Can Sunscreen Cause Skin Cancer?

sunscreen skin cancer

For years, sunscreen has been recommended by dermatologists to prevent skin aging and skin cancer. However, a recent evaluation of sunscreens brings disturbing news: a large number of sunscreens may actually increase the rate of development of skin cancer.

Many sunscreen formulas contain the antioxidant vitamin A or its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate, because it slows skin aging. However, vitamin A can in fact speed up the rate at which cancerous lesions and tumors develop on skin exposed to sunlight. While preparing its yearly sunscreen report, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found the results of a ten-year-old FDA study on sunscreens containing vitamin A. The study found that lab animals coated with creams containing vitamin A developed skin tumors and lesions up to 20% faster than animals coated with other creams.

The EWG analysis of the study was released last fall by the National Toxicology Program and the FDA. Many in the EWG could not understand why the FDA had not warned the public of the increased cancer risk associated with vitamin A containing sunscreens after the initial study ten years ago.

The EWG sunscreen report also found that the high SPF rating of many products to be misleading. A large number of sunscreens claim to have SPFs of 30, 45, 75 or even higher. However, according to the report, such high ratings give users of sunscreen a false sense of security. Users typically apply a quarter or less of the recommended product amount, do not reapply, and stay out in the sun longer than they would otherwise, thinking they are well protected. Yet used in such a way, a sunscreen product rated SPF 100 may in reality offer a protection of SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 may perform like a 2.3, and an SPF 15 may equal a 2. Thus, the common misuse of supposedly high SPF sunscreens can lead to a further risk of skin cancer and other skin damage.

Despite these findings, the sunscreen report stated that an effective sunscreen used properly protects from more damage than it can potentially cause. However, the public should know the truth about the skin cancer risk associated with vitamin A-containing sunscreens. They should also be aware of the potential misuse of sunscreens with high SPF ratings. Only then can they choose and use their sunscreen products wisely, effectively protecting themselves from skin cancer.

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