Can Sunscreen Lotion Cause Skin Cancer?

Posted by Chad Melius on Monday 2 May 2011

Most people know, and scientists have proven, that the sun is bad for you. Prolonged exposure can cause sunburn, and – even worse – give rise to skin cancer over a period of time.

For many years, sunscreen was touted as a way to prevent skin cancer for people who spend some time in the sun. It blocked type B ultraviolet rays, and these were known to be the catalyst that causes sun tan. However, research in the 80s showed that type A UV rays do more damage to the skin than type B rays, and they even have the ability to penetrate glass and light clothing.

Does sunscreen prevent skin cancer?

For years and years, various non-governmental agencies have been urging the FDA to issue preventative regulations for commercially produced sunscreens, with varying degrees of success. They, of course, have been vigorously opposed by industry. Here’s a few things that the experts have had to say about the use of sunscreen:

According to the FDA, “data fails to show that sunscreen use alone helps prevent premature skin aging and skin cancer.” This certainly spells out the danger.

The IARC ( International Agency for Research on Cancer ) went a bit further: “Sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin-cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for sun protection.” This scientifically based opinion is further evidence that sunscreens are not fully effective.

But if you’re going to use sunscreen anyway, what is the best choice? According to the EWG ( Environmental Working Group ), “after reviewing the evidence, [we] determined that mineral sunscreens have the best safety profile of today’s choices. They are stable in sunlight and do not appear to penetrate the skin. They offer UVA protection, which is sorely lacking in most of today’s sunscreen products.”

How might sunscreen aid in contracting skin cancer?

So far, all we’ve seen is that sunscreen is not much help against skin cancer. So does it actually cause cancer, or does it just make it easier for the sun to cause it? Here are four ways in which sunscreen can cause cancer:

  • Lack of UVA protection: Most sunscreens on the market today contain ingredients to help block type A UV radiation. But some do not – so read the label carefully!
  • Inappropriate usage: Most people do not use nearly enough sunscreen for it do be as effective as it can be. If you apply only 1/4 of the amount recommended for a product with an SPF of 100, it’s like using an inferior product with an SPF of only 3.2.
  • Staying in the sun too long: Applying a sunscreen product does not allow you to sit out in the hot sun for hours. It must be reapplied frequently.
  • Some ingredients: Scientists have shown that a commonly-used ingredient of sunscreens, retinyl palmitate, may actually increase the risk of skin cancer.

What can I do to minimize the risk of skin cancer?

Since sunscreen cannot protect you completely from getting skin cancer, what should you do if you really want to sit out in the sun? First, stay out of the sun during the really hot hours, from 10 am to 4 pm. And wear protective clothing. The IARC recommends “clothing, hats, and shade as primary barriers to UV radiation.”

And by all means, have fun in the sun. A small amount of UV radiation is actually good for you!

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