Social media influencers claim sunscreen is toxic

By Julia Ries | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published June 18, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Some influencers allege that sunscreen ingredients are toxic and can cause cancer, while others say sunscreen ages your skin.

  • Experts emphasize that sunscreen is crucial for preventing skin cancer, citing decades of research linking sun exposure to skin cancer.

According to a handful of TikTok influencers, sunscreen is a scam. Some individuals on the platform have claimed that the ingredients used in popular sunscreens are toxic and can cause cancer.[] Others allege that sunscreen—not the sun—ages your skin.[]

Despite the growing anti-sunscreen movement, dermatologists say that sunscreen has been a cornerstone of skin cancer prevention for decades. There’s a clear link between sun exposure and skin cancer, and evidence consistently shows that wearing sunscreen drastically reduces the risk of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.[][]

Hannah Kopelman, DO, a dermatologist at Kopelman Aesthetic Surgery and host of the podcast Derm Club, says it’s alarming to see this type of misinformation spreading on social media. “The idea that sunscreen is a scam undermines years of scientific research and public health efforts to reduce skin cancer rates,” Dr. Kopelman tells MDLinx.

Sun exposure and skin cancer

It’s well-known that unprotected sun exposure can damage the skin and contribute to development of cancer.[] According to the American Cancer Society, most skin cancers are caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.[] 80% to 90% of skin cancers are linked to exposure to UV radiation.[] In fact, solar radiation is categorized as a carcinogen. “The claim that the evidence isn't convincing is simply not supported by the scientific community,” says Dr. Kopelman.

Several studies have linked certain factors—including spending a lot of time outdoors, previous sunburns, and signs of sun damage to the skin—to higher rates of skin cancer.[] Having five or more sunburns more than doubles a person’s risk of developing melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.[] That’s because sunlight damages DNA in skin cells, which play an important role in the development of genetic mutations and skin cancer—also known as carcinogenesis.[] “Over time, these mutations can accumulate, leading to uncontrolled cell growth and cancer,” explains Dr. Kopelman. 

The best way to keep your skin healthy is to limit your contact with UV radiation.[] Sunscreen works by absorbing or reflecting UV radiation. This prevents the harmful rays from reaching and damaging the DNA in skin cells, says Dr. Kopelman. 

Can sunscreen cause cancer?

Some evidence suggests that certain ingredients used in sunscreen—like oxybenzone—can disrupt hormone levels and potentially increase the risk of hormone-mediated cancers like breast cancer.[] But much of the research regarding oxybenzone has been conducted in rodents, and it’s unclear if these effects extend to humans.[][] 

Additionally, various sunscreens contain perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), or forever chemicals. Excessive exposure to these chemicals has been linked to higher rates of cancer, including melanoma.[] But Allison Larson, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with MedStar Washington Hospital Center and MedStar Georgetown University Hospital, says we are exposed to PFAS in various ways in our everyday lives. PFAS have been found in our food, drinking water, food packaging, cosmetics, and household cleaning products.[] “At the low levels most people encounter, there are no known health risks,” says Dr. Larson. 

Researchers are continuing to investigate the effects of the ingredients used in our sunscreens, but as of now, sunscreen does not appear to increase the risk of cancer, Dr. Larson adds. Dermatologists agree that the benefits of sunscreen far outweigh any potential risks. “The overall consensus is that sunscreens are safe when used as directed,” says Dr. Kopelman.

Safe and effective sunscreen

Look for products that have a broad-spectrum formula that offers protection against both UVA and UVB rays, Dr. Kopelman advises. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.[] The higher the SPF, the stronger protection you’ll get. If you’re planning to play sports or go swimming, choose a product that’s water-resistant. Apply the sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside and every 2 hours if you’re swimming or sweating. 

For those who are concerned about the chemicals used in traditional sunscreens, it may be worth opting for mineral-based sunscreens made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. “There are many sunscreen options, depending on an individuals’ preferences, in terms of ingredients,” says Dr. Larson. She encourages her patients to wear the sunscreen they are the most comfortable with and willing to use and reapply.

People who are still on the fence about sunscreen can utilize other strategies to keep their skin protected. Dermatologists recommend limiting sun exposure from mid-morning (around 10 a.m.) to late afternoon (roughly 4 p.m.), when UV rays are the strongest. 

Wearing sun-repellent clothing—ideally made from fabrics with a UV protection factor of 30 or higher—broad-brimmed hats, and sunglasses can also block the rays from reaching and damaging your skin and eyes.[] There are plenty of ways to protect your skin from the sun. No matter how you go about it, the most important thing is to take care of your skin when you’re out in the sun. 

What this means for you

Despite the growing trend on social media platforms like TikTok claiming that sunscreen is harmful, dermatologists strongly refute these claims, emphasizing that sunscreen is essential for preventing skin cancer and is backed by decades of scientific research.

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