Can Sunscreen Cause Skin Cancer?

Since warmer weather is fast approaching, I thought now would be a great time to discuss sun safety… or rather, sunscreen safety!  Can sun (in moderation) actually be good for you?  Can sunscreen be dangerous?

Beautiful sunset in Santorini, Greece ♥

Yes, the sun’s radiation does cause skin cancer so protection is important, but the sun also provides vitamin d which protects from cancer.  Applying sunscreen will not allow your body to absorb vitamin D and vitamin D deficiency is a huge problem in the US.  Sunscreen has actually been linked to increased risk of skin cancer in some studies!  The reasoning behind it is if people think they are safe from the sun, they will stay out longer leading to more sun exposure, skin aging, and skin cancer.

Sunset on the beach in Goa, India

It has actually been brought up by the FDA to restrict labeling of sunscreen products now to make 50+ the maximum SPF – although this is not yet a regulation.  When a bottle states higher amounts, such as SPF 90, consumers have too high of a perception of protection and stay in the sun longer than what is healthy for them.

Also, these products may prevent burning from UVB rays, but are not protecting you adequately from UVA rays.

Different types of skin cancer include squamous cell carcinoma (slow-growing and treatable), basal-cell carcinoma (accounts for most skin cancers), and malignant melanoma (usually quite serious).  UVB rays (only about 5% of sunlight) are shorter wave-length and responsible for causing sunburns and non-melanoma skin cancers; while UVA rays are longer wavelength and penetrate deeper into the skin.  Both UVA and UVB rays seem to lead to melanoma with UVA possibly playing a bigger role.  Make sure you are choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen that has adequate UVA protection.

Another concern is chemicals in sunscreens.  There has not be safety studies on how these chemicals change when exposed to heat.  Chemicals may become dangerous and release free radicals into the skin or break down and become less effective.  Avoid chemicals such as oxybenzone – a synthetic estrogen which can disrupt hormones.

Children’s sunscreens *usually* have less chemicals

Another ingredient to stay away from in sunscreens is vitamin A.  Vitamin A forms, such as retinyl palmitate or retinol, have been shown to accelerate growth of skin tumors on sun exposed skin.  When heated up, these compounds become toxic to your body.  Just to clarify, vitamin A that you eat is still good for you!  Eating your antioxidants will help protect your skin against radiation damage.

Fresh organic carrot juice

Stay away from spray and powder sunscreens.  These products may damage lungs and provide uneven coverage.

How can you safely protect yourself from the sun?  There is a direct link to number of sunburns and risk for developing skin cancers, so avoid burning.  Barrier protection is your best bet.  Wear a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves, hide out in the shade, and avoid the sun at its strongest point of the day.  Go out early morning or later in the evening so you can still soak up some vitamin D and build up tolerance to the sun without burning.  When you do need to wear sunscreens, choose mineral sunscreens with ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which act as physical barriers to the sun instead of chemical barriers.  Some research shows that a good omega 3 to omega 6 ratio is important for preventing the development of skin cancer – yet another great reason to get your omega 3’s!

Titanium dioxide is a great active ingredient to look for

Want to test your sunscreen for safety and efficacy?  Check out the Environmental Working Group’s guide at for a review on various products.

4 thoughts on “Can Sunscreen Cause Skin Cancer?

    • Since vitamin D is actually a fat soluble hormone, it takes time to absorb into the skin (~48 hours). In order to give it a chance to absorb, you should avoid washing with SOAP. Washing with plain water won’t affect the absorption, and you can just use soap on certain areas that need it. Great question David!

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