If you spend much time on mommy blogs, health sites and natural remedy resources, you may have seen claims that sunscreen is harmful — that it is full of dangerous chemicals, creates vitamin D deficiencies or even causes skin cancer.
It’s no wonder that these stories get circulated widely on social media. They tap into our primal fears about how to protect ourselves and our families in a complex world. When so much conflicting information assaults us every day, it’s only natural to worry about whether we’re making the right choices — especially for our children.
But it’s time to cut through the chatter and the fear-mongering and focus on what’s proven scientific fact. While there are valid concerns about sunscreen use and its role in a healthy lifestyle, the bottom line is that too much unprotected sun exposure can damage your skin and increase your risk of skin cancer.
Developing sun-healthy habits in your family is the best way to protect their skin. That includes seeking shade, wearing protective clothing, and, yes, using sunscreen.
Let’s go through some of the emotionally-charged claims you may see online, and discuss the scientific facts behind them:
Does Sunscreen Actually Cause Skin Cancer?
The Fear: Sunscreen doesn’t protect us at all. It actually causes skin cancer!
In 2014, a scientific study from Sweden was widely reported as “disproving the link between sun exposure and skin cancer.” A number of sites used this report as a basis for arguing that rather than protecting us, sunscreen itself causes skin cancer.
This claim has circulated around the internet so much that the well-established fact-checking site Snopes.com actually has a page to set the record straight. The study’s results are best summarized as, “light-skinned Caucasian women living in parts of the world with limited sunshine and a low UV index would probably be better off with some sun exposure rather than no sun exposure.”
This one study certainly does not overturn decades of established scientific fact: Sun exposure causes skin damage and may lead to skin cancer, and the more sun exposure you have, the higher your risk.
Is Sunscreen Use Linked to Skin Cancer Rates?
The Fear: Skin cancer rates have been rising ever since we all started using sunscreen!
The first major commercially marketed sunscreen was created in 1936 by Eugene Schueller, founder of L’Oreal (who knew?). Use of commercial sunscreens soared in the 1940s and 1950s, when tanning became fashionable for the first time in hundreds if not thousands of years.
Skin cancer rates also started rising in the 1950s. And it’s even more worrying to realize that the rate of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, has doubled in the last 30 years.
But just because two things happen at the same time doesn’t mean that one has caused the other. Consider all the other things that have been happening since the 1950s:
- Tanning has become fashionable for the first time in hundreds if not thousands of years. Before then, paler skin was considered desirable across most of the globe, as it indicated that you didn’t have to work outdoors and were therefore wealthy.
- Skin cancer has always existed, but we’re better at recognizing, diagnosing and treating it now.
- We’re living longer, which means that we accumulate more sun exposure, more skin damage and more risk of skin cancer. Cancer occurs when mistakes happen during DNA replication, and “the longer we live, the more time we have for errors to build up.”
So, pale-skinned westerners have been living longer than ever before and choosing to spend more time in the sun than ever before. All this adds up to a lot of sun exposure, and because sun damage is cumulative, it makes sense that we’d be seeing more cases of skin cancer.
Does Sunscreen Block Vitamin D?
The Fear: Sunscreen blocks Vitamin D, and we’re all vitamin D deficient!
Vitamin D is an important nutrient that promotes bone growth and the immune system. It’s formed when UVB rays interact with a protein in your skin, and because sunscreen blocks around 95% of UVB rays, some people are concerned that using sunscreen will make them vitamin D deficient.
The truth is that only a small amount of sun is needed to get all our vitamin D needs met. Just ten to fifteen minutes of sun exposure, two to three times a week, is generally enough to get as much vitamin D as your body can produce. Beyond that point, you’re not getting a vitamin D benefit — but you are accumulating sun exposure that can lead to sunburn, sun damage and skin cancer.
Another interesting point is that almost no one uses sunscreen perfectly. Some UVB rays still get to your skin through the sunscreen, after it has worn off, and in unprotected areas, and this is often enough to produce a healthy dose of vitamin D.
If you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels, ask your doctor to run a blood test to find out for sure whether you’re deficient. If you need more vitamin D, then by all means regularly spend small amounts of time in the sun. After that, use sun-healthy habits, and take care of your vitamin D levels with supplements and diet.
Is Sunscreen Harmful?
The Fear: Sunscreen is full of dangerous chemicals!
The truth is that everything is made up of chemicals: air, water, your breakfast, your printer. Usually, however, when people say “dangerous chemicals,” they mean compounds that are toxic or potentially hazardous to human health.
For example, oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate are often cited as potentially dangerous. But oxybenzone, for example, has been approved by the FDA, and the study that raised red flags about it involved rats consuming huge quantities of oxybenzone, not humans applying it in small amounts to their skin.
Currently, there is no scientific proof that these compounds — taken externally, and in the small amounts in sunscreen — are dangerous.
Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that we may not know the full effects of a wide variety of chemicals we use in modern life, from sucralose (Splenda) to the BPA in plastic bags. If you’re concerned about any unknown negative side effects of sunscreen ingredients, there are a variety of mineral-based and organic sunscreens to choose from, and the beauty of the internet means you can order them from anywhere.
So don’t be swayed by the fear-mongering. The real correlation between sunscreen and skin cancer is that suncreen will protect you and your family. But sunscreen alone won’t prevent skin cancer: It’s also important to develop other sun-healthy habits, like limiting your time in direct sunlight and wearing hats and long sleeves. Sunscreen is an essential part of protecting your family’s skin from sun damage and the risk of skin cancer.