Is Sunscreen Bad for You?

Choose lotion-based options that contain titanium dioxide or zinc oxide
Mother applies sunscreen to son

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with 1 in 5 Americans likely to develop skin cancer during their lifetime.

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And while wearing sunscreen can protect you from harmful UVA and UVB rays, there’s been confusing reports and research on whether some of the chemicals found in sunscreen can cause cancer.

For example, 2019 research shows that some chemicals found in sunscreen don’t just sit on top of the skin and absorb the sun’s rays, but instead, actually seep into the bloodstream.

And in 2021, many spray-style sunscreens and after-sun products available in the U.S. were recalled for containing benzene, a chemical known for its potential to cause cancer.

So, is sunscreen bad for you?

Before you swear off all sun protection lotions, dermatologist Alok Vij, MD, offers some reassurance and practical advice.

Does sunscreen actually cause cancer?

“The recent findings that sunscreen ingredients can be found in the bloodstream after use and that some sunscreens contain benzene give consumers reason for concern,” notes Dr. Vij. “While it’s hard to prove or disprove a link between sunscreen and cancer, we know that for most people, the benefits of using a mineral-based sunscreen — like lowering the risk of skin cancer and slowing down the aging process — far outweigh the risks.”

The 2019 study, which included just 24 people, found four main chemicals that were the cause for concern:

  • Avobenzone.
  • Oxybenzone.
  • Octocrylene.
  • Ecamsule.

The research included the use of sunscreen lotion, cream and spray four times a day for four days. And although it was a small preliminary study, its findings were significant.

Researchers found that all four chemicals were found in the participant’s blood in just one day — and after four days, the levels of those chemicals surged past the U.S Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidelines.

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Participants in the study applied 2 milligrams of sunscreen per square centimeter of their skin on 75% of their bodies. (You can breathe a small sigh of relief knowing that the participants in the study applied more sunscreen than what researchers agreed the average person does.) The study was also limited to the indoors, so sunlight, heat and humidity weren’t factors in the results.

“This study has certainly triggered the FDA to review guidelines and regulations about the benefits and risks associated with sunscreen,” says Dr. Vij. “But it’s not a call to stop using sunscreen altogether.”

Researchers also determined that any detectable levels of benzene in sunscreen up to 2 parts per million were problematic. And in 2021, many spray-style or aerosol sunscreens were recalled after reports showed that benzene concentrations in some products were higher than 6 parts per million.

Long-term exposure to benzene can lessen your ability to fight off infection and lead to fertility issues, anemia and leukemia. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that benzene is commonly used for industrial purposes such as in the manufacturing of plastics, rubber, pesticides and more. And it’s found naturally found in gas, crude oil and cigarette smoke.

Since then, the FDA has updated its guidance on benzene in sunscreen. And research is ongoing to fully understand if benzene is absorbed by your skin and how much benzene can harm someone.

“Consumers reach for sunscreen to protect their skin from the signs of aging, changes in pigmentation and to reduce the risk of skin cancer,” says Dr. Vij. “A contaminant like benzene being discovered in personal care products is disappointing, given that it has potential to cause harm.”

Are there certain chemicals in sunscreen you should avoid?

When you choose a sunscreen to use (and you should keep using sunscreen), Dr. Vij recommends looking at the product’s label and avoiding brands that use:

  • Avobenzone.
  • Oxybenzone.
  • Octocrylene.
  • Ecamsule.

“At this point, there are still a lot of unknowns about chemical sunscreens — and it’s hard to support using products with unknown risks, even if the benefits are well-established,” he adds.

Why you need to use sunscreen

Sunscreen is proven to block the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, which can cause skin cancer, as well as increase signs of aging of your skin.

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It’s recommended that you use sunscreen daily in order to lower your risk of skin cancer and to maintain younger-looking skin. It also lessens your chance of getting a sunburn.

And you need to be generous with it when you apply — use about an ounce of sunscreen (which is the size of a shot glass) and make sure you cover your face, neck, arms and legs. Don’t forget about overlooked areas like your ears, eyelids, lips, tops of your feet and your scalp.

Whether you’re using sunscreen in a gel, cream, lotion or powder, all sunscreens are regulated by the FDA to make sure they’re safe and effective. Opt for a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.

What is the safest kind?

Until more is known about how chemicals like benzene affect us, it’s best to avoid spray-style or aerosol sunscreens.

So, what sunscreen is safe? Dr. Vij says it’s best to go for mineral-based sunscreen (also called physical sunscreen) that contain ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

You also want to use a formula that’s considered a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means it has UVA and UVB protection.

And there are other things you can do to help protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. like wearing UPF clothing or avoiding peak hours of UV rays between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

“Skin cancer is still the most common type of cancer in the U.S. and some are being diagnosed more and more frequently every year,” stresses Dr. Vij. “There are still a number of safe, effective ways to protect your skin from the harmful effects of UV light to keep you healthy and looking as young as ever.”

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