Sunscreen – A protection or Threat to Skin Cancer


Sunscreen, or sun cream, is a topical product like lotion, spray, gel or other formulations protect skin by absorbing or reflecting some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation and thus helps protect against sunburn. Skin-lightening products have sunscreen to protect lightened skin because light skin is more susceptible to sun damage than darker skin. No sunscreen provides 100% protection against UV radiation. Some UV radiation will always reach the skin, damaging the cells below. This damage builds up over time and can increase your risk of skin cancer.

Sunscreen use has risen in past decades, as media outlets and doctors tout the benefits of sunscreen for protecting against skin cancer and sunburn.  When the product has a market of billion dollars a year, corruption arises. Not all sunscreens are created with equal quality and in many cases, the ingredients used in sunscreen are harmful, not helpful.

Sunscreen contains chemicals to filter UV radiation, as well as other ingredients such as preservatives, moisturizers, and fragrance.In rare cases, chemical ingredients cause skin reactions, including acne, burning, blisters, dryness, itching, rash, redness, stinging, swelling, and tightening of the skin.

There are two types of chemicals in sunscreen:

  • chemical filters, which absorb UV radiation before it can damage the skin
  • physical filters, which contain micro-fine particles that sit on the surface of the skin and act as a

physical barrier.

  • Mineral barriers are also used.

Mineral sunscreens typically include ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which create a physical barrier to protect the skin from the sun.Chemical sunscreens use one or more chemicals including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate.

New research reveals that the chemicals commonly used in sunscreen are endocrine disruptors, estrogenic and may interfere with thyroid and other hormone processes in the body.The most common sunscreen chemical, Oxybenzone, was found in 96% of the population by a recent study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. This is especially alarming since oxybenzone is considered an endocrine disruptor, can reduce sperm count in men and may contribute to endometriosis in women. Such high percentage using oxybenzone is a health hazard and threat especially on children or pregnant/breastfeeding women.

Another reason is the use of Vitamin A derivative, retinyl palmitate, that is often used in sunscreens was shown to speed up the growth of cancerous cells by 21%. Spray sunscreens have become increasingly popular in recent years, but have additional dangers, especially if inhaled. Consumer Reports warns that spray sunscreens should not be used on children and that adults should exercise caution and make sure not to use on the face or inhale them.

Of the 1,400+ sunscreens tested by the EWG (Environmental Working Group), only 5% met their safety standards and over 40% were listed as potentially contributing to skin cancer.

Many sunscreens also contain methyl isothiazolinone, which the American Contact Dermatitis Society named as its “allergen of the year”. The EWG’s most recent report listed Neutrogena as the #1 sunscreen brand to avoid, citing high concentrations of oxybenzone and other hormone disrupting chemicals, and misleading claims about their SPF levels.

We’ve already established that some sunscreen is harmful and may do more harm than good, but another important consideration that is often ignored: Vitamin D.

Most sunscreens completely block the body’s ability to manufacture Vitamin D. Statistically, 75% of us are deficient in Vitamin D and Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to higher risk of cancer and heart disease (which kill more people than skin cancer per year). So it seems that we are literally cutting off our noses to spite our faces when it comes to sun exposure. We lather up with chemical sunscreens that have the potential to greatly increase skin cancer risk and reduce Vitamin D production in the name of avoiding skin cancer. The consequences are we increase our risk of more widespread diseases related to Vitamin D deficiency.

From the analysis, we may think that we shouldn’t exercise caution in exposure (especially overexposure) to the sun, as more and more evidence emerges about the dangers of most sunscreens. For this, it is important not to be dependent on sunscreens only.

In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics reports that:

Sunscreens protect against sunburn, but there is no evidence that they protect against basal cell carcinoma or melanoma. Problems lie in the behavior of individuals who use sunscreens to stay out longer in the sun than they otherwise would. Vitamin D inhibition is, at this stage, unlikely due to insufficient use by individuals. Safety of sunscreens is a concern, and sunscreen companies have emotionally and inaccurately promoted the use of sunscreens.

Despite the push for more awareness about sun exposure, and the advice to use sunscreen whenever we go outside, the incidence of skin cancer, especially melanoma, is rising dramatically.In fact, skin cancer rates are rising by 4.2% annually, despite the fact that we spend less time outdoors and wear more sunscreen.

Some mineral sunscreens are safer but also contain some of the chemical ingredients above and have the same risks. Additionally, if nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide are used, these can enter the body and carry risks as well. Since these offer physical barriers, it is also more difficult to accurately pinpoint the SPF of some mineral sunscreens.

If sun exposure is a major concern for you or you have a family history of skin cancers than the safest option for you is to avoid the sunscreens that the EWG has said might contribute to skin cancer and use the safest form of sun protection by covering up.With all the information and misinformation about sunscreen out there, the easiest and safest way to avoid sun damage is to stay in the shade, wear a hat or long sleeves.Another important step to protecting the skin from sun damage is supporting the body internally by eating healthy food and food containing more antioxidants.

Sabera Rahmanis a master’s student of pharmaceutical science, she has completed her graduation under the department of Pharmacy, East West University. Sabera is a student correspondent at Association of Life Science and Engineering Writers (ALSEW). She can be reached at

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