On most fall Sundays, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady saunters onto a football field. He may have done some stretches. He may have eaten a meal, replete with vitamins and minerals with nary a nightshade in sight.
Here's one thing Brady definitely does regardless of his football schedule, according to a profile on ESPN last week: Guzzle a lot of water.
Brady apparently has sworn on the water-prevents-sunburn way of life since he was a kid:
"When I read this, I had a small chuckle," said Jodi Stookey, a hydration epidemiologist at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute. "Water is related to everything in the most beautiful, complicated ways, but it doesn't mean that this [sunburn prevention] can be done."
Stookey has spent the better part of her career exploring how hydration affects the body. Stookey noted that while water helps cells facing osmotic stress from UV light and therefore can delay sunburns, it can't outright prevent them. She said that while it has proven to have cellular and immunological benefits, no study has shown it has skin cancer prevention powers -- and she doesn't expect such a study to ever really take place. "It's the kind of study that would be very difficult to get ethical approval on," she noted. "It's very hard to say that you're going to give a person a sunburn on purpose, you know what I'm saying? There may be a reason that study is not there."
But does Brady's morning habit of downing 20 ounces of water first thing prevent sunburn and its ugly potential aftermath?
"No," David Leffell said. "It's ridiculous."
Leffell is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology and founded the Cutaneous Oncology Unit at Yale University. He specializes in the detection and treatment of skin cancer. And what causes skin cancer? Genetics and not protecting your naked, sensitive skin from harmful UV rays raining down from the sky.
Leffell said what Brady is doing here is superhydration, which, sure, is great for skin, keeping it supple and allowing it to bounce back from environmental and dietary factors. It could explain why Brady's mug is quite youthful, despite hitting the big 4-0 earlier this year.
But Leffell says this magical water brew Brady drinks everyday can't possibly outright prevent a sunburn. "There's no evidence that drinking excess amounts of water will improve your risk [against sunburn]," he said. That's because the cause of skin cancer is genetic mutations from UV radiation from the sun. While the ozone layer does a decent job at blocking ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB rays sneak through every single day. These rays penetrate the skin and wreak havoc on your DNA, mutating it.
The proof of this DNA rampage? A sunburn.
Brady claims that drinking water has prevented him getting a sunburn, but Leffell says there are two fundamental problems with this line of reasoning. When a person drinks water, it cycles through the kidney and gets flushed out. It has no role in arming your skin against UV rays.
Could purified water with added electrolytes and trace minerals do anything? Leffell is insistent. "I don't know what purified water is here, but no, it can't," he said. "Those 72 trace minerals, that's highly unlikely [to prevent sunburn]. And our body's main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. The kidney gets rid of excess electrolytes, so it's hard for me to understand how taking any cocktail of electrolytes has any meaningful biological effect."
Leffell also said that just because Brady hasn't shown any signs of neither sunburns nor skin cancer doesn't mean that he's just a ticking time bomb. "Skin cancer takes a while to develop," he said, clarifying that he had no personal knowledge of Brady's medical situation. But skin cancer often stems from sun damage that starts in childhood; even with aggressive sun protection into the teenage and adult years, skin cancer can still occur. "Perhaps he's been unwittingly fortunate in minimizing his risk," Leffell guessed.
The science of skin cancer and sun damage is shockingly simple, Leffell said, and not investing in protection has dire consequences. "What we know is that the sun causes melanoma and skin cancer," he said. "People should use sunscreen and practice good sun behavior. Water will not prevent sunburns."
But what's most dangerous about Brady's extolling the virtues of his H20 habit is the fact that he's got a reach and platform that weighs his every word. Up until now, celebrities hawking their oft-questionable wellness lifestyles has primarily been relegated to domestic goddesses, women who credit their ethereally blemish-free skin to "natural" products that are often discredited by the scientific community as not only not being uncorrelated with a health benefit but actually dangerous. The poster child of alternative wellness has been Gwyneth Paltrow's Goop, which famously has proselytized jade eggs and vaginal steams to improve a woman's sexual experience, despite the medical community's staunch stance against these products. Paltrow and Goop have lashed back, citing their own line of medical "experts," with Paltrow going so far as to suggest that attacking the brand's pseudoscience is akin to being sexist.
Which brings us back to Tom Brady. Brady's evolution into the bro-ier version of Paltrow is quickly taking form with his TB12 method, and with his large fan base, it's poised for a significant cultural dent. Obviously, Brady breaks the mold of the domestic goddess mold because he’s a man. And not just any man: he’s a guy’s guy, married to a supermodel, and still heralding a stellar athletic legacy. He's wisely begun to pivot to his post-football career with TB12, which puts him in the running of making him -- for lack of a better word -- the very first celebrity domestic god.
But what makes his otherwise laughable comments on water as sunburn prevention tool serious is the fact that he's incredibly influential outside being just another successful athlete. He speaks to a segment of the population that sees him as a role model in health, wellness, lifestyle, and simply being. Sure, we can just toss his health quirks aside as just harmless self-promotion for TB12, but Brady's specific appeal to men positions him in a unique spot.
Here are the cold facts: Men already don't go to the doctor at the rates they should, despite the fact that male morbidity is much higher than females and die at higher rates every year. Nearly 10,000 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day; one person dies every hour from skin cancer. Men account for nearly 60% of melanoma of skin, and twice as many men die from skin cancer compared to women. And white men are diagnosed by skin cancer at higher rates than any other race.
When Tom Brady suggests sunburns are easily avoided by drinking a lot of water, he's not only doing himself a disservice, but affecting thousands of people who may think that they can avoid slathering on cream before heading out into the sun by just slamming a lot of water. He's peddling unscientific claims that go beyond just being silly and laughable. He's potentially killing Americans -- and that's not funny at all.
Leffell might have said it best. "The issue here isn't that he's making claims, it's that he's got a brand and people believe him," he said. "People will read this and drink a lot of water and think it protects them. But that's not true."