Do Sunscreens Really Help Protect Against Cancer?

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Suntan Lotion Woman Applying Sunscreen Solar Cream. Beautiful happy cute teen Girl applying Sun Tan Cream on her skin on the beach. Sun Tanning. Skin care and Protection. Vacation

Sunscreens may not offer the protection we thought they would.

Sunscreens cause cancer!

Sunscreens don’t protect against melanoma!

Sunscreens are bad for you!

These are some of the headlines we’ve seen in recent years concerning sunscreens. It used to be that we all thought all we had to do was slap some on and we were protected from sunburn, skin cancer, and melanoma, but lately, we’re not so sure.

Some studies have indicated that some chemical sunscreens can disrupt hormone function. Others have found that when sunscreen ingredients sink into the skin, they may increase free radical damage. Still others have shown that we’re not getting enough sun exposure, which can result in low levels of vitamin D.

While the debate continues, one thing we do know is this—using sunscreen can give you a false sense of security. Here’s why, along with some recommendations for natural ways to increase your skin’s resistance to UV damage.

Sunscreens as Hormone Disruptors

The “trouble with sunscreen chemicals,” according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is that many act as hormone disruptors, can penetrate skin to get into the body, and may result in skin allergies. A test conducted by the group found that common sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, and homosalate were all hormone disruptors, and all could penetrate the skin in lab studies. Most were also found in mothers’ milk in breastfeeding women.

What we don’t know is the actual effect on humans. Some preliminary studies have linked them with harm. In 2008, researchers found benzophenone-3 (BP-3), a common sunscreen agent, in 96.8 percent of 2,517 urine samples, concluding that exposure was “widespread” in the U.S.

A 2012 study on over 600 women reported a possible link between the use of BP-type sunscreens and an increased risk of endometriosis. Researchers speculated that exposure to elevated levels of estrogenic BP-type ingredients may be associated with the disease.

This and other studies like it are small and don’t yet prove causation, but they do make us wonder if we should be more careful. Researcher Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., noted that oxybenzone is even more strongly estrogenic than bisphenol-A (BPA), the chemical found in plastics that we’ve been warned to avoid.

Do Sunscreens Cause Cancer?

There’s been some talk lately on the Internet that sunscreens can actually cause cancer. A 2000 study is quoted, conducted by Swedish researchers. They looked at data from 571 patients diagnosed with melanoma (the most serious form of skin cancer) between 1995 and 1997, and 913 healthy controls. They found that sunscreen users reported greater sun exposure than non-users.

Strangely, those who used sunscreens did not have a decreased risk of malignant melanoma. Instead, researchers found a significant increased risk of developing melanoma after regular sunscreen use.

What’s often not reported, however, is that the researchers went on to say that the risk was higher in subjects that reported sunscreen allowed them to “spend more time sunbathing,” and that the pattern of increased risk was seen “only for lesions of the trunk.” They added: “Our results are probably related mainly to earlier sunscreens with low SPF.”

In other words, those who were at increased risk spent more time in the sun with potentially low-SPF sunscreens that weren’t likely to protect them for long, and they were developing cancer on sensitive areas of skin not normally exposed, such as that on the belly.

Then there was the study on retinyl palmitate, and the concern that it may speed up photocarcinogenic effects on test animals. Researchers used mice bred to be predisposed to skin cancer (80 percent of the animals, when exposed to UV light alone without retinyl palmitate, still developed skin cancer). They then applied high concentrations of retinyl palmitate directly to the skin on the animals, and found they developed tumors faster when exposed to UV light than animals not treated with retinyl palmitate.

A panel of independent scientists confirmed that retinyl palmitate “enhanced the photocarcinogenic activity” of sunlight.

Others say we can’t assume cause and effect here, however, as the amount of retinyl palmitate used was higher than that usually used in sunscreen formulas, and was used alone, rather that in combination with the other ingredients.

In a 2011 study, for instance, researchers agreed that retinyl palmitate can generate free radicals in skin when exposed to UVA radiation in the lab, but “when considered in the context of the antioxidant milieu found in human skin, the relevance of these findings becomes questionable. The capacity to quench reactive oxygen species is magnified by the complex network of antioxidants found in the normal human biochemical environment.”

They go on to explain that in conjunction with other antioxidants, vitamin A can neutralize free radicals, and that this property is not found when the ingredient is isolated in laboratory studies. They concluded that current research “fails to demonstrate convincing evidence indicating that retinyl palmitate imparts an increased risk of skin cancer.”

Finally, a comprehensive review of studies from 1966 to 2003 found no evidence that sunscreen increases risk of melanoma.

Do Sunscreens Do Anything at All?

Even if they don’t cause hormone-related health problems or increase risk for skin cancer, do sunscreens offer the protection we think they do?

Some recent studies have cast doubt on that. In 2014, scientists from the U.K. reported sunscreen did not offer complete protection from the damaging effects of UV light. In this animal study, they found that even SPF 50 did not prevent UV light from penetrating the skin and damaging the “p53” gene, which usually protects DNA from UV-induced damage.

“UV light targets the very genes protecting us from its own damaging effects,” said lead author Richard Marais, “showing how dangerous this cancer-causing agent is. Very importantly, this study provides proof that sunscreen does not offer complete protection from the damaging effects of UV light.” He went on to recommend that people combine sunscreen with other skin-protecting strategies, like wearing hats and seeking shade.

An earlier 2011 study raised similar concerns. Researchers noted that despite the increased use of sunscreen, the incidence of cutaneous malignant melanoma (CMM) continues to rise at a rate of three percent per year in the U.S. “A number of studies suggest that use of sunscreen does not significantly decrease the risk of CMM,” the researchers wrote.

They add that the incidence of CMM is actually increasing among indoor workers who receive three times less solar UV radiation than outdoor workers and in white people who live in northern states that receive less year-round sunlight than southern states.

Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states: “By themselves, sunscreens might not be effective in protecting you from the most dangerous forms of skin cancer.”

What’s the Best Way to Protect Yourself from Sun Damage?

If you’re confused, you’re not the only one. What we do know is that UV rays can cause DNA damage that leads to an increased risk of skin cancer.

What is the best way to protect ourselves? We’ve got seven tips for you. Please let us know if you have others!

  1. Use zinc oxide: It’s been shown to be the safest and most protective sunscreen ingredient available. It protects from both UVA and UVB rays, doesn’t break down in the sun, and has no hormone-altering properties.
  2. Get a little sun every day: Some studies have suggested that chronic, repeated sun exposure may increase production of melanin, skin’s natural protector, reducing the risk of sunburn and skin cancer. A 2011 study showed that regular weekend exposure had a protective effect against CMM—researchers thought it had something to do with the skin adapting to sun exposure, and the protective effect of higher vitamin D levels.
  3. Use clothing: Even the best sunscreen doesn’t make you invincible. Protect yourself with hats, loose clothing, umbrellas, and shade.
  4. Consider your situation: Those that are rarely outside are likely to be more sensitive to UV damage than those who regularly get sun exposure. If you’re one of those people, step up your protection. Either gradually increase your outdoor exposure, or be sure to use clothing and shade to further protect yourself.
  5. Don’t burn! Several studies have shown that it’s sunburns more than cumulative sun exposure that increases risk of deadly skin cancer. Be aware of how long you’ve been in the sun, and reapply sunscreen every couple hours—more often if you’re sweating or in the water. Remember that sunscreen doesn’t not make you invincible. People tend to stay out longer when they have sunscreen on, and those are the same people who are more likely to burn. Several studies have shown a connection between those who use sunscreen and those who get burned—simply because those using sunscreen fail to reapply or protect themselves in other ways.
  6. Consume foods that are protective: A number of the things we eat and drink every day are protective against the sun. Studies have shown that green tea, tomatoes, carrots, dark green veggies, apples, dark chocolate, and omega-3-rich fish (and nuts) all protect skin from UV-induced damage.
  7. Apply sun-protecting herbs to the skin: Several herbs have sun-protecting powers that they impart to the skin when applied topically. These include rosemary, lavender, helichrysum, golden serpent fern, and krameira triandra root extract.

Do you have other tips for protecting yourself from skin cancer? Please share them with our readers.

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John Tibbetts, “Shining a Light on BP-3 Exposure: Sunscreen Chemical Measured in U.S. Population,” Environ Health Perspect., July 2008; 116(7):A306,

Tatsuya Kunisue, et al., “Urinary Concentrations of Benzophenone-type UV Filters in the U.S. Women and Their Association with Endometriosis,” Environ. Sci. Technol., 2012; 46(8):4624-4632,

“Sunscreen Ingredient Linked to Endometriosis,” WebMD Health News, May 11, 2012,

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National Toxicology Program, “Photocarcinogenesis study of retinoic acid and retinyl palmitate in SKH-1 mice,” Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser., July 2012; (568):1-352,

Sonya Lunder, “What Scientists Say About Vitamin A in Sunscreen,” EWG, June 27, 2011,

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Pleasance ED, et al., “A comprehensive catalogue of somatic mutations from a human cancer genome,” Nature, January 14, 2010; 463(7278:191-6,

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Dennis LK, et al., “Sunscreen use and the risk for melanoma: a quantitative review,” Ann Intern Med. December 16, 2003; 139(12):966-78,

Amaya Viros, et al., “Ultraviolet radiation accelerates BRAF-driven melanomagenesis by targeting TP53,” Nature, July 24, 2014; 511:478-482,

Sarah Knapton, “Sunscreen does not protect against deadliest skin cancer,” Telegraph, June 12, 2014,

Margaret B. Planta, “Sunscreen and Melanoma: Is Our Prevention Message Correct?” J Am Board Fam Med., December 2011; 24(6):735-739,

“The Burning Facts,” Environmental Protection Agency, September 2006;

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.

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