Is Your Sunscreen Giving You Cancer?

By David Blyweiss, M.D., Advanced Natural Wellness

May 21, 2012

  • What you need to know about sunscreen to stay safe
  • Clearing up the vitamin A confusion
  • What the EWG has to offer that the FDA doesn’t

No matter where you live in the U.S., sunscreen season is in full swing. I recently covered how you can protect yourself from the inside out in a previous issue (The Sunscreen You Swallow) – with diet and supplements that will protect you from the sun.

And I’ve written plenty about the importance of getting daily exposure so you can get vitamin D from the most natural source available – the sun.

But there will still be times when you will need to wear something other than clothing to protect yourself. And that’s what we’ll focus on today.

There are some disturbing facts about sunscreen products you need to know before you slather them on your skin. And some alternatives to consider…

You might assume that since I recommend taking vitamin A supplements to boost your body’s natural sun protection, that sunscreen products with vitamin A are also good.

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That would be a very dangerous assumption. Because the complete opposite is true when it comes to applying vitamin A (and its derivatives, retinol and retinyl palmitate) onto your skin before sun exposure.

It is common to find vitamin A in various creams and lotions because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging. But vitamin A also has photocarcinogenic properties, meaning it can cause cancerous tumors when used on skin exposed to sunlight.

A yearlong study found that tumors and lesions developed up to 21% faster in lab animals coated in vitamin A-laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream.

And before you wonder if the FDA knows about this, I want you to know it was their study. And before you ask if they are going to do anything about it, the answer is no. At least, they haven’t so far. (More on what you can do below.)

Also, the FDA prohibits any natural ingredients from being labeled a “sunscreen,” which makes it practically impossible to get the word out about natural alternatives to chemical sunscreen.

Speaking of chemicals, there is a very long list of chemicals regularly found in sunscreens that are suspect. Such as oxybenzone, which can be a hormone disruptor. And dioxybenzone, which generates free radicals. And octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), which has been shown to kill mouse cells, even in low doses, and is considered particularly toxic when exposed to sunshine.

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And yet, these are the main chemicals being used in sunscreen. In fact, OMC can be found in 90% of sunscreen brands.

And the list of chemicals in sunscreen goes on and on. Some are known to be dangerous, and others are simply untested. Which makes using sunscreen a little like playing Russian Roulette.

Your skin is your body’s largest organ. It’s highly permeable, and is a direct line to your bloodstream. So when you read the label of your sunscreen and see a long list of ingredients you can’t pronounce and don’t recognize, realize that you might be taking a much bigger risk than you realize.

The bottom line is that your sunscreen should protect you from cancer, not accelerate your risk. Researchers and dermatologists are starting to ask harder questions about the safety and efficacy of sunscreens. But it might take years for all the data to emerge, and for the FDA to take any action.

In the meantime, all you can do is protect yourself as wisely as possible.

Here’s what I suggest…

Read the labels on your sunscreen. Steer clear of the chemicals and vitamin A. Instead, try products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Unlike chemicals that absorb ultraviolet light, these minerals reflect both UVA and UVB rays away from your body without being absorbed into your blood stream.

And although vitamin A is not a good choice for sun protection, vitamins C and E applied topically can help. Also, products that include antioxidants such as green tea, carotenes, lutein and lycopene all offer some protection. If you find any of these on a sunscreen label, you are heading in the right direction. I like the sunscreens from Maui Natural, LaVanila or Kiss my Face.

And one final suggestion that might make your sunscreen shopping a tad easier…

Given that they’ve turned a blind eye on the cancer risks of chemical sunscreen, I wouldn’t personally suggest you trust the FDA when you make your sunscreen choice this year.

But there is an organization that can provide some guidance and real information. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit group that reviews more than 1,700 sunscreen products each year and rates them for safety and effectiveness.

You can click on this link to get to their searchable database and see how the sunscreens in your beach bag measure up. Look for the products with the lowest hazard, signified with a (1) or (2) by the product’s name on the list. This rating will keep you safe from the negative effects of both too much UV light and toxic sunscreen.

And don’t underestimate the power of your pores. What you put on your body and absorb through your skin can be just as threatening as what you put in your body and digest. Choose your sunblock carefully, and use it sparingly.


Westerdahl J,, Sunscreen use and malignant melanoma, Int. J. Cancer 87 (1): 145–50, July 2000.

Planta MB., Sunscreen and melanoma: is our prevention message correct? J Am Board Fam Med. 2011 Nov;24(6):735-9.

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