, does accelerate cancer! The 'funny' thing is even though it states that vit A is bad in sunscreen, it doesn't then make the logical leap to vit A in any skin care product (provided you are going to have any sun exposure at all) is bed. Yep, vit A, the one that's in all those 'anti-aging' creams!

3:36 PM  

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