Chemicals in sunscreen

Some advocacy groups say that certain chemicals in sunscreens are harmful and may increase your risk of developing cancer. The research so far on oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and parabens does not show that they can cause cancer and none of these chemicals has been classified as a cancer-causing substance by any major scientific organization.

The Society is committed to sharing important information about cancer risk to Canadians and we will continue to closely monitor research in this area. We will also track recommendations for sunscreen use by other regulatory agencies that protect your health and the environment. The Canadian Cancer Society supports the use of any sunscreen products that are approved for sale in Canada.

There have also been some studies that suggest people who use sunscreen have a higher risk of developing skin cancer compared to people who do not use sunscreen. Scientists don’t think this increased risk is caused by any chemical – it comes from the fact that people who use sunscreen spend more time in the sun than people who don’t. Also, these people may not be applying sunscreen properly. Scientists are also looking at whether people who use sunscreen have lower vitamin D levels, which may increase the risk of developing cancer.

Being safe in the sun is still the best way to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. Protect yourself when the sun is at its strongest, cover your skin with clothing, wear a hat and sunglasses, use a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher and do not use indoor tanning equipment.

  • Our perspective

    After a thorough assessment of the current research, the Canadian Cancer Society believes that oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and parabens in sunscreen do not pose a cancer risk.

  • Oxybenzone

    Oxybenzone (sometimes called benzophenone-3) is used in sunscreens because it can absorb both UVA and UVB rays and protect the skin from sun damage. A small number of studies have shown that oxybenzone can cause minor changes to cells in basic laboratory studies – but there is currently no evidence linking it to cancer. The research on oxybenzone is limited and so far no animal or human studies suggest that it might cause cancer.

  • Retinyl palmitate

    Retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin A added to some sunscreens because it is a skin conditioner. A small number of studies have shown that retinyl palmitate can cause minor changes to cells when treated with UVA radiation – but there is currently no evidence that these changes are cancerous.

  • Parabens

    Parabens are preservatives used in many cosmetic products (including some sunscreens). A few studies have suggested that parabens act like estrogen in the body, which can speed up the growth of breast cancer tumours. More research is needed to provide clarity about this association.