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The “Anti-Sunscreen Movement:” Balancing Health Concerns and Sun Safety

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The “Anti-Sunscreen Movement:” Balancing Health Concerns and Sun Safety

Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the United States, with 20 percent of Americans expected to be diagnosed with some form by age 701

Sunscreen, a common preventative measure against skin cancers like melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and basal cell carcinoma, functions by blocking harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that can damage skin cells and cause mutations leading to cancer. 

However, a controversial new trend on social media is challenging this long-standing advice, raising concerns among dermatologists and health experts.

But, is there some truth to their anti-sunscreen claims?


What is the anti-sunscreen trend?

Influencers on social media, especially TikTok, are going viral for their controversial takes regarding sunscreen.

Shannon Fairweather, a TikTok influencer with nearly 45,000 followers, is known for her natural-living and health advice.

Fairweather was adamant about her dislike for sunscreen in a recent video, rejecting it in favor of organic alternatives.

“I refuse to block the skin from the healing rays of the sun,” she stated in the video. 

Rather than “slathering yourself in chemicals,” Fairweather recommended using natural substances like coconut oil.

Based on data collected from 2000 to 2020, the NIH’s National Cancer Institute found that roughly 36.5 percent of U.S. adults wear sunscreen every day.

However, more and more people are questioning the benefits of lathering themselves in suntan lotion.

Other popular personalities, such as YouTuber and content creator Gubba Homestead, not only criticized sunscreens for their chemicals, but blamed them for contributing to vitamin D deficiencies.

“There is no proof the sun causes cancer,” the influencer said in a recent clip. “Sun is not the enemy. Your diet and sunscreen are.”

U.K. fitness coach James Middleton, with an audience of around 250,000 on Instagram, also questioned the need for sun block and its possible connection to low vitamin D levels.

“High levels of Vitamin D make it almost impossible to develop an autoimmune disease,” Middleton wrote on X. “They would put pharmaceutical companies & the healthcare industry out of business. Think about it for a minute. They need you to believe that the sun is bad.”

What dermatologists are saying

Several dermatologists have warned about the anti-sunscreen movement, calling it “dangerous.”

“Sunscreen is one of our best ways to protect ourselves from that radiation,” board-certified dermatologist Dr. Julia Carrol told Yahoo News.

"The anti-sunscreen movement online is not one you want to be influenced by," she added.

However, there may be more truth behind the TikTokers’ claims than meets the eye.

For example, it is true that by blocking sunlight, sunscreen also blocks the body’s natural ability to produce vitamin D.

However, dermatologists argue that vitamin D depletion from avoiding sunlight can be countered through diet, by eating vitamin D-rich foods such as eggs, fish, or consuming fortified milk. Therefore, they argue that wearing sunscreen to avoid skin damage is still a health-conscious strategy.

It is also true that sunscreens are composed of chemicals, but influencers do not specify which chemicals are dangerous.

There are many kinds of chemicals in sunscreens, some petroleum-based, and others plant-based. It is also worth noting that not all chemicals are inherently “unnatural” or unhealthy.

Furthermore, there is currently limited evidence to suggest the carcinogenicity of many of the chemicals found in popular sunscreen brands.

One exception occurred in 2022, when sunscreen manufacturer Banana Boat recalled batches of Neutrogena, Copper Tone, and Aveeno creams due to contamination with the chemical benzene, a known carcinogen2.

But outside contamination, routine chemicals used in sunscreens have been approved by regulating bodies such as the FDA.

However, the debate over the safety of these chemicals continues.

Not all sunscreens are created equal

Internet wellness gurus and lifestyle influencers, in their quest for natural-living, may have left out important information about the varieties of sunscreen available.

The most common sunscreens on the market can be lumped into two categories: mineral-based (also known as physical sunscreens) and chemical-based sunscreens.

While both block UV-light, they are derived from completely different substances and have distinct impacts on human health and the environment.

Mineral-based sunscreens, composed of inorganic compounds such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as their main active ingredients, have been proven by the FDA to be safe and effective.

Chemical-based sunscreens, on the other hand, are made of chemicals synthetically-derived from petroleum, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, and have a less clear safety record.

According to the FDA, there is insufficient data currently to support the safety of petrochemical-based sunscreens.

To add to the concerns, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) has called on the FDA to ban oxybenzone from use, citing the inability of sunscreen manufacturers to prove the chemical’s safety. 

The nonprofit also pointed to studies showing that oxybenzone is readily absorbed into the bloodstream and interferes with hormones in the body3.

Further studies sponsored by the FDA detected UV filters in blood and urine surpassing the FDA threshold of plasma concentrations weeks after just a single use4.

According to the EWG, there is also a lack of data to prove that sunscreens really protect consumers from sun-induced skin cancer.

Those in the anti-sunscreen camp even go so far as to blame sunscreen for causing cancer.

Dr. Carrol pushed back against these sunscreen fears.

“To my knowledge, there is no published data that sunscreen causes skin cancer. In fact, it's the exact opposite. One bad sunburn before the age of 20 doubles your risk of melanoma—and melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer that we diagnose."

Indeed, a 2018 study in the European Journal of Dermatology found no association between sunscreen use and melanoma4.

However, the study could not equivocally conclude that sunscreen use was protective either, as EWG noted.

Despite inconclusive studies, leading healthcare organizations like Harvard Health and the American Cancer Society continue to recommend using SPF-30-or-above sunscreen as the best way to prevent skin cancer.

Apart from its impact on human health, evidence suggests that sunscreen can significantly harm the environment.

For example, studies have found that chemicals like oxybenzone were harmful to coral reefs and marine life5.

As a result, countries like Palau and Thailand, as well as the state of Hawaii, have banned the use of certain chemical-based sunscreens to protect reef systems and marine habitats. 

Where do we go from here?

Given the complexity of this issue, it is difficult to fully support proponents of the anti-sunscreen movement, but it is also difficult to dismiss their claims entirely.

Instead, one should strive to balance the claims raised with evidence from current studies and experts’ opinions.

Although sunscreens may be effective in preventing sunburn and limiting the effect of carcinogenic radiation, consumers should be aware of the negative effects of sunscreens as well.

For those who still want sun protection but are concerned about the potential risks posed to their health and the environment by chemicals in their sun creams, it might be wise to go with a mineral-based product instead.

There are also other ways to protect oneself from the sun instead of relying on sunscreen.

Dermatologists advise wearing a hat and sunglasses, as well as protective, UV-proof clothing when spending any extended time in the sun.

Experts also generally advise limiting time in the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when UV rays are strongest.


Key Takeaways

  • Skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the country, caused by damage from UV light and sunburn.
  • Natural health advocates and influencers on social media platforms like TikTok are advocating against the use of sunscreens
  • Dermatologists and recognized industry leaders continue to advocate for sunscreen use to prevent skin cancer
  • There are two major kinds of sunscreen – those that are mineral-based and those that are petrochemical-based.
  • Petrochemical-based sunscreens may have harmful environmental and health effects
  • Studies examining the health effects of sunscreen remain inconclusive, but there is significant evidence supporting their use for preventing UV damage
The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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  1. The Skin Cancer Foundation. (2024, February 6). Skin cancer Facts & Statistics - The Skin Cancer Foundation.
  2. Nicole, W. (2022). Skin protection dilemma: Testing detects benzene in some sun care products. Environmental Health Perspectives, 130(5).
  3. UV filters. (2024, April 10). National Toxicology Program.
  4. Matta, M. K., Florian, J., Zusterzeel, R., Pilli, N. R., Patel, V., Volpe, D. A., Yang, Y., Oh, L., Bashaw, E., Zineh, I., Sanabria, C., Kemp, S., Godfrey, A., Adah, S., Coelho, S., Wang, J., Furlong, L., Ganley, C., Michele, T., & Strauss, D. G. (2020). Effect of sunscreen application on plasma concentration of sunscreen active ingredients. JAMA, 323(3), 256.
  5. Raffa, R. B., Pergolizzi, J. V., Taylor, R., & Kitzen, J. M. (2018). Sunscreen bans: Coral reefs and skin cancer. Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, 44(1), 134–139.
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