Sunscreens Cause Skin Cancer? What?!

Just what you needed: another mixed message about your health. The top health story this Memorial Weekend was sunscreens might cause skin cancer.

The story originated from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that “protect(s) the most vulnerable… from health problems attributed to a wide array of toxic contaminants.”

EWG announced their list of best and worst sunscreens last week. They also published a statement that claims creams which contain a vitamin A derivative, retinyl palmitate, increase the risk of skin cancer in laboratory mice. The creams studied were not sunscreens, but rather simple cream with retinyl palmitate. Because many sunscreens contain retinyl palmitate, the EWG is urging the FDA to study this further and is also urging people to avoid sunscreens with vitamin A derivatives in the meantime. Some sunscreens contain retinyl or retinols as a “wrinkle-fighting” ingredient in the sunscreen.

So what should you do? Here are my tips:

  • Ultraviolet light from the sun is radiation and is unquestionably the most important cause of skin cancer.
  • Sunscreens in general do not cause skin cancer.
  • No study has yet looked at retinyl palmitate when used in a sunscreen.
  • It is reasonable to avoid sunscreens that contain retinyl or other vitamin A derivatives until more studies are done, if you’re concerned.
  • Choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30. Look for zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, ecamsule (Mexoryl) or octocrylene.
  • Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours.

Photo: James Justin (flickr)

What is your take on sunscreen safety?

What about sunscreens and vitamin D?

35 thoughts on “Sunscreens Cause Skin Cancer? What?!

  1. Sunscreen selection is among the most perplexing decisions relating to personal care products I have to make because on the one hand we need protection from ultraviolet radiation, but on the other hand many of the formulations ingredient’s have dubious and many times what I consider safety data.

    This takes on more importance for me since I started working as a lifeguard at a beach this year.

    At this point I will never consider ANY formulations containing titanium or zinc because all the ones on the market, including the “natural” ones that go out of their way to say they don’t use “nano” ingredients use particles sizes really close to nano.

    If your zinc particles are smaller than the nucleus of my red blood cells, I don’t give a crap if it isn’t technically considered “nano” your product is not coming near me.

    I really believe nano particles COULD be the next asbestos.

    Another aspect of this debate about the safety of nano ingredients in sunscreen is their purported inability to penetrate the skin which to me is a red herring, because under normal conditions people apply sunscreen with their bare hands and all over and surrounding the mucous membranes of the face.

    I stick with chemical UV filter formulations that don’t contain oxybenzone. (thankfully coppertone ultraguard 30spf is just such a formulation this year) I’m truly convinced that on a cellular scale they are the lesser of two evils and thus safer. Furthermore, as relatively unstable chemicals, they are fare less likely to persist in your body as compared to minerals.

    That’s my two cents. I appreciate the EWG holding the fire to the FDA and industry’s backside — the intention is there — but ultimately I disagree with their conclusion that the various mineral based sunblocks are any safer than the chemical UV filters, and frankly, if stuck with the choice, I would still probably choose a sunscreen WITH oxybenzone over a nano mineral formulation.

    • @JC
      Thanks for your comments. No worries on the RBC, thing. It will be interesting to see what research shows about nano particles. Keep in mind that at this point, there is no evidence that nano particles are harmful. My recommendations are not simply my opinion, but also based on current knowledge and recommendations of many professional organizations including the American Academy of Dermatology, the Skin Cancer Foundation, as well as the EWG. If you have studies that demostrate risks associated with nano zinc or titanium, then please share them; I’d be interested. Thanks again for taking the time to post here.

  2. @JC

    Sunscreen selection is among the most perplexing decisions relating to personal care products I have to make because on the one hand we need protection from ultraviolet radiation, but on the other hand many of the formulations ingredient’s have dubious and many times what I consider “inadequate” safety data.

  3. i made a huge mistake as red blood cells do not contain a nucleus , so lets just say i dont want nano particles near the nucleus or any other component of any cell in my body. my b XD

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  5. is it true that chemical sunsceens degradate in the sun and form free radicals, this, in contrary to fysical sunscreens (with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide)?

    • @sisi
      Yes, it is true that chemical sunscreens degrade (sometimes quickly) whereas physical sunscreens tend to last longer. Physical sunscreens block ultraviolet light; chemical sunscreens absorb the energy from ultraviolet light. Covering up with clothing is sometimes the best sunscreen of all.

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  7. Covering up is not much of an option in the very humid South, and I have skin that is sensitive to chemical sunscreens, or something else that only seems to come with them. I do worry about the nano-particles, but read on an Australian dermatology site that the silicone-coated micronized particles like those found in Fallene Cotz and Elta are probably a safer bet and still not so whitening as regular zinc.
    Consumer Reports is saying that TiO2 doesn’t protect against the full spectrum of UVA. Sheesh.

    I have been liking the new Neutrogena Healthy Skin for sensitive skin–it has more than 50 spf, isn’t overly whitening on my medium-light skin and doesn’t irritate. I hope it is okay, safety-wise.

  8. EWG is right to point out that almost all organic sunscreen agents, regardless of the SPF and PPD value they achieve, provide protection only for a couple of hours because they penetrate the skin and there’s evidence that supports the idea that they make matters worse unless reapplied every 2-3 hours, in addition to after swimming or after using a towel (PMID: 17015167, PMID: 15908756 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]). While the latter is understandable and true for all sunscreen agents, reapplying every 2-3 hours is wearisome, uneconomical, taxing for the skin and altogether plain unrealistic. For that reason those sunscreen agents should be deemed inappropriate for use by the general public.
    They are also right to point out that the only organic filters that seem to provide long-lasting protection are the Mexoryl variety, Tinosorb M and Tinsorb S (PMID: 17035717, PMID: 14528058). However, I feel more studies are needed on the subject of sunscreen penetration in order to solidify our trust in certain organic filters. On the other hand, there is a multitude of studies on pubmed from different sources that prove the fact that inorganic filters, either in micronized or nanoparticle form, don’t penetrate healthy human skin.

    My suggestion is to examine carefully what EWG is saying without being dismissive and start demanding better sunscreen formulations.

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  10. How about those of us that are on a retinol cream to treat acne? Should I be worried that this makes me more prone to developing skin cancer? I understand that by removing a few layers of skin, the new cells are affected more readily by the UVA and UVB. But doesn’t applying sunscreen protect agains this?
    Now I’m just confused. Should I keep using isotretinoin?

  11. Now this is weird. As a good rule of thumb.. I read through the ingredients list and look for avobenzene and titanium dioxide to make my choice!

  12. As some of the other PP have pointed out, I think choosing a sunscreen is difficult. I chose one for my family that is I thought was ‘safe’, but it did contain Vitamin A, so I’ll probably use up what I have left of that, and opt for something without Vit A. I’m not really crazy about chemical sunscreens, I just don’t know about all of that being absorbed into the skin. I opt instead for non-nano zinc oxide & titanium dioxide. I’m fair skinned and when I apply it, I’m noticeably whiter, but I’m okay with that. I live in the deep south, and for a while I was pretty paranoid about the sun, but to be honest, I now only apply sunscreen (with the exception of my face) when going to the pool or the beach during peak hours. I’m generally not out in the sun for large amounts of time otherwise (so I feel as if I’m getting adequate Vit D), and seek the shade when I can, or try to cover up, but as the Kathryn mentioned, that’s sort of hard when it’s 90+ degrees and extremely humid. It’s just unrealistic to able to stay out of the sun always during peak hours, but I attempt it the best I can.

  13. @Kathryn Fenner
    Great points, thank you for writing. Titanium is not complete coverage, but is pretty good. When combined with zinc it is very good. I think the Neutrogena for sensitive skin is a good choice.

  14. @John M
    Well said, John. Physical sunscreens are my highest recommendation for the reasons you iterate. Avobenzone is probably the best overall sunscreen (broad spectrum), but has the disadvantage of being unstable. Newer stabilizer and UVA filters like ecamsule (Mexoryl) and octocrylene are helpful and can boost the duration of protection; however, all sunscreens come with the idealistic instruction to reapply every two hours.

  15. @Ari AR
    Good questions. Topical and oral retinoids (tretinoin and isotretinoin) do sensitize your skin to sunburns and by extension might increase the risk of skin cancer in some instances. However, this is not a clear cut relationship. In fact, another oral retinoid called acitretin is used to prevent skin cancer in patients who are immunosuppressed. If you have questions about your risks and medications, then talk to your dermatologist.

  16. @Cindy B
    I am so proud of you guys today, great comments!

    Keep in mind that the vitamin A and skin cancer controversy is just that. There are no published studies that have shown that sunscreens that contain vitamin A increase your risk for skin cancer. At this point it is a question that needs to be answered, but it is not a known fact.

    There are many ways to minimize damaging your skin from sun exposure. Avoiding sun during peak hours, seeking shade, covering up, and wearing sunscreens are all good options to decrease your risk for skin cancer.

  17. Guys, there are studies at pubmed (pubmed.gov) where you can read that chemical sunscreens do cause some kinds of cancer. Also, why would you put a chemical sunscreen on if it turns in free radicals, as it is instable. zinc oxide and titanium dioxide aren’t. The only thing is that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are so opaque, when you put it on your face, you’ll look like a ghost, even the so-called nano-sized types.
    Haven’t found a good fysical sunscreen which is available in Europe… there’s not much choice here in fysical sunscreens :S

  18. A tip to counteract the ghostiness of the mineral sunscreens: a light dusting of Clinique Redness Solutions yellow mineral powder–or a bronzer, but if you don’t want to look tanned, just normal, the yellow powder will counteract the bluish cast. T Le Clerc and Bobbi Brown also make banana yellow powders, but I believe those have talc, if you care about that.

  19. @Sisi
    That’s the point I frequently make: choosing sunscreens is difficult and always requires a trade off. I do not know of a sunscreen that is inert (physical), clear, and not micronized. Chemical sunscreens are clear but all have the concomitant shortcomings of being chemical.

  20. It’s hard to find only mineral sunscreen in canada .I could,nt find it in drugstores.What about PH adjuster triethanolamine in sunscreen is it ok to use, every dermatologist and beauty bloggers have different opinions on that,I want to know your’s.My dermatologist recommended neutrogena healthy defense daily moisturizer spf 30, but triethanolamine is listed in the first 10 ingriedients.I have a sensitive, combination skin.

  21. I respect and support the Environmental Working Group’s mission, BUT I think they have too small a staff to do really quality work. They are asking the right questions, but I don’t believe any of their research is peer reviewed. They also tend to make wild statements without putting things in perspective. I can’t believe they didn’t consider how the SPF in sunscreen might cancel out the effects of retinyl palmitate, or that many facial moisturizers and make-ups also contain this ingredient.

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  23. Guys, there are studies at pubmed (pubmed.gov) where you can read that chemical sunscreens do cause some kinds of cancer. Also, why would you put a chemical sunscreen on if it turns in free radicals, as it is instable. zinc oxide and titanium dioxide aren’t. The only thing is that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are so opaque, when you put it on your face, you’ll look like a ghost, even the so-called nano-sized types.
    Haven’t found a good fysical sunscreen which is available in Europe… there’s not much choice here in fysical sunscreens :S

  24. Is there hard evidence that wearing sunscreen prevents cancer? I know wearing sunscreen prevents sunburns, and sunburns are associated with skin cancer, but please point me to research that specifically follows people who wear sunscreen and people who do not and conclude that the sunscreen wearers have less cancer. I know that would be a difficult study to do, but if you’re going to say “wear sunscreen to prevent cancer,” there should be some science behind it. At a population level, it’s not all that clear: people have worn more and more sunscreen since say the 60s, but have more and more cancers. Also, there’s so much in the news about phytoestrogens in our environment – we have no idea really what they do in all these cosmetics, including sunscreens, which we are supposed to slather on every day from birth to old age.

  25. Which is in all probability top-of-the-line articles I’ve study in a very very long time, I just wish there were additional goodies around the world wide web as of late, thanks and will God Bless you my baby. LOL

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