Skin Cancer Risk versus Sunscreen Risk

Did you know that 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer daily? 

Skin cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the United States – it affects more people than all other cancers combined.  In fact, skin cancer will affect one in five Americans by the age of 70.

The cost of treating skin cancer costs the United States billions of dollars annually – $4.8 billion for nonmelanoma skin cancers and $3.3 billion for melanoma.

We’re regularly told that sunscreen should be applied to reduce our skin cancer risk – but are there any cancer risks associated with using sunscreen?

Skin Cancer Risk Factors

Skin cancer is most likely to occur in people who have certain risk factors.  These risk factors include:

  • Those with fair skin.  Those with fair skin have less melanin, which means that there is less built-in skin protection against the sun.  Those with blond hair and red hair are also likely to have less melanin
  • Those who have a history of sunburns.  Those who have had a history of blistering sunburns as a child are at an increased risk of skin cancer.  Unfortunately, having blistering sunburns as an adult also increases the risk.
  • Moles.  Those with abnormal moles or who have multiple moles have an increased risk of skin cancer.  Abnormal moles are more likely to become cancerous. Abnormal moles should be monitored for changes.
  • Those who have excessive sun exposure.  Regardless of skin coloring, those who spend excess time in the sun are more likely to develop skin cancer.  Having a tan means that the skin is injured from UV radiation.
  • Those who live in sunny or in high-altitude climates.  Those who live in sunnier climates are exposed to more UV radiation than those in cool climates.  Those in high-altitude climates are exposed to stronger UV radiation. Both increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Having a personal or family history of skin cancer.
  • Having a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS or taking immunosuppressant medications can increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
  • Those who have been exposed to radiation for medical treatments are at an increased risk for skin cancer.

Prevention of Skin Cancer

Sunscreen is only one piece of the puzzle.  In order to prevent skin cancer, skin-protective clothing should be worn.  Examples include lightweight long pants and shirts and a wide-brimmed hat, as well as sunglasses.

Spend time in the sun when the rays are weakest, before 10am and after 2pm.  If spending time in the sun during peak times, seek the shade.

Avoid tanning beds – use self-tanning products instead!

Wearing sunscreen is important – it is one of the best ways to prevent skin cancer.  Here are some sunscreen tips from the American Academy of Dermatology:

  • Pick a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher.  “Broad-spectrum” means that it protects against UVA and UVB rays, both of which can be damaging to the skin.
  • Use sunscreen when it is sunny – but also on cloudy days.
  • Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin; adults should apply about one ounce, which is approximately one-shot glass.
  • Reapply at least every two hours, after swimming, and after sweating. 
  • You should also apply sunscreen when spending time on the snow, as it can reflect and cause sun damage.

The Problem with Sunscreen…

There has been a lot of talk about sunscreen lately.  Many people are wondering if sunscreen is considered “safe.”

As a general rule, yes, sunscreen is safe to use.  According to the FDA, “Given the recognized public health benefits of sunscreen use, Americans should continue to use sunscreen and other sun-protective measures as this important rulemaking effort moves forward.”

The concern many people have is regarding the ingredients of certain sunscreens.  Currently, the FDA states that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are considered “generally recognized as safe and effective, or “GRASE.”  Other ingredients, PABA and tolamine salicylate, are not GRASE.

Various other ingredients that are commonly used in sunscreens are still being studied to determine if they are GRASE; they include ensulizole, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, oxybenzone, avobenzone.

It may not be necessary to stop using a sunscreen with the ingredients that are not GRASE, but using sunscreen containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide may be the safest until the FDA has reached a conclusion.

The Bottom Line…

Skin cancer is the most prevalent cancer in the United States.  Although there may be a genetic component, there is a lot that can be done to prevent it.  Choose to wear sunscreen and protect yourself.


Is sunscreen safe? (2019, February 21). Retrieved from

Prevent skin cancer. (n.d.). Retrieved July 8, 2019, from

Skin cancer – overview. (2019, February 20). Retrieved July 8, 2019, from

Skin cancer facts & statistics. (2019, May 31). Retrieved July 8, 2019, from

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