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How Safe Is Your Sunscreen?|Can Your Sunscreen Actually Cause Cancer?

All the dermatologists, beauty bloggers and influencers keep on stressing us to use sunscreen when stepping out in the sun to protect our skin from UV rays, which can cause cancer and aging. But then, you read somewhere that the ingredients present in your sunscreen can potentially cause cancer; and now you are unsure of the safety in using your sunscreen. Is the thing that is supposed to protect our skin from cancer become the cause of it?

It is always better to do a thorough research to these claims and understand the science behind the products that you are using on yourself and for your loved ones. And here’s what the research says about the safety of your sunscreen: the risk of cancer from the ingredients of sunscreen is next to negligible when compared to risk of cancer when you DO NOT wear a sunscreen.

What Exactly Is The Link Between Cancer And Sunscreen?(1, 2)

As of now there is no proven scientific evidence, which says that use of sunscreen causes cancer. In fact, the Canadian Dermatology Association and the American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen when stepping out into the sun to protect the skin from the harmful UV rays exposure that are responsible for causing about 80 to 90% of skin cancers.

Types of Sunscreen: There are two types of sunscreen.

  • First is chemical sunscreen that has active ingredients, which absorb the UV rays, so your skin is protected from them.
  • Second is physical sunscreen in which the active ingredients actually block the UV rays from penetrating the skin and cause damage.

The ingredients of chemical sunscreen get absorbed into your skin and thus your body. The ingredients of physical sunscreen on the other hand do not penetrate beyond the skin’s outer layer.

Why Are There Concerns Regarding the Sunscreen Use?(3, 4)

The primary reason, which is responsible for all the hullabaloo regarding the sunscreens is, because the active ingredients in it can get absorbed through the skin and are present in the blood, breast milk and urine after using it even once.

The FDA has published a couple of reports asking for more information regarding the effects of six ingredients of chemical sunscreen that are commonly sold in America and these are: oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, octisalate and ensulizole. These six chemicals were present in the blood of the sunscreen users in higher concentrations than what is recommended by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Other than this, the FDA also has asked for information regarding other ingredients of sunscreen that are not commonly sold in America, and these are: dioxybenzone, cinoxate, padimate O, meradimate and sulisobenzone.

Even though the FDA has asked for information regarding these ingredients, the studies do not show use of sunscreens containing these ingredients was harmful. As the studies have shown the absorption of these ingredients into the body, this is the reason why the FDA needs more data about the effects of the sunscreen ingredients on the human skin and body.

The Multiple Benefits of Using Sunscreen

The Multiple Benefits of Using Sunscreen(5, 6)

The benefits of using sunscreen far-far outweigh any potential harm from the sunscreen. Some of the health benefits of using sunscreen are:

Protection from Skin Cancer

The primary benefit of using sunscreens is the protection, which they give your skin from that harmful cancer causing UV rays. The most common cancers in America are skin cancers, with about 9,500 people diagnosed everyday with some type of skin cancer in the U.S. About two people die every single hour from skin cancer in America.

Protecting the Skin from Aging and Sun Damage(7)

According to experts more than 80% of aging of the face is due to the UV rays exposure. These harmful sunrays can cause wrinkles, dark spots, skin sagging, loss of elasticity and uneven texture of the facial skin or the exposed skin over a period of time. Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen gives lots of skin protection from sun damage and increased/premature aging.

Protection from Sunburn

Upon application of sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or more and in the right quantity and re-applying every couple of hours, helps in protecting your skin from burning. Lotion or cream sunscreens give higher sunburn protection when compared to sunscreen sprays.

All You Need To Know About the SPF in Sunscreen

According to the recommendations of The American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen containing an SPF of 30 or more should be used when you are going out in the sun. You need to reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, no matter the amount of SPF, as it will wear off regardless of the SPF concentration. Sunscreen needs to re-applied more often if you are sweating or swimming, as this will wash away your sunscreen.

Are There Any Harmful Effects From Using Sunscreen?

As mentioned before, there is no proof that use of sunscreens can cause cancer; however, research has shown some problems can occur from certain ingredients present in the sunscreen and these can potentially be:

Damage to the Kidneys(8): There was one study that quantified the amount of processed oxybenzone present in the urine samples of sunscreen users. It was found that increased concentrations of oxybenzone were present in the urine of individuals who had signs of kidney damage.

Disruption of Hormones(9, 10): Oxybenzone is an ingredient present in the sunscreen, which is known as an endocrine-disrupting chemical. Oxybenzone has been shown to disrupt the levels of hormones in animal studies; however, the evidence regarding the same in humans is conflicting. There are few studies that show that oxybenzone can be associated with decreased levels of testosterone in young men; however, there is no concrete proof that there is disruption of testosterone levels such that it affects the male fertility. It is imperative to point out that oxybenzone is not only present in sunscreen, but can be found in personal grooming products and cosmetics also.

Changes in Birth Weight(11): There is varying evidence, which shows that oxybenzone can bring about increased birth weight in some babies. There are few studies that show male babies with increased birth weight where the expecting mothers have used products containing oxybenzone. Whereas, there are other studies that show absolutely no link between the use of oxybenzone and birth weight of babies.

Allergic Reaction to Sunscreen(12, 13, 14): There are some ingredients present in sunscreen that can potentially cause allergic skin reactions and they include: hives, redness, pain, skin peeling, bumps, bleeding, rashes, swelling or puffiness of the skin.

These sunscreen ingredients that are commonly associated with skin reactions are: benzophenone, oxybenzone, dibenzoylmethane and cinnamate.

Fragrances present in sunscreens or any other skin product is also responsible for causing skin allergies or irritations.

The Harmful Effects of Sunscreen Ingredients to Marine Ecosystems and Coral Reefs(15, 16)

Octinoxate and oxybenzone have been banned in Florida, Key West and Hawaii, as they can be toxic for marine life, such as coral reefs. A research done in 2020 showed that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to show if these two chemicals can be harmful to human beings.

A study done in 2019 showed that about 52% of sunscreens that are labeled as “reef safe,” are in fact devoid of any chemicals or ingredients that can harm the marine life.

Symptoms of Skin Cancer: What You Should Watch For?

The symptoms of skin cancer differ and depend on the form of cancer; whether it is basal cell or squamous cell cancer or melanoma. It is important to get regular skin checkups with your dermatologist, especially if you spend more time outside in the sun. Some of the common symptoms that can indicate skin cancer are:

  • Crusty sores on the skin.
  • Red colored patches on the skin that bleed or itch.
  • Presence of shiny bumps on the skin.
  • Wart-like growths on the skin that form crusts or bleed.
  • Growths on the skin, which have dents in the middle and raised or jagged borders.
  • Asymmetrical growths or moles on the skin.
  • Growths or moles on the skin, which are changing or are of different colors.
  • Growths or moles on the skin that are changing in shape, size and color.
  • Moles on the skin, which grow more than 6 mm.

The “ABCDE” Rules for Early Detection of Skin Cancer (17)

When it comes to moles, it is recommended to follow the ABCDE rules that are:

  1. “A” stands for Asymmetry. If the spot or mole has an irregular shape or has two different parts, then it can be a cause for concern.
  2. “B” stands for borders of the mole. Check whether the borders of the mole are irregular or are neat and clean.
  3. “C” stands for color of the mole. Look for uniformity of the mole color or if the color is uneven or blotchy.
  4. “D” stands for Diameter. Is the size of the mole bigger than a pea?
  5. “E” stands for Evolving. Look for any changes occurring in the mole.

If you observe any changes in the appearance of the mole, then consult your dermatologist ASAP.

How Can I Tell If My Sunscreen Is Safe?

Sunscreens that are produced and sold in America are FDA supervised. The FDA requires that the manufacturers use ingredients in their sunscreen which are safe for human use. The FDA also requires listing of the ingredients on the label of the products. The label also shows where the product was manufactured.

However, sunscreens that are made outside America can have ingredients which the FDA has banned or not approved.

If you are worried about your sunscreen, then it is better to use a mineral or physical sunscreen that has ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

The use of chemical ingredients is also fine, but it has raised some concerns regarding the absorption of their chemicals into the body, which however, has not proven to be of no harm.

Nanoparticles in Sunscreens; Its Effect on Your Body and Environment(18)

Nanoparticles are something, which you should think about if you are opting for mineral sunscreens. Previously, mineral sunscreens which have titanium and zinc dioxide, were pasty and thick. However, the recent formulations are made using nanoparticles, so the texture of the sunscreen feels better on application. Manufacturers also claim that these nanoparticles also block more UV rays.

Other than the concerns regarding the risk of cancer from sunscreens, there also have been concerns from the nanoparticles present in the sunscreens that can cause damage to your lungs if they are inhaled in huge quantities. This is the reason why the Environmental Working Group cautions us against the use of spray or powder sunscreens, which have nanoparticles. Lotion or cream sunscreens having nanoparticles in them get absorbed into the skin; however, there is no proof of any harm to your health.

The use of nanotechnology in the sunscreens is quite recent. This is why it is difficult to yet understand the exact mechanisms of the affect of nanoparticles on the human body. Likewise, it is also difficult to estimate the effects of sunscreens containing nanoparticles on the ecosystem. Only further research can reveal the effects of these nanoparticles on human beings and marine life.


The benefits of using sunscreen clearly outweigh any potential cancer risk it carries. As said previously, there are certain ingredients present in the sunscreens that are absorbed into your skin and your body that has raised some issues regarding the likelihood of cancer risk. However, studies have not shown any evidence that the use of sunscreen or its ingredients can increase the risk or cause cancer.

Dermatologists in Canada and the U.S. recommend using sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or more when exposed to sun. Sunscreen has multiple benefits, which include protection from skin cancer, premature aging, spots on the skin, all caused from exposure to the sun’s UV rays.


Also Read:

Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Pramod Kerkar, M.D., FFARCSI, DA Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:February 11, 2022

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