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Can Sunscreen Cause Cancer. An article review.

April 13, 2018


Ok so I’ve been a bit slack in getting to this but I’ll try and make amends now. A customer of mine requested that I address this article and so I will.  I was wondering how to address it but felt that the best way is possibly to just write a response to each point raised.

The original article is here. 

And here is my attempt to address each point as far as I can, as a scientist with experience in sun protection chemistry.  I’ve highlighted the bits pulled from the article and written my response in italics below.

For most people, this means covering themselves in sunscreen, which corporate marketing campaigns encourage at every turn

Ok so start with the premise that there is some vested interest/ an unsavoury element to the sunscreen market. That it may be a conspiracy…  

Yet, while we do indeed need protection to prevent sunburns, blocking out the sun entirely is not ideal. Rich in vitamin D, it offers a number of other health benefits, including, oddly enough, cancer prevention.

The sun is not rich in vitamin D, the vitamin D production process is activated by the reaction (or interaction) or UV rays on the skin.  

Sunblocks are no longer a thing that can be marketed as there are no sunscreens that 100% block the sun and that was deemed to be false advertising and counter productive. I agree that blocking out the sun 100% is not ideal. 

We’ve been made to fear the sun

I do not agree with that and don’t subscribe to the notion that we (as humans) can be made to fear anything if we don’t want to be afraid.  It is often just a question of self-confidence, good information, logical thinking and evidence. Our initial emotional response on hearing of bad news or potential issues with a thing can be worked through given time and the right resources. 

Science has long shown that what we put on our skin ends up in our bodies, and quickly.

No. Science hasn’t shown us that at all.  In fact, that is a terribly misleading statement. It is much more complicated with that, some chemicals will not penetrate the epidermis at all while others will pass right through it and dissolve bone. Our skin is there to protect us from the environment, a fat lot of good it would be if everything we came into contact with ended up swimming around in our bloodstream.  Alcohol is a good skin penetration enhancer but never in the history of people getting drunk has anyone done so by keeping their mouth shut and merely bathing in it.

Multiple studies from across the world have examined sunscreen in particular, evaluating its ingredients and how it penetrates and absorbs into the skin after application

Show me these multiple studies (or at least more than one). I’m not suggesting that this is 100% false, I’m quite sure that some sunscreen ingredients can penetrate into the skin but I’d like to see the studies so that I can evaluate what this means.

When you read this sentence more fully you note that it is phrased so the first thought might be that this is terrible, that these ingredients penetrate and absorb into the skin (leading us to think possibly of toxification of our livers, kidneys and brains). But then we sit back and say ‘skin’, penetrate the skin….  OK, so these chemicals absorb into the skin (rather than just sit on the top).  To what level do they do that – the first few layers of skin are dead – do they just stop there?  Also wouldn’t it be fair to say that if all sunscreen chemicals absorbed into and through the skin quickly they wouldn’t be available on the surface to protect us from the skin so they wouldn’t work?  Sunscreens can’t capture and reduce UV irradiation from within our dermis can they?   Neither can they reflect it from there?  In any case, should they penetrate where do they go next?  It is just as reasonable to suspect they are excreted via one or another mechanism as it is to expect them to accumulate.  Can we have more details please? 

As an aside, the one study (here) that was linked to was a method for analysing four different UV filters via HPLC.  Sure enough some Oxybenzone was found to have penetrated into the body and into the urine – 1% of the applied dose.  While this doesn’t sound awesome it is a bit of a leap to suggest that this means that sunscreens are or might  giving us cancer, especially given that there are plenty of sunscreen actives out there and that the formulation of the base will influence penetration of actives.

Results demonstrated a significant penetration of all sunscreen agents into the skin, meaning all of these chemicals are entering multiple tissues within the body.

This is an example of over-reach or bias in my opinion. The first phrase about all sunscreen agents penetrating into the skin is a quote directly from the study summary but to interpret that as meaning that all of these chemicals are entering multiple tissues within the body is a bridge too far.  How did that conclusion get reached?

Conversely, a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives showed a significant drop in hormone-disrupting chemicals that are commonly found in personal care products after participants switched to ‘cleaner’ products.

Ok so going straight into this may lead the reader to add extra power to the previous statement, now not only are all sunscreen chemicals entering all tissues in the body but they are also hormone disrupting which is clearly terrible.  What’s more we now have a solution – use ‘cleaner’ products AKA ‘free from’s’.

Again this is over-reach and highly emotive but without adequate logic and fact to make the connection scientifically.  Again we are potentially trying to link the presence of chemicals in the skin (could be the epidermis) with chemicals in all body tissues and affecting hormones.  This is simply outrageous in my opinion. 

So, the next question becomes, are the ingredients used to make sunscreen, which are entering into our bloodstream, something to be concerned about? The science given to us by the corporations who profit from the sale of sunscreen says no, but I think by now we have established how trustworthy such corporately-funded ‘science’ is.

OK so let’s play devils advocate here and assume that we do have all of the ingredients running through our bloodstream and that all corporate scientists give no shits about peoples health because all they can focus on is money. I’d like to ask who should be doing this science and making our sunscreens then?  I wonder if the author would be happier if everything was run by government?  Are governments 100% trustworthy? Are Corporations 100% untrustworthy?  What about NGO’s, don’t they have agendas too? What is the issue with profit, should companies operate at a loss? Is profit always bad and if so should we consider communism? 

It wasn’t long ago that Johnson & Johnson, for example, was found guilty of knowingly putting a cancer-causing baby powder on the market.

What has talcum powder got to do with sunscreen for one, and for two, this legal case would ONLY get up in America.  I’ll say no more about that though as it will send me off on a tangent. 

This is precisely why we wanted to bring attention to an article published by the Huffington Post titled “Excuse Me While I Lather My Child In This Toxic Death Cream.” In it, mother Sarah Kallies shares how exhausted she feels trying to navigate today’s world and do the best for her children when everything, everywhere, seems to be killing us.

Excuse me for a moment but isn’t this a problem that you are contributing to I ask myself! I think by now we have established that the author places no faith in science unless it is science that validates their bias, even if it does have to be stretched out a bit. They also have no trust in the market and little trust in government given that it is currently government that draws up the regulations that shape our (cosmetic chemists) ability to create products that are deemed to be safe if used as directed. So, it is no wonder that people feel the world is going to kill them.   I am not hysterical and neither am I or my children or anyone else I know or their children dead after using toxic death cream every day for the last 13 years (since coming to oz with my Lilly white family).  Maybe the author should go to the coroner and research how many people have been killed by toxic death cream lately.  OK so I know that it would’ t show up that way (sneaky) that it would be just an increase in cancer, deadly incurable cancer.  Maybe look at that then and the age of onset and the type etc.  I’m willing to bet that most people are more at risk from their drinking, smoking, drug taking, sun burning, fat and sugar indulging, sedentary, stressed-filled lives than they are a sunscreen but that’s a bit harder to get mad at I guess. OK so that did get a bit emotional – I’m stooping to their level now and will stop. 

For every purchase she makes for her children, there is science telling her it’s great on the one hand and toxic on the other

Ok so first, science isn’t a person and second, if science could talk it would be duty bound to give all of the evidence so as not to be displaying bias.  That typically includes an appraisal of the costs and benefits.  There are very few things in life that boast only an up-side. 

We are dished a wealth of information that differs from source to source, on a variety of different topics, making it difficult to make even the simplest of choices without second-guessing ourselves.

OK so by now I’m getting a bit over this and this sentence just about sums up why.  I don’t know if it is the internet or the fact that our gut microbes have gotten all depleted as we no longer eat dirt and sleep with our dirty livestock and pets but the problem is spelled out right here.  Articles like this are feeding the narrative that we can trust nobody except ourselves.  Since when did we all become educated in science, law, biology, photobiology, chemistry, cosmetic science, corporate psychology and the environment? The answer is NEVER. We can’t know everything and figure everything out ourselves without some trust. Society doesn’t function without trust and while I get it, some degree of skepticism and questioning is healthy,  going to extremes is not. Plus, most of us are blind to our own bias – BLIND! That means we can’t even SEE that we are being led down the garden path, that we are being taken to a conclusion that is not our own, that we didn’t freely choose.  Instead of being enslaved by our own gullibility we are being entrapped by our own bias and are in danger of going mad because of it.  It is sad. Truly sad really. 

So I won’t go on analysing this article and giving my thoughts on it as quite frankly I’ve seen more than enough.  As a cosmetic chemist I am well aware that there are some chemicals that exist and are used in cosmetics including sunscreens that are not making the world a better place.   Some are marine toxins, some do penetrate the skin and may not be excreted in a timely manor, some get into the waterways and do act as hormone disruptors and others bioaccumulate and cause environmental harm.  There is always a thread of truth in an article like this and I don’t deny that, in fact, working through the science and reality behind ingredients and products is why I started this blog. But what I can’t abide are articles written in a way that lead people into hysteria and, more importantly encourage dangerous behaviour.  Not a week goes by when I don’t talk to someone who has decided to make their own sunscreen because they don’t trust the industry.  This is not a solution – home-made sunscreens often go un-tested in terms of SPF and that, in its self is a problem, especially given that we know that too much sun is a carcinogen.

I don’t own a sunscreen brand and have no financial interests in any sunscreens or sunscreen manufacturers on the market.  I also don’t make money from this blog, I make money from consulting, giving my opinion and creating products for people, most (but not all) of whom do subscribe to the notion that natural is better, ‘free from’ is ideal and environmentally safe is a given.  So I don’t really mind or profit from how people take this or any other blog article I write, I just put them up here as a stream of consciousness, a way of me sharing my experience and technical knowledge with others in a way that they can take or leave for free.   The only thing that I would like to think is that some of what is written here does get people thinking more critically about articles that use fear and one-sided logic to push an agenda. Surely the best way to make the world a better place is to lay it all out on the table. The good, the bad and the indifferent?

So, for what it’s worth, that’s what I think. Take it or leave it but please, don’t die from a stress-induced heart attack because you have information over-load and no longer know who to trust.

Amanda x

5 Comments leave one →
  1. francescapia permalink
    April 14, 2018 2:46 am

    Thanks for this! Although I am not a scientific person, I was brought up to have a sceptical eye, and at Uni was taught to respect articles that link to scientific studies which use sampling etc etc. So I’ve read articles like the referred and thought WTF? The sun as opposed to UV? And so on … sad thing is mamy accept everything that’s out there. Which is why this blog page should be published everywhere. If I were still on FB I’d link it there but I left it quite a while ago. Luckily for me🙄.

    I love your posts. Thsnk you.

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 14, 2018 7:06 am

      Thanks Francesca, I’m glad you found it enjoyable and useful. We all have personal bias and we all miss things in our analysis but when its wilful ignorance it crosses the line for me as it is such a huge breach of trust.

  2. April 14, 2018 1:21 pm

    It is a shame. I’d love to take a bath in red wine to save my teeth from going purple!

    Fantastic article! I’m thrilled to see more and more of these types of articles out there providing logic rather than skin being your second mouth! Remind me of that South Park episode!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      April 14, 2018 1:34 pm

      Lol now wouldn’t that be nice! I did see a spa in Japan that has a red wine bath. They claim the antioxidants are good for the skin which I am sure they are 🙂

      • April 14, 2018 1:35 pm

        We’ve got red wine masks here- but they don’t make us look like grapes unfortunately! I don’t. Price any difference in my skin using them!

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