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Fact Check-Sunscreen protects you from overexposure to the sun; there is no evidence to suggest it is deadly

A misinterpretation of reports about the safety of sunscreen has prompted social media users to make an unsubstantiated claim that more people have died from lotions than overexposure to the sun.

“Sunscreen has killed more people than the sun,” reads one meme shared multiple times on Instagram (here and here) alongside further claims in the accompanying caption. Such claims include sunscreen releasing “toxins” in the bloodstream, lotions preventing Vitamin D synthesis, as well as advice to allow the skin to create its own natural sun protection.

“The sunscreen industry has grown to $2bn and melanoma rates continue to increase,” one Instagram user writes. “Sunscreen doesn’t protect you against the sun. It blocks UVB and it dumps toxins into your bloodstream. These toxic chemicals have been detected in the blood above acceptable FDA levels. It also prevents you from synthesizing Vitamin D, a contributing factor to why sun deficiencies are linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, heart disease and diabetes […]

“On top of that your skin is actually able to produce endogenous ‘sunscreen’ when it reacts with the infrared in the sun […] Humans were made to enjoy the sun. Stop fighting evolution.”

‘TOXINS’ IN THE BLOODSTREAM

This claim dates back to a small 2019 study by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which found active ingredients in commonly-used sunscreens were absorbed into the blood at much higher levels than stipulated in U.S. health regulator guidelines (here and here). However, while the results prompted calls for further research, experts stressed this was not a suggestion to stop wearing sunscreen.

“It was completely misinterpreted,” Dr. Adam Friedman, chairman of dermatology at George Washington University, said of the FDA study at the time. “Just because it’s in the blood doesn’t mean that is not safe. It doesn’t mean it’s safe either. The answer is we don’t know.”

Speaking to Reuters in June 2021, Prof. Desmond Tobin, director of the Charles Institute of Dermatology at University College Dublin, echoed Friedman’s 2019 comments by saying scientists would need to be “prudent” to determine safety of sunscreen ingredients. He said this would be particularly important for “repeated use over a lifetime”.

Markets in the UK and European Union “tightly regulate” how chemicals are used in sunscreen, said Alice Davies, a health information officer at Cancer Research UK, who was writing to Reuters via email. “For most chemicals, what’s important is the dose we’re exposed to. Most things have the potential to cause damage but only at levels far higher than we’d experience in cosmetics or day-to-day life. Regulations also make sure that sunscreens are effective in protecting from UV radiation.”

In May 2021, the U.S.-based online pharmacy Valisure said it had detected benzene, a known carcinogen, in 78 sunscreen and aftersun products (here) The company has called the FDA to recall contaminated batches.

Responding to the Valisure report, an FDA spokesperson told Reuters: “The FDA takes seriously any safety concerns raised about products we regulate, including sunscreen. While the agency evaluates the submitted citizen petition, we will continue to monitor the sunscreen marketplace and manufacturing efforts to help ensure the availability of safe sunscreens for U.S. consumers.”

VITAMIN D

The Instagram posts also claim that sunscreen stops the body from producing Vitamin D, before linking to a host of health issues. However, this is not accurate.

According to Tobin, there is no good evidence to make this suggestion when referring to “typical behaviour” in relation to topical sunscreen. Davies, meanwhile, explained there was a “balance to be struck”.

She said: “Our skin produces Vitamin D when it is when it is exposed to UV rays from the sun, which helps build and maintain strong bones. Sunscreen helps prevent UV radiation from reaching our skin. But there is a balance to be struck, as too much exposure to UV radiation can also cause skin cancer.

“The amount of time you need in the sun to make enough Vitamin D depends on your skin type, time of day or year and where you are in the world, but is usually less time than most people think.”

Adding to this, Tobin said Vitamin D deficiency is often attributed to sun avoidance or lack of Vitamin D-rich foods – both of which can be rectified with dietary supplementation.

NATURAL SKIN PROTECTION

There is no evidence than the skin can create its own natural sunscreen, said Davies – despite at least one Instagram post claiming otherwise.

Ultimately, skin cancer is “a serious threat” to health, added Tobin, who said this was especially true for basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas and the “often deadly” invasive melanoma. “A key component of skin cancer prevention includes topical application of broad-spectrum sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 and above.”

In the UK, melanoma is the fifth most common form of cancer, according to Cancer Research UK. Rates of melanoma have also risen roughly 135% since the early 1990s (here).

“For the best sun protection, sunscreen should be teamed with spending time in the shade and covering up, for example with a long-sleeved shirt, wide brimmed hat and sunglasses,” Davies said.

VERDICT 

Missing context. There is no evidence that sunscreen is more harmful than overexposure to the sun. While more research is needed into sunscreen ingredients, experts maintain it should still be used as part of a sun protection regimen.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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