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  • Social media influencers are encouraging a dangerous movement to avoid sunscreen.
  • The new anti-sunscreen movement makes several false claims about the association between sun exposure, sunscreen use, and cancer.
  • Both Mineral-based and chemical-based sunscreens are safe, and neither are toxic.

Summertime means more sunshine, which can put your skin at increased exposure to the dangers of the sun.

While protecting your skin when outside is important, social media influencers are pushing a misinformed anti-sunscreen movement that encourages skipping sunscreen altogether.

Some of these misleading posts have received millions of views and may have people wondering about the topic.

According to the company Glam, which analyzed search increase data using Google Trends, traffic significantly increased in late May for several questions regarding the associations between cancer, sun exposure, and sunscreen use, including:

  • Does the sun cause skin cancer: up 170%
  • What causes cancer in sunscreen: up 160%
  • Does sunscreen cause skin cancer: up to 110%
  • Does sunscreen cause cancer: up to 70%

Experts spoke with Healthline to set the record straight and debunk four of the most popular anti-sunscreen myths circulating online.

The link between sun exposure and skin cancer is well-established through decades of epidemiological studies, said Dr. Dino Prato, CEO and founder of Envita Medical Centers. Research consistently shows higher rates of skin cancer in people with greater sun exposure.

Prato explained that ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun damages the DNA in skin cells, leading to mutations that can result in skin cancer.

“UV exposure wreaks havoc on the skin by generating free radicals that produce inflammation and damage cell function and your skin’s DNA. This DNA damage can cause changes in your genes called mutations that lead to skin cancer,” he told Healthline.

When exposed to too much sun, skin cells are damaged beyond what your body can naturally repair, causing those cells to die, said Dr. Susan Massick, a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“This kicks off an inflammatory reaction, where the blood vessels dilate, and inflammatory cells come in to help. This generally takes 4 to 6 hours for an inflammatory reaction to start, which is how you can get sunburned and not realize it,” she told Healthline.

Once the inflammatory reaction kicks in, swelling and pain are felt, and the skin turns red. Blood vessel dilation causes the skin to feel warm.

Cells damaged beyond repair die off and slough off, which is why your skin peels several days after a sunburn. Those skin cells that are damaged but survive are no longer able to protect from the elements, said Massick.

“It’s these mutated cells that survive but can then turn precancerous and eventually cancerous in some cases with additional sun exposure. So, to decrease your risk of skin cancer, you should avoid blistering sunburns but also to avoid ongoing and accumulated, i.e., chronic, sun exposure,” Massick said.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, about 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers and 86 percent of melanomas are associated with solar UV. Additionally, more than 419,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year are linked to indoor tanning, which uses UV radiation.

This is like saying that wearing a seatbelt increases the risk of car accidents, said Dr. Gary Goldenberg, medical and cosmetic dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital.

“People often feel a false sense of security and don’t practice safe sun after putting on SPF. But, in fact, studies have shown that using sunscreen in combination with other safe sun practices like wearing a hat and sun protective clothing, and seeking the shade, decrease the risk of sunburn and UV skin damage,” he told Healthline.

Furthermore, several studies have shown that just wearing sunscreen decreases the number of precancerous skin lesions, Goldenberg added. This is because it acts as a barrier that blocks or absorbs harmful UV radiation.

While there has been a steady increase in skin cancer diagnoses over the years, Goldenberg said the increase is not because of sunscreen but rather due to an aging population, increased recreational sun exposure, and increased awareness and diagnosis.

“Climate change has definitely contributed, with the increase in temperature,” he said.

The American Academy of Dermatology Association states that the following are some risk factors for developing skin cancer.

  • Experiencing five or more blistering sunburns between ages 15 and 20 increases a person’s melanoma risk by 80% and nonmelanoma skin cancer risk by 68%.
  • Using tanning beds increases the risk of melanoma, including early-onset melanoma.
  • People who have skin that burns easily, have blonde or red hair, have a history of excessive sun exposure, including sunburns, use tanning beds, have a weakened immune system, or have a history of skin cancer are at risk for all types of skin cancer.
  • People with more than 50 moles, atypical moles, or large moles are at risk.

Both Mineral-based and chemical-based sunscreens are safe, and neither are toxic. Mineral-based sunscreens consist of naturally occurring mineral ingredients of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, while chemical sunscreens are chemical-based, but this does not equal toxicity, said Massick.

“Mineral sunscreens are physical blockers and reflect UV rays off the skin, whereas chemical sunscreens tend to absorb and scatter the ultraviolet rays, so they protect along different pathways,” she said. “Mineral sunscreens are not necessarily safer, but they are less likely to cause rash or skin irritation in the way some sunscreens can for people with sensitive skin.”

Because of this, she suggested people choose mineral sunscreens over chemical sunscreens, “but not because of any concerns regarding toxicity or overall safety, but more because people tend to get more skin rash and irritation to some of the chemical ingredients in chemical-based sunscreens.”

She recommended people avoid sunscreens with fragrance, scents, and perfumes that tend to cause skin irritation.

Prato added that oxybenzone and octinoxate should be avoided due to their toxic effects on marine ecosystems. Additionally, since 2019, PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) is no longer deemed safe and effective for use in sunscreen by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Stay on top of recalls of aerosol sunscreens that contain benzene, which can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled, Prato warned.

“Short-term exposure to high levels of benzene can cause headaches, dizziness, and may even be fatal,” he said.

As you look over the varied sunscreen options, consider the following tips from Massick:

  • The higher percentage of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide means the more effective they are at physically blocking the UV rays
  • Broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection are both needed for full protection
  • Choose a sunscreen that is water-resistant for at least 80 minutes
  • Aim for SPF 50+
  • A higher price doesn’t mean better protection
  • Look at the expiration date

“It is also beneficial to choose products that suit your skin type, such as oil-free options for oily skin or hydrating formulations for dry skin,” said Prato.

For an annual guide on the safety and efficacy of sunscreen products, visit the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

In addition to sunscreen, other measures that can help protect you from the sun include:

  • Blocking out the sun with shade or parasols and umbrellas.
  • Wearing protective UPF clothing, such as shirts, bathing suits, pants, and skirts
  • Putting on a wide-brimmed hat that covers your ears, neck, and scalp
  • Wearing high quality sunglasses that offer 100 percent UV protection from all UV light
  • Avoiding activities outside during peak sun hours from 10 am to 3 pm

Petro said to consider other factors like self-screening, getting annual skin checks with a dermatologist, and increasing antioxidants, such as vitamins C, E, and A, zinc, selenium, beta carotene, omega-3 fatty acids, lycopene, and polyphenols in your diet.

“Avoid foods that cause inflammation and toxicity to your immune system and remember that gradual sun exposure is good as vitamin D is also essential for us,” he said.