WASHINGTON — Before we turn the page on Skin Cancer Awareness Month we want to dig into a question about how sunscreen works in preventing cancer, and if its ingredients cause it.
Does sunscreen contain cancer-causing ingredients?
While traces of carcinogens have been found in sunscreens in the past, there’s no evidence that the health risk posed by chemicals typically found in sunscreen outweighs the cancer risk from prolonged sun exposure and skin damage.
WHAT WE FOUND:
Dermatologists and healthcare experts tout sunscreen as an effective way to help protect your skin from sun damage that can become cancerous, but we’ve also heard concerns that sunscreen itself is what’s doing the harm.
In one high-profile instance, cancer-causing ingredients were found in popular products — by accident. In 2021, several Johnson and Johnson sunscreen products were recalled after they were found to contain traces of the carcinogen benzene, which the manufacturer says is not a sunscreen ingredient.
Typically, on store shelves, you will find two main types of sunscreen: “chemical” and “physical,” or “mineral.” American Academy of Dermatology Association defines a chemical sunscreen as one that absorbs the sun’s rays using chemicals like oxybenzone, and a physical sunscreen as one that deflects the sun’s rays with minerals, like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
Much of the concern of sunscreen safety comes from research published in the last few years finding the body can absorb ingredients in chemical sunscreen—something applied topically can be found in the bloodstream days, even weeks later.
Most chemical sunscreens include at least one of these common ingredients, according to The American Society of Clinical Oncology, that haven’t been studied closely enough to be fully designated by the FDA as “generally regarded as safe and effective:”
However, dermatologist Dr. Allison Larson explains that the evidence supporting supporting sunscreen’s role in preventing cancer outweighs the known risk from absorbing chemicals.
“My opinion is the best sunscreen is the one you're willing to use,” said Dr. Larson. “When I have patients who are worried about, well, what about the chemical sunscreens that can be absorbed by the body? My answer is if that's a concern, use a physical sunscreen.”
She explains that these are not absorbed by the skin like chemical sunscreens can be.
“They simply stay as a layer outside the skin. And these are the sunscreens that in the good old days used to be the very pasty white zinc type sunscreens were very visible and a lot of people didn't want to use them because they didn't look so good when you put them on," said Larson. "It was very obvious you were wearing sunscreen. It's totally different these days when it comes to the newer formulations of the mineral or physical sunscreens. So they have wonderful formulations where the particles are incorporated in these very tiny amounts, and so when you put it on it, it looks sheer.”
The FDA is currently working on changes to sunscreen labeling requirements to make it easier to understand which chemicals are included in the formulas available on shelves.
You can also minimize risk of sun damage by wearing a hat and sun protective clothing, and avoiding spending too much time outside in the sun’s strongest mid-day rays, when lathering on the sunscreen is most crucial.
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