700 Children's® – A Blog by Pediatric Experts

Does Sunscreen Cause Skin Cancer?

Jun 20, 2013

Summer has arrived, and the kids are itching to play outside. You want to encourage this behavior, right? After all, you’ve heard the dangers of too much couch-potato time. Perhaps roller skating is on the agenda. You run through the mental checklist. Helmet, wrist guards, kneepads. You look out the window and see the sun blazing overhead. You reach for the sunscreen.

But then you remember something you read on the internet: sunscreen is full of toxic chemicals. It actually increases the risk of skin cancer!

Could this be true? What’s a parent to believe? What’s a parent to do?

To help answer these questions, let’s take a look at the dangers of sunlight. One of the components is ultraviolet radiation. These deep-penetrating, high-energy beams reach the bottommost layer of skin, the place where new cells are made. They damage the DNA of these new cells, and if the damage is at just the right spot, a baby skin cell is transformed into a cancer cell.

Fortunately, the body has natural protections against this process. Pigment cells ramp up production of melanin, a substance which absorbs the energy of UV radiation and makes your skin appear darker (the tan). The body also mounts an immune response to kill newly-created cancer cells. This immune response leads to red and painful blistered skin (the sunburn).

While these natural protections are excellent at preventing cancer, it only takes one damaged cell evading the immune system to wreck havoc down the road. And since skin cancer can kill you, and because sunburns aren’t exactly fun, it’s well and good to protect your skin.

In comes sunscreen.

Most of these products work in two ways. They contain a reflective shield (such as zinc oxide), which scatters the radiation away from the skin. And they contain an organic ingredient (like oxybenzone), which uses up the energy of UV light in a chemical reaction. But because the reflective shield wears off and because the organic ingredient gets used up, sunscreen has a limited lifespan and must be reapplied often.

So what’s the deal with bloggers calling sunscreen dangerous?

Well, skin cancer rates continue to climb, and a recent study revealed an association between sunscreen use and skin cancer occurrence.

Now before you get excited, consider this: an association does not equal a cause.

Who is most likely to get skin cancer? Those who spend the most time in the sun. And who is most likely to use sunscreen? Those who spend the most time in the sun.

So this begs the question… Does sunscreen REALLY cause skin cancer? Or could it be that sun lovers are using sunscreen, but they aren’t using enough or applying it appropriately?

For me, it boils down to risk vs benefit. We KNOW ultraviolet light causes skin cancer. We know the mechanism. It makes sense. But blaming skin cancer on sunscreen is a dangerous scare tactic based on faulty research.

How about vitamin D? Sunscreen blocks the body’s ability to produce it, right? It does. But supplementing a little vitamin D is a whole lot easier than treating skin cancer.

So, if I’m the parent… the one with the roller-skating kids… I go ahead and grab the sunscreen. Why? Because the benefit outweighs the risk!

For more practical advice on choosing and applying sunscreen, check out the Sun Safety Fact Sheet from Nationwide Children's.

Featured Expert

Nationwide Children's Hospital Medical Professional
Mike Patrick, MD
Emergency Medicine; Host of PediaCast

Dr Mike Patrick is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Ohio State University College of Medicine and Medical Director of Interactive Media for Nationwide Children's Hospital. Since 2006, he has hosted the award-winning PediaCast, a pediatric podcast for parents. Dr Mike also produces a national podcast for healthcare providers—PediaCast CME, which explores general pediatric and faculty development topics and offers free AMA PRA Category 1 Credit™ to listeners.

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700 Children’s® features the most current pediatric health care information and research from our pediatric experts – physicians and specialists who have seen it all. Many of them are parents and bring a special understanding to what our patients and families experience. If you have a child – or care for a child – 700 Children’s was created especially for you.