Being Well

What Chemicals Are in Sunscreen? Debunking 3 Common Myths

Chemicals in sunscreen are used to filter and block harmful UV rays.

The month of May ushers in warmer temperatures and brighter sunshine, as well as another appropriate celebration — National Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. Have you ever wondered what chemicals are in sunscreen, and whether or not those chemicals could be causing you harm? You wouldn’t be the only one to question it, especially in the overall push for more natural and chemical-free products happening throughout the skin care industry right now.

Sunscreen Basics

Risk of skin cancer increases for those people who are exposed to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun. It’s important that people choose lifestyle practices that minimize their exposure to these harmful sun rays.

Sunscreen is one way to protect your skin from UV rays. The American Cancer Society recommends looking for a sunscreen that has an SPF of at least 30, but also recognizing that the higher the SPF number, the better protection you receive from UV rays. While sunscreen is an excellent component of a skin protection regimen, it does not protect you completely.

Sunscreen Myths

Doctors and national organizations have recommended sunscreen for decades as a good way to protect skin from sun damage. However, there has recently been concern over the chemicals in sunscreens, which has led to some consumers swearing off sunscreen completely. Here we debunk three common myths around sunscreen use:

Myth #1: Your Skin Absorbs the Chemicals in Sunscreen

The first concern about sunscreen is that the use of nanotechnology, breaking down ingredients into very small particles within the sunscreen, allows those chemicals to be absorbed more readily into the skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, nanotechnology was studied well before it was introduced to sunscreen. Fortunately, our skin serves as a tried and true barrier to any type of chemicals, and has multiple layers to keep harmful chemicals out.

Myth #2: Sunscreen’s Chemicals Aren’t Regulated

The next concern about sunscreen is the use of chemicals within the lotion. Sunscreen is heavily regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which should give consumers a sigh of relief. The chemicals used within sunscreens work as filters and reflectors of UVA and UVB rays. These chemicals stop rays from entering the skin and causing mutations that can lead to cancer.

Myth #3: Sunscreen Gives You Cancer

There have been no studies that definitively show a link between sunscreen use and cancer. In fact, any studies that have been conducted demonstrate a significant correlation between use of sunscreen and a decreased rate of sunburn or skin cancer. Fortunately, this is information that we can take, trust and use to adopt safe habits.

More Than Just Sunscreen

It is important to note that simply using sunscreen correctly is not enough to completely eliminate the risk for skin cancer. Seeking shady areas when possible, wearing a hat to protect your face and wearing lightweight clothing that covers your arms and legs can also decrease chances of UV rays damaging your skin.

Skin cancer risks can be decreased with healthy habits and choices, including using sunscreen. If you find yourself feeling uneasy about what chemicals are in sunscreen, take confidence that the studies are simply not there to support the worry, and that sunscreen certainly does more good than harm. Confidently slather up, throw on a hat and go outside to enjoy the warmer weather!

Each May, UVA Health System's dermatology clinic offers a free skin cancer screening event. People of all ages can receive screening for potential skin cancer concerns, and receive information and tools to help keep their skin healthy.

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Haley Burress
Haley Burress