Q & A Library
Are Sunscreens Safe?
I just heard that sunscreens don't protect against skin cancer and may even promote melanoma. Is this true? If so, do you advise avoiding sunscreens? What would you recommend for prudent sun protection?
Answer (Published 7/3/2012)
You're referring to information from the 2012 Sunscreen Guide from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for health-protective policies. In an introduction to the guide, the EWG references the published FDA findings that "the available clinical studies do not demonstrate that even [broad spectrum products with SPF greater than 15] alone reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging." The EWG also notes that some recent studies have documented an increase in melanoma risk among sunscreen users. (Most earlier studies found no such link.) While the EWG does not recommend against the use of sunscreens, it suggests that you don't rely on them as your first line of defense against the sun. The guide recommends, as I have elsewhere on this site, that your best bet is to seek out shade when you are out-of-doors, wear protective clothing, and avoid the sun when it is at a high angle in the sky.
Scientists have speculated that any possible increase in melanoma among sunscreen users may reflect the fact that these people simply tend to stay in the sun longer that others and therefore absorb more radiation overall. Another theory: free radicals released when sunscreen chemicals break down in sunlight may play a role. Here is more food for thought about sunscreens from the EWG guide:
I encourage you to read the EWG Guide for more information on the potential dangers of sunscreens. The EWG also evaluated 1,800 sunscreen products and concluded that only 25 percent are safe. One of the criteria used required that a sunscreen be free of oxybenzone, a chemical that may cause hormone disruption and cell damage that may lead to skin cancer. The EWG also ruled out sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A), those with SPFs higher than 50 (these products may not provide additional protection but give consumers a false sense of safety), and sunscreens that lack protection against both UVA and UVB rays.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
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