Can Sunscreens Be Causing Cancer?

As a chiropractor in San Diego, I see more than just cases of back pain. Patients ask all kinds of health questions. For many years, we have known two things in regards to the sun to be true. First, the sun is bad for you. Therefore, exposure should be limited. Most people don’t know this, but the sun has three types of sun rays, not just two. The first is ultraviolet C light. This is also known as UVC. This ray usually does not reach our planet’s surface and this is good because it is believed only brief exposure to UVC rays is fatal to our body. Next is ultraviolet B radiation. This is also known as UVB rays. These have long been considered the tanning rays of the sun. They are strongest during the summer months when the Earth’s orbit is closest to the Sun. UVB rays are what produce a sun tan to our skin.

For many years, sunblocks and sunscreens only attempted to block UVB because science was unaware of the effects of UVA rays (the third type of sun ray) on the body. UVA was believed to be the safe ray in the 1980s, which spawned the growth and popularity of the artificial sun bed industry – some dermatologists even backed this artificial tanning! But, science now believes UVA rays actually do more damage than UVB rays! UVA rays are not dependant on how far the Earth is from the Sun – so the effects are the same all year round. What’s more, UVA penetrates light clothing and car windshields… even many hats. Over-exposure to the sun has been linked to premature aging and even deadly skin cancer.

This brings us to the second so called truth which is limit exposure to the harmful rays of the sun by using high SPF sunscreens and sunblocks. For years, the sunblock industry has been booming with the promise their products protect you from the sun’s aging and cancerous rays. But, research now says these “truths” may not be so “true.” For example, there is no consensus whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer. According to the Environmental Working Groups’ (ewg.org) finding, “The Food and Drug Administration’s 2007 draft sunscreen safety regulations say: FDA is not aware of data demonstrating that sunscreen use alone helps prevent skin cancer.” (FDA 2007). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) agrees. The IARC recommends clothing, hats and shade as primary barriers to UV radiation and writes “sunscreens should not be the first choice for skin cancer prevention and should not be used as the sole agent for protection against the sun” (IARC 2001a). Even worse, there is evidence emerging that sunscreen may actually increase the risk of skin cancer!

Researchers conjecture the reason or causes may be lack of UVA protection by most sunscreen for over thirty years, inappropriate usage, staying in the sun longer with sunscreens and some of the ingredients. One large problem is the SPF (sun protection factor) myth. In 2007, the FDA published draft regulations that would ban manufacturers from labeling sunscreens over 50 SPF. The FDA stated that anything over 50 SPF was “inherently misleading.” Even an SPF of 50 can be ambiguous because of the way most people use sunscreen.

In the real world, tests show people apply only one-half to one fifth of the amount used when testing the sunscreen. A person using one-fourth the amount of sunscreen with an SPF of 30 only actually gets an SPF of 2.3. The same person using a sunscreen with SPF 100 ends up with only SPF 3.2.

Then there are also the potential problems with the ingredients found in sunscreens. Retinyl palmitate (a form of Vitamin A also commonly used in sunscreens) may increase the risk of skin cancer. According to Environmental Working Groups, “The publicly available data from FDA’s new study suggest that when used in sun-exposed skin care products, retinyl palmitate and related chemicals may increase skin damage and elevate skin cancer risk instead of protecting the skin.” Also for example, oxybenzone which is a common ingredient, is a known hormone disruptor.

Nearly one in eight sunscreens does not block UVA rays. Many carry the seal of “The Skin Cancer Foundation.” According to the Environmental Working Groups, “The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF) lends its logo to hundreds of sun protection products. SCF approval is easy, just document that your product has an SPF of at least 15 and provide results of basic tests (for SPF, skin reactions and water and sweat resistance, if such claims are made). Also, according to Environmental Working Groups, 41% of all sunscreens contain retinyl palmitate. All of this may be surprising but what’s even more shocking is that the FDA first issued draft sunscreen regulations in 1978 and last updated the draft in 2007. The regulations are still not final, despite multiple announcements of impending completion. Until the agency formally issues its rules, companies are not required to verify their sunscreens work, including testing for SPF levels, checking waterproof claims or providing UVA protection.

This can all be confusing. If you are, then you are not alone. Here’s something that will make the most of the confusion Disappear. Since sunscreens are probably not as safe as once thought, the best thing to do is stay out of the sun during its peak hours (10:00am – 2:00pm) and whenever possible, wear protective clothing instead of chemicals. Don’t forget, some sun is absolutely necessary for Vitamin D production and proper health. The amount of sun you should get depends on your skin type but you should NEVER burn. Just following some of these simple steps will help avoid damage.

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