Do Sunscreens Cause Skin Cancer?

July 20, 2009
Lisa Schulmeister

An intriguing question is finally answered.

In her July 6th New York Times Health column, Anahad O'Connor addressed an intriguing question: Do sunscreens, intended to prevent skin cancer, cause skin cancer? Claims that sunscreen components, in particular zinc oxide, can cause or contribute to the develop of the skin cancer have been made for years. Proponents of the "sunscreen causes cancer" belief cite laboratory studies that found that zinc oxide and other active ingredients in sunscreen can create free radicals when exposed to sunlight and lead to cell damage and the development of skin cancer. The "dangers" of sunscreen often are supported by the rising incidence of melanoma worldwide, especially among people who report that they use sunscreen.

Researchers recently reported that sunscreen and its components must penetrate skin cells in order to be harmful and found that sunscreen remains on the skin's surface. Zinc oxide and other sunscreen components were not found to damage cells or increase the risk of melanoma.

The conspiracy theorists can now put the "dangers of sunscreen" idea to rest and healthcare providers can use this information to better educate the patients they care for. Further, healthcare providers need to continue to advise patients to use sunscreen daily and reinforce melanoma risk reduction strategies (eg, sun protection, avoidance of tanning beds, skin self-examination, etc).