On TikTok, the anti-sunscreen brigade is going strong, with influencers spreading misinformation and preying on fears. Their uneducated two cents sound a little like this: “Sunscreen causes cancer;” “Your skin needs vitamin D from the sun;” and “You can get sufficient SPF from a well-balanced diet.” That innately flawed line of thinking is straight-up wrong, and—understandably—makes dermatologists, particularly those who are on the frontlines of skin-care social media themselves, irate.
While in a perfect world, social media would be absent of such misinformation, that’s not reality. What can be is equipping yourself with knowledge to protect yourself and scroll safely.
Dermatologists take issue with sunscreen misinformation online
“As a dermatologist, I am increasingly frustrated and saddened by these conspiracy theories,” says Lindsey Zubritsky, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with more than 500,000 followers on Instagram and more than 1 million on TikTok.
In August, Dr. Zubritsky posted a video titled “Facts About Tanning That Will Alter Your Brain Chemistry” in which she explained that any sort of sun tan is evidence of DNA damage and that our skin only gets darker when it’s exposed to UV rays because it’s trying to protect itself against further harm. While most of the comments on the video supported her expert opinion, one person actually said, “The sun literally gives life to everything on Earth. Many sunscreens have been proven to cause cancer.”
But as any dermatologist—including Dr. Zubritsky—will tell you, this is categorically false. Especially because not wearing sunscreen puts you at a much higher risk for developing cancer than any SPF product on the market ever could (more on that below).
“I see, diagnose, and treat skin cancers—including deadly melanomas—on a daily basis,” says Dr. Zubritsky. She adds that almost every single skin cancer she’s diagnosed has been directly related to sun exposure, and empirical data parallels these anecdotal figures.
“As a dermatologist, I am increasingly frustrated and saddened by these conspiracy theories.”— Lindsey Zubritsky, MD
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and studies have shown that approximately 86 percent of melanomas could be attributed to sun exposure2, particularly the ultraviolet radiation from the sun. That number jumps up to 90 percent when talking about nonmelanoma skin cancers, which are more common. (For reference, genetic predisposition, radiation, and smoking are a few of the causes that make up that other 10 to 14 percent, says Dr. Zubritzky.)
Mamina Turegano, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with more than 300,000 followers on Instagram and upwards of 1 million on TikTok, similarly takes issue with sunscreen conspiracy theories and misinformation online. “It’s very concerning because the people who are saying these things don’t have experience treating patients or treating skin cancer,” says Dr. Turegano. “They’re not seeing the ramifications of not wearing sunscreen. When people who aren’t qualified say that sunscreen is ‘causing cancer’ …they’re causing more harm.”
Like Dr. Zubritsky, Dr. Turegano has taken it upon herself to combat the sunscreen misinformation floating around on social media. In May, she re-posted a video she’d made in 2022 in which she urged people not to be afraid of SPF. She also encouraged her followers to take additional sun protective measures, like wearing a large hat and using sunglasses. And someone still commented, “Some sunscreens are bad for you as well. Be careful what you use.”Sadly, this isn’t the only tidbit of misinformation on the internet. There are a few of these conspiracy theories in the zeitgeist—so let’s unpack them with three board-certified dermatologists.
SPF conspiracy theories that dermatologists are begging you to stop believing (and what’s actually true)
1. Chemical SPF causes cancer
SPF—the main ingredient in sunscreen—prevents cancer. It’s really as simple as that. Large bodies of scientific research1 have confirmed that it protects our skin from the sun’s harmful, cancer-causing UV rays, and definitively does not cause cancer.
“For those who claim that the chemicals in sunscreen itself are playing a role in causing skin cancers, I would counter that there is no medical evidence that sunscreen causes cancer,” says Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD, board-certified dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Yale.
So why are influencers saying that it does? For starters, there’s the widespread villification of chemicals. Over the past decade, the rise of clean beauty has caused people to question the health impacts of certain “toxic” ingredients, and that mindset has made its way into the sunscreen conversation.
A misguided overall fear of chemicals has made some consumers hesitant to use chemical sunscreen formulas (as opposed to mineral sunscreens) that contain blockers like avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, and oxybenzone that sink into your skin to absorb ultraviolet rays and convert them to heat. When a small 2019 study3 conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on 24 participants found that as these ingredients sink into our skin, they also sink into our bloodstream at levels higher than the threshold the agency set back in 2016, it understandably raised some alarm bells. However, the agency was quick to say, “These results do not mean that the ingredients are unsafe,” and urged people to continue to wear sunscreen.
“People are scared of the word ‘chemical,’ but there’s not enough evidence for the FDA or dermatologists to say that you can’t use chemical sunscreens now,” says Dr. Turegano.
“There is no medical evidence that sunscreen causes cancer.”—Deanne Mraz Robinson, MD
Additionally, a recent (voluntary) recall of sunscreens containing a cancer-causing contaminant called benzene helped fan the flames of misinformation. Importantly, though, “this contaminant is just that: a contaminant. It was not, and is not, meant to be in sunscreens,” says Dr. Zubritsky.
In other words, no one is putting benzene in sunscreen—it’s something that can develop in a formula during production (FWIW, it’s also been found as a contaminant in other beauty and grooming products, including deodorants, dry shampoos, and foot sprays). What’s more, benzene has only been linked to leukemia in high levels of exposure—which would require a whole lot more than the trace amounts that were found in the recalled sunscreen. And, oh yeah: The contaminated sunscreens were taken off the market as soon as the benzene was discovered.
And yet, anti-SPF wellness influencers have taken this information at face value, glossed over the facts, and wrongly concluded that “sunscreen causes cancer” without reading the fine print. As Dr. Turegano puts it, they’re essentially “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”—and, ironically, putting themselves at a higher risk of developing cancer by braving the sun unprotected.
Also? If you are one of those people who feels worry at the utterance of the word “chemical,” regardless of it not being connected to cancer-causing ingredients in SPF, that’s okay—you have other sun protective options. “If anyone is concerned with chemical-based SPFs, I would suggest that they swap over to a mineral SPF,” says Dr. Mraz Robinson. These types of formulas use mineral sun blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which sit on top of the skin (instead of being absorbed into it) and reflect UV rays, so there’s no concern about ingredients making their way into your bloodstream.
2. Direct sunlight is good for your skin.
Allow us to be unequivocal: There is no amount of direct sunlight that is good for your skin. “In medicine, there’s not a lot we can say 100 percent—but we know that the sun always increases risk of skin cancer and causes DNA damage,” says Dr. Turegano.
“Tanning is our body’s response to this damage—it creates more melanin as a protective measure to reduce further damage,” Dr. Zubritsky adds. Though there’s certainly something to be said about the confidence you get when you’re sun-kissed, dermatologists are emphatic that sun-soaking is just not worth the risk.
3. Sunscreen blocks your skin from getting vitamin D.
“The truth is that in order to get adequate vitamin D through sunlight, we only need a few minutes of exposure to the sun a few times a week,” says Dr. Zubritsky. She adds that there are multiple reasons why sunscreen doesn’t lead to a vitamin D deficiency.
“First, no one applies sunscreen exactly as directed—even dermatologists,” she says, nodding to the fact that you need an entire shot-glass worth of SPF to cover your whole body, and very few people are actually using that much or re-applying at the recommended two hours. “Second, sunscreen is not 100 percent protective against UV rays. An SPF of 30 only blocks around 97 percent of UV rays and allows about 3 percent to penetrate our skin.” Put simply, our skin is still able to absorb vitamin D when wearing sunscreen.
That said, if you are vitamin D deficient—or feel like you need an extra boost—there are ways to introduce the nutrient into your body without baking in the sun. “The majority of the population can maintain healthy vitamin D levels with a balanced diet of vitamin D-fortified foods [like egg yolks and salmon] as well as taking nutritional supplements,” Dr. Mraz Robinson.
4. You can get sufficient sun protection from your diet.
This is probably the trickiest SPF conspiracy theory because it almost makes sense. It’s true that there are foods that boost your internal SPF5, like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and spinach. What’s untrue, however, is that they provide enough sun protection in and of themselves. For instance, there are folks who claim that consuming raspberry seed oil is essentially the same as wearing sunscreen because the liquid is a great antioxidant.
While it’s true that raspberry seed oil offers some sun protection4, no food can take the place of a proper sunscreen. “None of these things are going to be efficient enough to replace sunscreen,” emphasizes Dr. Turegano. “We don’t have standardized numbers on this, so we can’t make recommendations on eating a certain amount. Even if there were, though, it wouldn’t be enough.”
How to discern between bona fide SPF advice and conspiracies
At the risk of oversimplifying, if an influencer is saying that you don’t need sun protection, that your body can produce it naturally, or that sunscreen causes cancer, it’s safe to say that’s a conspiracy theory.
Another good tip for knowing the difference between the truth and a lie is trusting dermatologists and not unaccredited skinfluencers—no matter how charming they are. “If you ever have any questions regarding SPF, speak to your dermatologist,” recommends Dr. Zubritsky. “We spend [so much time] training; understanding and reading medical literature and studies.”
If you don’t have access to a dermatologist, though, there’s still a wealth of credible information about sunscreen available online. Dr. Turegano and Dr. Zubritsky suggest consulting the American Academy of Dermatology, which has tons of evidence-based, digestible information. If you’re more academically inclined, you may also consider sifting through scientific articles on PubMed, where you can look up biomedical and life sciences literature written by actual experts.
And as for me—a well-being journalist who deals in fact, not pseudoscience—I’ll be telling these so-called “skinfluencers” to take their misinformed advice and shove it where the sun don’t shine.
- Sander M, Sander M, Burbidge T, Beecker J. The efficacy and safety of sunscreen use for the prevention of skin cancer. CMAJ. 2020 Dec 14;192(50):E1802-E1808. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.201085. PMID: 33318091; PMCID: PMC7759112.
- Parkin DM, Mesher D, Sasieni P. 13. Cancers attributable to solar (ultraviolet) radiation exposure in the UK in 2010. Br J Cancer. 2011 Dec 6;105 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):S66-9. doi: 10.1038/bjc.2011.486. PMID: 22158324; PMCID: PMC3252056.
- Matta MK, et al. Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients: A Randomized Clinical TrialExternal Link Disclaimer. JAMA. 2019;321(21):2082-2091.
- Ispiryan A, Viškelis J, Viškelis P. Red Raspberry (Rubus idaeus L.) Seed Oil: A Review. Plants (Basel). 2021 May 9;10(5):944. doi: 10.3390/plants10050944. PMID: 34065144; PMCID: PMC8151122.
- Granger C, Aladren S, Delgado J, Garre A, Trullas C, Gilaberte Y. Prospective Evaluation of the Efficacy of a Food Supplement in Increasing Photoprotection and Improving Selective Markers Related to Skin Photo-Ageing. Dermatol Ther (Heidelb). 2020 Feb;10(1):163-178. doi: 10.1007/s13555-019-00345-y. Epub 2019 Dec 4. PMID: 31797305; PMCID: PMC6994571.