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People Are Saying Sunscreen Is Toxic — What To Know About The Growing Conspiracy

Hannah Frye
Author:
August 25, 2023
Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
By Hannah Frye
Assistant Beauty & Health Editor
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, and more.
Woman Applying Sunscreen Lotion On Her Shoulder.
Image by BONNINSTUDIO / Stocksy
August 25, 2023
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The debate around sunscreen toxicity is decades old, but it has unfortunately resurfaced on social media channels like TikTok in recent months. Believe it or not, it's catching on at an alarming rate, especially among younger generations.

To be frank, I've seen one too many sunburned content creators shouting false claims from their virtual rooftops, scaring people into skipping sunscreen altogether. So I investigated these lofty yet buzzy claims to seek the truth and understand the root of these conspiracies. To come, some much-needed myth-busting. 

A peek inside anti-sunscreen conversations

Let me first introduce you to anti-sunscreen TikTok—a growing group of creators who are quite passionate about skipping sunscreen and think everybody else should, too. 

One of the main arguments this group makes is that sunscreen contains toxic chemicals that can seep into your bloodstream through your skin, causing all kinds of negative health implications, from hormone disruption to cancer and beyond. 

Most commonly, content creators refer to an ingredient called benzene that sparked a recent recall of many chemical sunscreen products. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), benzene is classified as a human carcinogen. So this suspicion is not completely unwarranted, but I'll touch on the oversight here in a bit.

Other ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, can also harm coral reefs, which is why they've been banned in some coastal environments like Hawaii, for example.

One unique position on the anti-sunscreen side is that everyone should be able to bask in the sun without protection, as our ancestors once did. That philosophy implies that any sunburn you get is actually caused by spending too much time inside while you were a child, leaving you struggling to "get used to the sun" and, therefore, burning easily. 

This is similar to the idea of a "base tan," which is the concept that your first suntan of the season sets you up for success for the rest of your sunny days ahead. Even if you burn, they say, it'll be your last burn of the season because you are now protected, or adjusted, to the sun—again, this isn't based on any facts, but it's helpful to illustrate the ideology behind anti-sunscreen TikTok. 

Other arguments to give up sunscreen come from people's personal experiences, with some users claiming they stopped getting sunburned after they gave up sunscreen, later mentioning in the comments that they also stay in the shade (which is definitely known to reduce sunburn risk). 

In the other corner, we have the opposing side to anti-sunscreen TikTok: those who take sun protection to the extreme. They reapply sunscreen every 30 minutes, wear sun-protective clothing, glasses, hats, gloves, etc., while staying in the shade, and refuse to venture outdoors between peak sun hours. 

You may be wondering: Where's the balance here? We'll get to that, trust me. 

Let's settle this: Is sunscreen toxic?

Now, for some much-needed expert opinions, we have board-certified dermatologist Marisa Garshick, M.D., FAAD, and board-certified facial plastic surgeon Konstantin Vasyukevich, M.D. 

"The truth is there is no strong evidence to suggest sunscreen, especially mineral-based sunscreens, are harmful to humans and our health," Vasyukevich says. This alludes to the main problem with all of these anti-sunscreen arguments—they are dismissing mineral formulas entirely. 

These products include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—both of which are safe for human use and may even be better for folks with skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis, as they soothe the skin barrier while simultaneously protecting against UV damage. Plus, they're generally reef-safe. 

Regardless, "The more important fact is there is strong evidence to support wearing sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer," Vayukevich says. Hence, why telling everyone to stop wearing sunscreen is quite dangerous. 

Not only is skin cancer widespread, but it's deadly. This is a bleak reality, but it's true. The American Cancer Society reports about 2,000 people in the United States die every year from skin cancer. And while it might sound obvious, over 90% of skin cancers are caused by the sun

Even if you don't get skin cancer or even a sunburn, your skin still gets damaged when you spend extended time in the sun without protection. "Just because you don't develop a sunburn, the skin is still being affected by UV rays," Marcus says. "UVB tends to be responsible for burns, while UVA is responsible for changes associated with skin aging, but both can contribute to skin cancer," she adds. 

Now, there has been some research done on your diet's role in skin cancer, many suggesting that antioxidants may help to prevent skin cancer—anti-sunscreen TikTok users have taken this research and run with it, extrapolating the study findings to assume that food causes cancer and the sun doesn't. 

There's no question that your diet plays a role in your overall health and disease prevention, but stating that simply eating healthy food can prevent or cause cancer (especially in a generalized fashion) isn't a science-backed claim. And to forget the nuance is just plain dangerous. 

Finally, anti-sunscreen advocates continue to emphasize the importance of vitamin D, assuming you can and should only get it from the sun. Here's the thing: You can get vitamin D from sunlight, but for many, sun exposure alone is not enough to provide all the vitamin D that your body needs. 

Even if you're outside in the heat all day long, you still may be vitamin D deficient. "In one study, [researchers] followed migrant farmworkers in Florida, as well as farmworkers in Hawaii," board-certified dermatologist Shasa Hu, M.D., professor at the University of Miami who specializes in skin cancer detection, shares in a recent episode of Clean Beauty School.

She adds, "They found significant vitamin D deficiency in farmworkers who don't use sunscreen. So even if you work outside in the field eight hours a day in various sunny [conditions], you can still be vitamin D deficient."

Balance is possible

It's pretty clear that some people want to spend their days lying in the sun, SPF-free, and others never want to see the light of day if it means getting a wrinkle or a freckle—to each their own in both regards. 

But I'd argue most people probably fall somewhere in the middle—which is an oddly confusing place to be right about now.

Personally, I love the sun. In fact, I find it difficult to imagine a better feeling than the first warm, sunny day after a long winter, or the early morning sun breaking through the dew at dawn—but that doesn't mean basking in the sun without protection is necessary. In fact, that could lead to severe sunburns, skin cancer, and sun poisoning (here's more about the latter if you're curious).

Spending time outside is good for the soul and shouldn't be completely skipped, but it doesn't take long to put on a layer of mineral SPF before heading outside and blocking the noise of anti-sunscreen advocates.

Of course, there's more you can do to prevent sun damage than just wearing sunscreen. As board-certified dermatologist Whitney Bowe, M.D., FAAD, explains in this video, layering a vitamin C serum under your SPF will help to increase sun protection—as vitamin C is an antioxidant. 

While there's not nearly enough data to confirm the link between diet and skin cancer, it's still never a bad idea to consume antioxidants, both for skin health and overall well-being, so pick up some antioxidant-rich foods next time you swing by the market. 

And if you're concerned about vitamin D intake, might we suggest vitamin D supplements? Or, if you're not a supplement fan, simply prioritizing foods rich in vitamin D may do the trick for those without preexisting gaps (although most of us are pretty lacking1).

So while there's some validity in seeking mineral SPF over chemical formulas, the arguments to skip sunscreen for better health don't exactly hold up.

With all of this being said, everyone is entitled to their own opinions when it comes to sun care. But still, I'd err on the side of caution and listen to medical experts when it comes to something like skin cancer rather than social media videos. 

The takeaway

So there you have it: Some people believe SPF is your skin's enemy, but experts still agree sunscreen is going to help prevent skin cancer and sun damage. One thing both parties seem to agree on: Mineral sunscreen is the better option at this point, so shop our favorites here and refresh your stash before stepping out and enjoying the daylight.

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