Sunscreen is recommended by health experts worldwide as one of the preventive measures against skin cancer, aging and wrinkling of the skin and sunburn. Prospective and cohort studies have shown sunscreen’s protective ability against many types of skin cancer. One study showed that sunscreen use reduced the likelihood of squamous cell carcinoma by over 40% over a period of 4 years. Squamous cell carcinoma is caused by UV damage to the skin, so the fact that sunscreen reduces its risk suggests that it does work. 

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In the last couple of years, there have been concerns about the safety of sunscreen. The US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) investigated if some active ingredients could be absorbed through the skin and to what extent. It turned out that four common ingredients were in fact absorbed through the skin beyond permissible levels. It is yet to be determined whether this is harmful to humans, as the FDA still recommends using sunscreen because of the protection it offers. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) agrees with this and says that sunscreen is effective and should be used. 

Other concerns about sunscreen are that it can damage coral reefs and affect marine life when absorbed into water bodies by swimmers. 

Overall, sunscreen is deemed safe and the side effects associated with it are superficial. It is important to remember how to apply it properly and judiciously and to supplement it with other forms of protection such as protective clothing. Further, it is recommended to limit time in the sun when it is at its harshest as well. 

While dark skinned people are less likely to get skin cancer, the AAD recommends using sunscreen regardless. 

Here is a deeper look at the concerns surrounding sunscreen and other side effects.

  1. Health effects of using sunscreen
  2. Other side effects - Other side effects
  3. How to use sunscreen - How to use sunscreen
  4. Other precautions - Other precations

To understand this, let’s first look at the two types of sunscreen. Chemical sunscreens absorb sunlight and work like a sponge. They contain chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene and ecamsule. Incidentally, these are the chemicals that have been cited by the FDA for further investigation. 

Physical sunscreens work by deflecting the sun's rays. They contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These are visible and look like white cream unlike chemical sunscreens that are rubbed in and can’t usually be seen. 

The chemicals mentioned above are under investigation to see if they can lead to cancer, birth defects and other adverse reactions. Note that the FDA has not branded them unsafe, and even the researchers who have carried out the study have not recommended against their use.

In fact, the evidence against oxybenzone (which is the most publicized substance) is based on studies in rats. Further, the rats directly injected the substance, and that too in large quantities. Experts have said that humans are not exposed to such large quantities of the chemical, so it is incorrect to draw conclusions based on this. Studies on the effects of oxybenzone in humans have so far shown no adverse effects.

However, another study suggested that daily application of oxybenzone in pregnant women could cause it to be absorbed into the foetus and cause developmental problems to the baby. So far, evidence of this has not been found in literature so the concern is still based on conjecture. 

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Given all these recommendations, the FDA has suggested physical sunscreens as an alternative for those who are concerned. This means that sunscreens with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have been deemed safe. 

There were also concerns that sunscreen actually causes cancer. But studies have countered these claims and said that it was increased sunlight exposure that led to skin cancer, and not the sunscreen itself. Perhaps those who applied sunscreen got a false sense of complete protection and lowered their guard.

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The other side effects of sunscreen are to do with allergic skin reactions. These include: 

These side effects are rare but you should immediately inform your doctor and discontinue use of the product. 

Sunscreen is also not recommended for infants under the age of 6 months. For children older than 6 months of age, alcohol based sunscreen should not be used. Also do not use alcohol based sunscreen on inflamed skin since this can worsen the condition. Alcohol-based sunscreen should be used for oily skin, and creams and lotions are better for dry skin. 

Read more: Skin allergies

Discuss with your doctor about any drug interactions you may be concerned about as well. 

Apply sunscreen liberally to areas that are not covered by clothing. 

Use a sunscreen that has an SPF (sun protection factor) rating of at least 30, water resistant and broad spectrum. This means that it will protect against both UVA and UVB rays.

Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before leaving for the outdoors. 

Reapply sunscreen every two hours as it gets dissipated by sweat. This is very important and is often overlooked. Also reapply sunscreen if you have been swimming or swimming excessively.

Use enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass to cover your body and rub thoroughly into the skin. People often do not use enough sunscreen to protect themselves from the harmful rays of the sun. You should also use lip balm with SPF protection. These should be applied 40 minutes before going out. 

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Sunscreen alone is not enough and you should follow these other steps as well:

  • Wear light, full sleeved clothes to cover more parts of your body. 
  • Wear sunglasses and a hat to protect your eyes, head and face.
  • Avoid the sun when it is at its brightest and seek shade when you are outdoors.
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