Basking in the sun’s warmth is one of life’s simple pleasures. Sunbathing stimulates vitamin D production, keeps the blues away by reducing stress and depression, and helps the body absorb calcium, among others. Soaking up the sun has many health advantages – until we overexpose ourselves. Beneath that inviting glow lies a hidden danger: the risk of developing skin cancer.

Excessive sun exposure is the leading cause of melanoma, basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma – the three main types of skin cancer. As a precaution, medical professionals constantly remind us to use sunscreen every day, even when lounging and reading a book by the window. Ultraviolet (UV) rays, including UVA and UVB, can penetrate glass and bounce off most surfaces, including water, sand, grass, snow, and pavement. Sunscreen acts as a shield between UV rays and the skin, although some reports suggest otherwise.

The Truth About SPF and Skin Cancer Prevention

Nuances, contradictions, and ongoing research drive a wedge between sunscreen and skin cancer prevention. As we dive deeper into these complexities, we will explore the science behind sunscreen and the safety concerns that have recently emerged.

Understanding Sunscreens and SPF Ratings

All sunscreen products have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating. SPF refers to how well a product can protect against UVB rays, which are accountable for skin burning. For reference, UVA rays cause skin aging, while UVB rays cause skin burning.

Usually, our bare skin burns after 10 minutes of sun exposure. Applying sunscreen with SPF 15 allows us to stay in the sunny outdoors without burning for an additional 150 minutes – a factor of 15 times longer. This rough estimate depends on the intensity of sunlight, skin type, and how much sunscreen was applied.

How Much Sunscreen Do We Need?

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 30 or more. Lather approximately one ounce for full body coverage and reapply every two hours.

However, most people do not use enough sunscreen. The majority use half the recommended amount, providing only a square root-worth of SPF protection.

Also, keep in mind that SPF ratings are nonlinear:

  • SPF 15 combats 93 percent of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 combats 97 percent of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 combats 98 percent of UVB rays

One way to interpret this data is that SPF 30 provides 4 percent more protection than SPF 15 and 1 percent less protection than SPF 50. In other words:

  • SPF 15 allows 7 out of 100 photons to pass through
  • SPF 30 allows 3 out of 100 photons to pass through
  • SPF 50 allows 2 out of 100 photons to pass through

UVB photons are high-energy light particles. When they collide with the molecules and atoms of living beings, they can cause sunburns and damage DNA, resulting in cancer.

Should We Opt for the Highest SPF Sunscreen?

Although sunscreens with SPF 75 or 100 offer more sun protection, they do not significantly differ from SPF 30. This misinformation confuses people into believing that they are immune to UVB rays. Moreover, for adequate broad-spectrum protection, the UVA protection must be at least one-third of the UVB protection. High SPF sunscreens often prioritize UVB over UVA, contributing to a misleading perception of complete sun safety.

Now that we understand how sunscreen works and the importance of choosing a product with enough SPF, let us address the main issue below.

Can Sunscreen Cause Cancer?

News about sunscreen being dangerous began circling in May 2021, when the independent lab Valisure detected high levels of benzene contamination in several sunscreen products. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and International Agency for Cancer Research, benzene is a human carcinogen. In particular, the American Cancer Society reported that benzene causes acute myeloid leukemia and increases the risk of developing non-Hodgkin lymphoma, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute lymphocytic leukemia, and multiple myeloma.

Valisure found the cancer-causing chemical in 78 different sun-care products sold in the U.S. market. About 27 percent of the samples contained detectable benzene, while other batches had up to three times the restricted FDA concentration limit of 2 parts per million.

In response, two months after Valisure’s findings, Johnson & Johnson recalled five of its Aveeno and Neutrogena sunscreen sprays as a precautionary measure. This decision sparked further concerns in the media and among the masses.

The Verdict: Can Sunscreen Cause Skin Cancer?

No, sunscreen does not cause skin cancer. However, sun-care products containing benzene may cause other cancer types.

Dr. Jennifer Lin, assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School and co-director of the Melanoma Risk and Prevention Clinic at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, shared the following statements with Harvard Health Publishing: “We [doctors] recommend sunscreen for skin cancer prevention, including melanoma prevention, which has been demonstrated in cohort studies as well as prospective randomized trials.”

The results of a 2022 study – which analyzed figures from the 2015-2016 National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey – supported Dr. Lin’s remarks, revealing that sunscreen usage reduced precancerous skin lesions and skin cancer prevalence. In particular, daily SPF use lowers the risk of developing melanoma by 50 percent and squamous cell carcinoma by 40 percent, reports the Skin Cancer Foundation. Studies published in 2020, 2016, 2005, and even during the 20th century echo similar findings.

The Anti-Cancer Solution: Choose Sunscreens Without Benzene

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) have reassured people of sunscreen’s safety and its role in reducing skin cancer risks. However, considering it may cause other malignancies and diseases, who can blame consumers for being extra cautious?

Fortunately, we may safely use products that Valisure did not detect any benzene in. Among the benzene-free sunscreens are:

  • Aveeno Ultra-Calming Daily Moisturizer (SPF 30)
  • Sun Bum Mineral Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 50)
  • Sun Bum Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 70)
  • Supergoop! PLAY Body Sunscreen Mousse (SPF 50)
  • Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Face Dry-Touch Sunscreen (SPF 50)
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen (SPF 55)
  • Neutrogena Age Shield Face Lotion Sunscreen (SPF 110)
  • EltaMD UV Daily Broad Spectrum (SPF 40)
  • EltaMD UV Pure Broad Spectrum (SPF 47)
  • Coola Organic Classic Body Sunscreen in Guava Mango (SPF 50)
  • Solimo Sport Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 50)
  • Australian Gold Instant Bronzer Spray Gel Sunscreen (SPF 30)
  • Hawaiian Tropic Everyday Active Sport Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 50)
  • Vanicream Sunscreen Sport (SPF 35)
  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-in Milk Body & Face Sunscreen Lotion (SPF 100)

For safer, more skin-friendly sun-care essentials, consider these sunscreen recommendations from The Wise Consumer.

Related: Skin Cancer Risk Reducing Tips

Takeaway: Enjoy the Sun Responsibly!

Encouraging informed decisions about sunscreen use and responsible sun exposure is vital for warding off skin cancer. Opting for sunscreens with safe and effective ingredients while avoiding products with harmful chemicals, like benzene, is equally crucial. As we stay informed and prioritize safety, we can welcome the sun’s warm embrace without compromising our health, fostering a culture of conscious sun protection for generations to come.

If you have a skin concern, let Buckeye Dermatology help. Whether it involves hives, acne, or skin cancer removal, our team can ensure the healthy skin you desire. Drop us a line to schedule a consultation.