‘Dangerous message’: Experts slam anti-sunscreen claims circulating online

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Melanoma rates on the rise in Canada
WATCH: Melanoma rates are on the rise in Canada. University of McGill researcher and dermatologist Dr. Ivan Litvinov talks about new research on melanoma rates and breaks down Manitoba area codes with the highest cases. – Jun 24, 2022

While social media may be full of influencers stressing the significance of skincare and daily sunscreen use, a contrasting trend has emerged: the anti-sunscreen movement. Fuelled by social media users advocating for bronzed skin over sun protection, some influencers are dismissing the benefits of SPF.

But experts warn that this message poses a dangerous risk of skin cancer and premature aging.

“We know 100 per cent the risks of sun exposure without sunscreen. It’s like we know smoking causes cancer,” explained Sherry Torkos, an Ontario-based pharmacist and health author. “We know that unprotected sun exposure causes premature aging, wrinkling and increased risk of skin cancer, especially if you get a bad burn.

Click to play video: 'Protecting your skin in the sun'
Protecting your skin in the sun

Although one of the main causes of skin cancer is ultraviolet (UV) light, which is produced by the sun and tanning equipment, some social media users suggest that sunscreen use causes vitamin D deficiency and others say that chemical sunscreens themselves cause cancer.

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One TikTok user, Gubba Homestead, posted a video last week asserting, “There is no proof that sun causes cancer.” Instead, the user claimed that melanoma rates surged following the popularity of sunscreen, attributing the cancer not to the sun itself but to the sunscreen and dietary habits.

Another user on the platform said she refuses to block the skin from the “healing rays of the sun” and instead said she uses coconut oil instead of sunscreen and does not wear sunglasses, and claimed, “watching the sunrise and watching the sunset can help just regulate the body and help you produce what you need to prevent sunburns as well.”

'Sun is the primary cause of skin cancer'

Dr. Julia Carroll, a Toronto-based dermatologist, said there is ample evidence that the main cause of skin cancer is the sun.

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“The sun is the primary cause of skin cancer, also of premature aging,” she said. “And sunscreen is one of the ways that you can protect yourself from sunburns and it can decrease your risk of skin cancer. It can prevent fine lines and wrinkles and brown spots that most people don’t like.

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Not only is solar radiation a known carcinogen, but when UV radiation penetrates the skin, it can also cause damage to the DNA within skin cells, according to Health Canada. This damage can lead to mutations that, over time, can increase the risk of skin cancer, including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

Click to play video: 'Here’s how much you’ll lower your skin cancer risk by applying sunscreen'
Here’s how much you’ll lower your skin cancer risk by applying sunscreen

More than 80,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in Canada each year and more than 5,000 of these are melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, the Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation says.

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The leading cause of melanoma is overexposure to UV radiation from the sun or artificial sources, Melanoma Canada states on its website.  Melanoma is also one of the fastest-growing cancers in Canada it is most commonly found in young adults aged 15 to 29 and 30 to 49.

Due to these risks, Carroll considers the claims from social media users asserting that sunscreen only causes harm as “a dangerous message to the Canadian population.”

The importance of sunscreen

A 2020 study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that 80 per cent to 90 per cent of all skin cancer diagnoses are associated with UV radiation.

But “high-quality evidence” has shown that sunscreen reduces the risk of developing both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer, the study states.

Sunscreen creates a protective barrier on the skin that helps absorb, reflect or scatter ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, according to Health Canada. Broad-spectrum sunscreens offer protection from both UVA and UVB rays. UVB is the main cause of sunburn and both UVA and UVB can increase your risk of skin cancer.

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The Canadian Dermatology Association recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher.

“The great news is that in Canada, we have a lot of (sunscreen) options,” Carroll said. “And if they’re Health Canada-approved, then they’re safe to use. And there are products that I would use on my family, my daughter and my friends.”

There are two main types of sunscreens — chemical and mineral — and they shield your skin from the sun in different ways, Torkos said.

Chemical sunscreen contains ingredients like octinoxate and oxybenzone, and when applied to the skin, these compounds absorb UV rays and convert them into heat, which is then released from the skin, she said.

Click to play video: 'Experts urge Canadians to use, re-apply sunscreen to stay safe during summer'
Experts urge Canadians to use, re-apply sunscreen to stay safe during summer

Although there are small studies showing links to cancer-causing agents in chemical sunscreens, the Canadian Dermatology Association still recommends that people use sunscreens to protect themselves from exposure to UV rays, which cause most skin cancers.

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“Instead of scrapping your sunscreen, go for a mineral sunscreen,” Torkos said, adding that it may be a better choice for people wanting a more natural product and one that is less harmful to the environment.

One of the main reasons someone may choose mineral sunscreen, she said, is that the product is generally considered to be less likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions, making it a suitable option for those with sensitive skin.

“There are two key ingredients, the zinc and titanium. The beauty of a mineral-based sunscreen is that it provides a physical barrier and it works right away. If you put a mineral sunscreen on, you get protection right away, whereas chemical sunscreens have to be applied 20 minutes before,” she said.

Vitamin D is also important

While the importance of sunscreen cannot be overstated, experts emphasize that getting vitamin D is also crucial.

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Torkos called this a “balancing act.” She said if you do want to get a blast of sunlight, make sure to do it in short intervals, especially on hot days, and try and stay out of the sun during peak hours, between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Click to play video: 'Healthy Living: Do you need to take a Vitamin D supplement?'
Healthy Living: Do you need to take a Vitamin D supplement?

“Go in the morning for a walk or after 3 p.m., when the sun is not quite as intense,” she said.

Carroll said that for those seeking to boost their vitamin D intake, there are safer routes.

“If it’s very important to you and you’re that committed to vitamin D, then you take an oral supplement every day,” she said.

“That’s the safest, most reliable way to get vitamin D.”

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