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Does Sunscreen Cause Skin Cancer?

Summer has arrived, and the kids are itching to play outside. You want to encourage this behavior, right? After all, you’ve heard the dangers of too much couch-potato time. Perhaps roller skating is on the agenda. You run through the mental checklist. Helmet, wrist guards, kneepads. You look out the window and see the sun blazing overhead. You reach for the sunscreen.

But then you remember something you read on the internet: sunscreen is full of toxic chemicals. It actually increases the risk of skin cancer!

Could this be true? What’s a parent to believe? What’s a parent to do?

To help answer these questions, let’s take a look at the dangers of sunlight. One of the components is ultraviolet radiation. These deep-penetrating, high-energy beams reach the bottommost layer of skin, the place where new cells are made. They damage the DNA of these new cells, and if the damage is at just the right spot, a baby skin cell is transformed into a cancer cell.

Fortunately, the body has natural protections against this process. Pigment cells ramp up production of melanin, a substance which absorbs the energy of UV radiation and makes your skin appear darker (the tan). The body also mounts an immune response to kill newly-created cancer cells. This immune response leads to red and painful blistered skin (the sunburn).

While these natural protections are excellent at preventing cancer, it only takes one damaged cell evading the immune system to wreck havoc down the road. And since skin cancer can kill you, and because sunburns aren’t exactly fun, it’s well and good to protect your skin.

In comes sunscreen.

Most of these products work in two ways. They contain a reflective shield (such as zinc oxide), which scatters the radiation away from the skin. And they contain an organic ingredient (like oxybenzone), which uses up the energy of UV light in a chemical reaction. But because the reflective shield wears off and because the organic ingredient gets used up, sunscreen has a limited lifespan and must be reapplied often.

So what’s the deal with bloggers calling sunscreen dangerous?

Well, skin cancer rates continue to climb, and a recent study revealed an association between sunscreen use and skin cancer occurrence.

Now before you get excited, consider this: an association does not equal a cause.

Who is most likely to get skin cancer? Those who spend the most time in the sun. And who is most likely to use sunscreen? Those who spend the most time in the sun.

So this begs the question… Does sunscreen REALLY cause skin cancer? Or could it be that sun lovers are using sunscreen, but they aren’t using enough or applying it appropriately?

For me, it boils down to risk vs benefit. We KNOW ultraviolet light causes skin cancer. We know the mechanism. It makes sense. But blaming skin cancer on sunscreen is a dangerous scare tactic based on faulty research.

How about Vitamin D? Sunscreen blocks the body’s ability to produce it, right? It does. But supplementing a little vitamin D is a whole lot easier than treating skin cancer.

So if I’m the parent… the one with the roller-skating kids… I go ahead and grab the sunscreen. Why? Because the benefit outweighs the risk!

For more practical advice on choosing and applying sunscreen, check out the Sun Safety Fact Sheet from Nationwide Children’s.

Mike Patrick, MD
Dr. Mike is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s and host of PediaCast, our pediatric podcast for moms and dads. Each week, PediaCast covers news parents can use, answers listener questions, and delivers interviews with pediatric experts on a variety of topics. Dr Mike is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, where he serves as a faculty advisor for medical students. On the home front, he is married with two kids: a college-aged daughter and a son in high school. Prior to working in the emergency department, Dr Mike spent 10 years in a busy private practice, a time he says most prepared him for the practical advice he shares on PediaCast. Dr Mike also has an interest in roller skating. He learned to walk with skates on his feet, and his first job (age 10) was as a disc jockey at his hometown roller skating rink. He has also worked as a DJ at two radio stations, experiences which further prepared him to host our podcast!

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