FFS, Sunscreen Isn’t Bad for You

FFS, Sunscreen Isn’t Bad for You
Photo: verona studio, Shutterstock

If you’re trying to get views on social media, it’s hard to do it by telling people things they already know are true. Instead, you’ve got to surprise them: crunches are bad now, raw meat is good for you, and sunscreen — plain old uncontroversial sunscreen — is now supposedly causing cancer.

Lest anyone point out the obvious contradiction (the sun causes a lot more cancer than sunscreen ever possibly could), you just move the goalposts: sunscreen chemicals are endocrine disruptors, or they’re bad for coral reefs, or whatever sounds convincing in the moment.

None of this actually adds up, when you look into it: The benefits of sunscreen are real and well-established. It would take something being really wrong with sunscreen — every type of sunscreen — to so outweigh those benefits that you would be better off going without.

Sunscreen doesn’t cause cancer

First, let’s look at the claim that skin cancer is caused by sunscreen itself, not by the sun. Several fact-checking agencies looked into this claim after it circulated on social media, so I’ll direct you to their reports here and here. The World Health Organisation estimates that 80% of skin cancers are preventable with good sun protection.

In 2021, several sunscreens were found to contain trace amounts of benzene, which is known to be a carcinogen. But benzene is not a sunscreen ingredient; it was contamination, and the lab that publicized their results was trying to push for better regulation to prevent contamination, not to claim that sunscreens are always harmful. Trace amounts of benzene are also found in air, water, and soil. This isn’t good, at all, but it’s not a sunscreen problem.

Sunscreen ingredients aren’t known to mess up your hormones

Another claim related to sunscreen safety is that some of the popular active ingredients, like oxybenzone, are “endocrine disruptors.” This is based on research in animals that shows that enormous amounts of the stuff (far more than anyone is exposed to in sunscreen) can mess with the animals’ hormones. No research on humans has ever shown a danger here.

More research is needed, but this is still not a reason to chuck your sunscreen. In the meantime, if you’re concerned about oxybenzone, you can use a mineral sunscreen instead.

Sunscreen doesn’t make you vitamin D-deficient

One way we get vitamin D is from the sun; sunlight helps us convert an inactive form of vitamin D in our skin to the form our bodies can use.

Some paleo-adjacent influencers and biohackers have used this fact to argue that we should soak up as much sun as possible to maximise our vitamin D levels. But if you’re that worried about vitamin D, you can always take a supplement or just make sure you’re eating plenty of foods that contain the vitamin. (Your body doesn’t care whether you got your D from the sun or from your diet.)

A consensus statement from “13 experts in endocrinology, dermatology, photobiology, epidemiology and biological anthropology” concludes that ordinary use of sunscreen for sun protection is fine. It’s a different story for people who have skin conditions that require extreme protection and who spend very little time in the sun; those people should supplement vitamin D.

We don’t actually know if sunscreens are hurting coral reefs

Some of the chemicals in sunscreen are toxic to corals in large quantities. That much is clear from laboratory experiments. But the amounts of chemicals used in those experiments have not been seen in nature, even in beach areas that are popular with swimmers. It’s possible that trace amounts of sunscreen chemicals could affect corals, but we don’t have evidence for or against that.

If you care about corals, it’s important to know that they have bigger problems than sunscreen. Those include elevated temperatures due to climate change, and sewage and wastewater that are released into the ocean. Meanwhile, “reef-safe” labels on sunscreen aren’t evidence-based; we don’t know if “reef-safe” sunscreens are actually better for corals than those without the label.

Sunscreen fearmongering is disconnected from reality

Despite all the above, there’s money to be made in scaring people away from sunscreens, so you’ll see these claims continue to crop up. If you’ve got a wellness brand that focuses on doing things the “natural” or “ancestral” way, posting negative things about sunscreen will make most of your readers happy and some of them mad, leading to algorithm-satisfying fights in the comments.

Meanwhile, companies that sell sunscreens will embrace some of these myths to tell you why their sunscreen is safer. If you google terms related to sunscreen safety, you get ads for the Environmental Working Group’s sunscreen safety guide, which is bullshit for the same reasons their “dirty dozen” produce guide is bullshit — everything on the list is fine, but they make money by convincing people they need to choose certain types of products (or vegetables) over others, and need the EWG’s help to do so.

The bottom line, though, is summed up in this FAQ by the American Academy of Dermatology: “Scientific evidence supports the benefits of using sunscreen to minimise short-term and long-term damage to the skin from UV. Claims that sunscreen ingredients are toxic or a hazard to human health have not been proven.”

   

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