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Can the chemicals in sunscreen cause cancer?

You may have heard or read that chemicals in sunscreens are harmful and may increase your risk of developing cancer.

What do we think?

The research on oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and parabens does not show that they cause cancer. None of these chemicals has been classified as a cancer-causing substance by any major scientific organization. The Canadian Cancer Society has studied the current research, and we believe that oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate and parabens in sunscreen do not pose a cancer risk.

We are committed to sharing important information about cancer risk to Canadians and continue to closely monitor research in this area. We 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.

What is oxybenzone?

Oxybenzone absorbs both UVA and UVB rays and protects the skin from sun damage. It’s sometimes called benzophenone-3.

Is it safe?

A small number of research studies have shown that oxybenzone can cause minor changes to cells in a petri dish – but there is currently no evidence linking it to cancer. The research on oxybenzone is limited, but no animal or human studies suggest that it might cause cancer.

What is retinyl palmitate?

It’s a form of vitamin A. It’s added to some sunscreens because it is a skin conditioner.

Is it safe?

A small number of studies have shown that retinyl palmitate can cause minor changes to cells when they are treated with UVA radiation – but there is currently no evidence that these changes are cancerous.

What are parabens?

These are preservatives used in many cosmetic products, including some sunscreens.

Are they safe?

A few studies have suggested that parabens act like estrogen in the body, which can speed up the growth of breast cancer tumours. We need more research to understand this association better.

What about studies that suggest people who use sunscreen have a higher risk of developing skin cancer?
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 use sunscreen. And many of 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 and use a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher.

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