No, Your Sunscreen Doesn’t Cause Skin Cancer. But It May Have Some Nasty Ingredients

You’ve probably seen the headlines, from unknown content websites…”Your Sunscreen is Giving You Skin Cancer!“. Do yourself a favor and pass on those articles and avoid sharing them on social media.

Science is complicated, so it’s natural that people are confused about the links between toxic chemicals in our products and health outcomes. So let’s learn how to navigate through the click bait and find out what the science actually says.


Sun Exposure Does Cause Skin Cancer

While getting healthy doses of Vitamin D is important, skipping sunscreen all together is NOT advised. Not only does the sun cause 90% of premature aging, it’s clearly linked through decades worth of scientific research on UV exposure and skin cancer.

But What About Oxybenzone and Other Harmful Chemicals

What has caused some controversy, and confusion, is the use of harmful chemicals in sunscreen products. Namely oxybenzone, which is linked to hormone disruption and was recently banned in Hawaii due to its negative impacts on coral reefs. These nasty chemicals do not belong in our sunscreen, and thankfully there are many safer sunscreen options on the marketplace. But just because the traditional brands are using ingredients linked to hormone disruption, doesn’t mean that those ingredients cause skin cancer specifically. Make sense?

Chemicals Interfere With our Bodies in Different Ways

When we’re exposed to chemicals with toxic endpoints, they help contribute to certain types of cancer. For example, BPA is a material commonly used in hard plastic and can linings. This chemical is linked to breast cancer and prostate cancer, but just because someone develops cancer later in life, it doesn’t mean the BPA specifically caused it. Some (aka the chemical industry) use the lack of “smoking gun” or direct causation, as a reason to downplay our exposure to toxic chemicals from consumer products. This thinking is also misguided. We can have sun protection and sunscreen products without harmful chemicals.

What about Retinol, Retinyl Palmitate and Vitamin A?

These ingredients are on many clean beauty company’s “banned” lists due to concern about increasing sun exposure, damaging DNA and advancing the growth of skin tumors when exposed to sunlight. This topic is well summarized here, where government research from the National Toxicological Program found concerns with adding vitamin A to products intended to be used in the sun, like sunscreen.

While the data is troubling, it’s not conclusive enough for us to say that vitamin A and retinol products CAUSE skin cancer. What it does mean however, is that we should avoid product with retinol, retinyl palmitate and vitamin A.

I hope this helps break down the sunscreen safety issue. At the end of of the day there are two things to remember, sunscreen is very important to use and prevent skin cancer. And it’s important to use the right sunscreen, void of harmful ingredients. You can read more on my suggestions for navigating click bait headlines in this article I wrote here.

When shopping for safer sunscreens look for the following:

  • My favorite safe sunscreen picks (that aren’t white, greasy, or thick) outlined HERE!
  • Mineral sunscreens that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to block the sun (versus chemical sun blockers used in traditional brands)
  • SPF 30 products that block both UVA and UVB rays (which are linked to skin cancer). Be leery of products that claim to be SPF 75, 100+. While there are some incremental increases in sun protection, the 100+ SPF claims are mostly marketing gimmicks.
  • Avoid the following ingredients: oxybenzone, octinoxate, vitamin A, retinol, retinyl acetate, retinyl palmitate, all-trans retinoic acid, tretinoin
  • Check out EWG’s Sun Safety Guide for the best brands, and who to avoid
  • For products to address previous sun damage, my recommendations are outlined HERE

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