Does sunscreen cause skin cancer? Doctors debunk claims on social media

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Some claims on social media about sun safety have grown into a major misconception that sunscreen could cause skin cancer.

Hundreds of creators, many on TikTok, have posted videos arguing that the sun isn’t the culprit in causing cancer, but rather that harmful chemicals found in sunscreens are to blame.

This stems from a 2021 recall of Neutrogena spray sunscreens and one Aveeno product (Aveeno Protect + Refresh aerosol sunscreen) due to the presence of benzene, a known carcinogen.

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Johnson & Johnson officials confirmed that benzene is not a sunscreen ingredient, according to a Harvard Medical School advisory in Oct. 2021.

Additional testing reportedly found such low levels of benzene in these products that it would not be expected to cause health problems.

Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena Beach Defense bottles are seen on display on a table. The Neutrogena Beach Defense is one of the sunscreens that was recalled due to containing benzene. (Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Experts advised choosing a different sunscreen brand as a solution.

But a national survey by the Orlando Health Cancer Institute in Florida found that one in seven adults under 35 years old believe sunscreen is more harmful to the skin than direct sun exposure.

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Another 23% believe that drinking water and staying hydrated can prevent sunburns.

“This phenomenon taps into the public’s growing distrust of companies due to the proliferation of harmful chemicals in consumer products.”

Many Americans (32%) also believe that a tan makes people look better and healthier, the survey found.

Rajesh Nair, M.D., an oncology surgeon at the Orlando Health Cancer Institute, commented in a press release that there is “no such thing as a healthy tan.”

woman using sunscreen on a beach

Thirty-two percent of Americans believe that a tan makes people look better and healthier, according to the Orlando Health Cancer Institute study. (iStock)

“It’s really just a visual manifestation of damage to the skin,” he said. “But we’re fighting against a perceived positive image and health benefits of something that actually has a totally opposite reality, which is that suntanned skin represents an increased risk of a deadly disease.”

“Age, gender and phenotype play a role, too.” 

Krista Rubin, a nurse practitioner and member of Mass General Cancer Center’s Melanoma Team, told Fox News Digital that there is “little evidence supporting the claim that sunscreens are carcinogenic.” 

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“There is clear-cut evidence of the link between UV radiation exposure and skin cancer,” she wrote in an email. “However, the risk of developing skin cancer isn’t limited to UV radiation exposure – age, gender and phenotype play a role, too.” 

Males are at a higher risk of developing skin cancer, Rubin said, as are people with blonde or red hair, light skin or light eyes. 

man applies sunscreen on his shoulder at the beach

Sunburns are caused by damage from the sun’s UV rays, according to experts. (iStock)

Other risk factors include having a suppressed immune system, being a solid organ transplant recipient or taking certain medications.

Rubin reiterated that sunburns are caused by the sun’s UV rays damaging the skin. So, while drinking water in hot weather will help prevent dehydration and keep the body cool, it will not prevent sunburn.

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“A tan is visible evidence of skin injury,” the expert said. “Whether from the sun or from a tanning bed, tanning exposes the skin to high levels of UVA radiation, which we know is not healthy and is linked to both skin cancer and accelerated aging.”

Social media expert Eric Dahan, founder of Mighty Joy, said she believes social media has become “rife with misinformation about sunscreen.”

Peeling skin on the shoulder after sunburn

“A tan is visible evidence of skin injury,” one expert said. (iStock)

“It’s often spread by well-meaning but overall uninformed, self-appointed health and wellness experts and select dermatologists,” said Dahan, who is based in California. 

“A lot of the misinformation is due to actual science being less engaging and more nuanced than bold (false) statements.” 

The spread of false information regarding sunscreen reflects a “general public sentiment” about what the products contain, Dahan said. 

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“This phenomenon taps into the public’s growing distrust of companies due to the proliferation of harmful chemicals in consumer products,” he said. 

“Over the years, we have discovered that materials that were deemed as ‘safe’ are highly harmful – from lead, BPA, PFaS and now plastics.”

woman and man spraying sunscreen in a kayak

A rise in cancer rates among young people could be driving a “distrust of companies,” one expert noted. (iStock)

There has also been a rise in cancer rates among young people, Dahan mentioned, which further drives a “healthy distrust of companies and government regulators.”

“When it comes to sunscreen, it seems a lot of the misinformation was driven by an old chemical used decades ago that has since been prohibited, after a contamination event led to a recall,” he said.

Among consumers of social media, Dahan suggested that it is “very difficult to determine what is true if you’re not an expert.” 

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“There are conflicting studies, conflicting opinions from seemingly credible individuals, flat-out false information, and an overall lack of confidence in the private companies making these products and in government regulators,” he said.

Some experts — including Dr. Nicky Gazy, a board-certified dermatologist in Florida — have responded on social media with the recommendation to use sunscreen alternatives that do not contain benzene.

a little girl has sunscreen applied to her face

One dermatologist recommended using zinc-based mineral sunscreen. (iStock)

“When it comes to skin cancer and skin health, any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen,” Gazy said in a TikTok video posted in July 2023.

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To decrease cumulative exposure to “chemical sunscreens,” Gazy recommended wearing a zinc-based mineral sunscreen. 

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“It’s actually what I recommend to my patients, especially my pregnant patients,” he said.

Fox News Digital reached out to Johnson & Johnson for comment.