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Anti-SPF Conspiracy Theorists Are Everywhere But Do Their Claims Stack Up?

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Welcome to Sun Blocked, Refinery29’s global call to action to wake up to the serious dangers of tanning. No lectures or shaming, we promise. Instead, our goal is to arm you with the facts you need to protect your skin to the best of your ability, because there’s no such thing as safe sun.
Many of us have childhood memories of being chased by a parent wielding a bottle of factor 50 sunscreen. It’s long been drilled into us to safeguard our skin against UV exposure, which can cause sunburn, premature ageing and potentially deadly skin cancer. As youngsters, slathering ourselves in SPF often felt like a chore but thanks to innovation in skincare and an abundance of shiny new brands, sunscreen has been repositioned as a beauty and wellness must-have. 
The sun care products market is currently valued at $13.97 billion globally and is anticipated to grow to $19.65 billion by 2030. Wearing sunscreen on a daily basis (yes, even if it's cold and cloudy) is as essential as washing your face, and it’s arguably the best thing you can do for your skin and overall health. But for the many of us who are SPF converts, there are those with a totally different approach, who openly denounce sunscreen and its many proven benefits. 
On TikTok especially, the hashtag #toxicsunscreen has an enormous 11 billion views and counting. One prominent wellness influencer begins a video by saying, "The sun does not cause skin cancer," despite mountains of scientific evidence to the contrary. Basking in the sun as she speaks, the creator calls on people to "throw away" their "toxic sunscreen" and embrace the UV rays. It’s not the only video to spread such a worrying message. Alarmingly, clips of a similar nature often rack up thousands of shares and comments in agreement. 

Is oxybenzone in sunscreen toxic?

Much of the so-called 'toxic sunscreen' criticism centres on the safety of chemical UV filters, most notably the ingredient oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is mainly used in sunscreen to absorb UVB radiation (the UV rays responsible for sunburn, which are thought to increase the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer (cancer that slowly develops in the upper layers of skin)). In the EU, oxybenzone is an approved filter for cosmetic use. Despite this, the ingredient is often accused of being an endocrine disruptor (said to affect hormones in the body). A 2020 study showed that UV filters including oxybenzone were absorbed into the bloodstream when applied via sun cream. It concluded, however, that the findings do not suggest that individuals should refrain from using sunscreen. 
"Absorption does not indicate harm," confirms cosmetic chemist and licensed aesthetician Esther Oluwaseun. "To date, there is no evidence of systemic harm of oxybenzone, including as a potential endocrine disruptor," she says. It’s the dose that makes the poison. Many of those concerned about oxybenzone’s impact on health often cite tests performed on rats, in which the animals were fed the UV filter. Research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology has found that it would take a person applying sunscreen daily to 25% of their total body surface 277 years to reach the equivalent dose found in those rats. 
The conversation surrounding oxybenzone's potential to harm coral reefs has vilified it further. In 2021, Hawaii banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone, followed by the U.S. Virgin Islands and Key West, Florida among others. While more research is needed in this area (it is hard for scientists to recreate the conditions of a coral reef in a lab for testing), a 2022 study indicated that when sea anemones absorb oxybenzone, it is converted into a sunlight-activated toxin, causing them to die. However, consultant dermatologist Dr Anjali Mahto points out that we never apply these filters on their own as they are usually part of a formulation; meanwhile in a lab setting, only the specific chemical is tested. Climate change must also be factored into the equation when it comes to coral bleaching. 
More research is needed to determine a chemical filter’s true effects on the environment but the shunning of chemical sun protection has largely driven the rise in physical or mineral sunscreen formulas over chemical versions, including 'reef safe' sunscreens. These typically use minerals such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to physically block the sun from reaching the skin. (Chemical formulas absorb UV radiation and convert it into heat, where it is no longer damaging to the skin.) Happily, Dr Mahto says that mineral sunscreens are suitable for all skin types, particularly those with sensitive skin. However, they tend to be more difficult to rub into the skin and often leave behind a white cast on darker skin tones.

Is benzene safe in sunscreen? 

The anti-sunscreen fire has been further fuelled by widely publicised ingredient scandals and product recalls. Most notably in the US, a number of brands including Banana Boat, Neutrogena and Aveeno are reported to have recalled products where benzene was found in the final formula. Oluwaseun explains that benzene is a "contaminant" which is normally removed from the final product after it is used as a solvent in the production process of raw materials. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified benzene as carcinogenic to humans but it’s important to dig deeper into the nuance of this. "The evidence for benzene being harmful is primarily linked to occupational or industrial exposure in which workers were exposed to higher levels of benzene," Oluwaseun points out. "The risk, if any, is dependent on the exposure and there is no evidence to date that shows that benzene in skincare is leading to increased risk or harm at the levels present," she clarifies. 
Dr Michelle Wong, a qualified cosmetic scientist busting myths on social media, reiterates this in a recent video. She references independent laboratory Valisure's 2021 report on benzene, an ingredient which is often referenced by anti-sun care content creators. Wong, who has worked with benzene in a lab, calls the report "misleading". "Yes, benzene causes cancer and it has been found in sunscreen, but just like any other carcinogen, like UV, the amount you get makes a huge difference to the risk," she says. "With benzene the amount in sunscreen is really low." In the video, Wong references a Washington Post article that quotes Martyn Smith, a professor of toxicology at the University of California at Berkeley and an expert in the effects of benzene. Smith also suggests that the report is "scaring the public unnecessarily".

The rise of clean beauty and misinformation on TikTok

The fearmongering around certain sunscreen formulas is part of a wider movement that has been building momentum online for the past decade. "Narratives around clean beauty that boast 'natural is best' make it easy to fearmonger against chemicals," says Rachel Lee, insights and cultural analyst at The Digital Fairy. In reality, everything is a chemical — even water. Getting caught up in the clean beauty hype is how one might come across discourse that shuns some chemical sunscreen formulas. "Anti-sunscreen voices have been rallying around social media for years but in the past few months they have intensified," adds Lisa Payne, beauty director at trend forecasting agency Stylus. "We see the traction as a combination of concern for 'toxic' ingredients and product recalls, and social media algorithms that naturally reward more sensationalist content." 
TikTok, an unregulated platform, is the perfect breeding ground for misinformation, especially when you consider there is money to be made from higher engagement. "Attention-grabbing videos lead to more likes and shares, more watches and higher viewing figures," says Dr Rachael Molitor, a behavioural psychologist at Coventry University. "Misinformation spreads via the very nature of curiosity. People are curious to listen to something against the norm." Listening to a TikToker may be more exciting than listening to a credible source of information, suggests Molitor, as these videos are normally short and sharp, with engaging taglines and impactful statements. As a result, they have huge influence.
These fear tactics can be detrimental. According to Cancer Research UK, melanoma skin cancer is the fifth most common cancer in women in the UK. Skin cancer incidence rates increase steadily from age 20 to 24 in women, where diagnosis is 2.7 times higher than among men in this age group. When it comes to sunscreen, experts agree that it is imperative to protect your skin. "Getting sunburnt once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma — the type of skin cancer that can spread to other parts of the body and kill you," says GP and founder of MBE Wellness, Dr Thomas Matthew. "Any sun exposure, even when it's cloudy overhead and raining (the UV rays still come through, although not as intensely), increases the risk of skin cancer and other sun-related skin damage, for example wrinkles and solar keratoses [rough patches of skin caused by sun exposure]." Up to 80% of UV rays can penetrate cloud cover, according to a report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. There is even some research which suggests that cloudy days can actually increase UV radiation and subsequently skin damage.

Does wearing sunscreen prevent vitamin D absorption?

Anti-sunscreen arguments often raise the issue of vitamin D (a vital vitamin produced by the sun), particularly the notion that sunscreen prevents vitamin D from being absorbed by the body. One study suggests that for people with lighter skin, exposing unprotected skin to sunlight daily for just 10 to 15 minutes during the spring and summer months should provide adequate vitamin D to avoid deficiency all year round. The British Skin Foundation recommends 25 to 40 minutes of exposure for darker skin types.
Vitamin D is essential to regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body, as well as for the overall health of our bones, teeth and muscles. But your skin will still receive vitamin D if you're wearing sunscreen. "SPF 50 allows 2% of UVB rays through, SPF 30 allows 3% and SPF 15 allows 7%," confirms Dr Matthew. "From late April to September, even in the UK, most of us will get enough [vitamin D] through sun exposure despite wearing sunscreen and [having] a balanced diet. From late September through to April, it is advised that most people would benefit from a 10 mcg [vitamin D] supplement daily." Vitamin D is also found in a number of foods such as oily fish (including salmon, sardines, herring and mackerel), red meat, liver and egg yolk, all of which can boost your vitamin D levels. 

Can supplements provide sun protection? 

While vitamin D supplements may be crucial for some in the winter (a blood test can check your levels), the booming sunscreen supplement market is also offering an increasing number of options for protecting the skin from UV rays. Pills and gummies that claim to improve the skin’s ability to protect itself against the sun are becoming increasingly popular as we take an inside-out approach to health and beauty.
Payne says that young people are more curious and open to trying new things in the name of wellness and health especially. Lee reiterates how this has only been driven by the permacrisis: the troubling times we currently find ourselves in, experiencing one stressful world event after another. "These wellness solutions tap into a collective desire to feel some kind of control and offer the appealing promise to consumers of confidence, glow, radiance, inner peace and harmony," says Lee.
Dr Thivi Maruthappu, a dual-qualified dermatologist and nutritionist and the author of SkinFood: Your 4-Step Solution to Healthy, Happy Skin, is keen to point out that SPF takes priority over supplements for protecting the skin from UV rays. "It always starts with sunscreen," she says. Dr Maruthappu thinks supplements can, in some cases, be an "added extra" but argues that 95% of your sun protection should come from a dedicated SPF lotion. Scientific evidence to support the benefits of edible sunscreen is lacking and the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says that there is "no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen".
Worryingly, the supplement category in the UK is a murky one. The Department of Health regulates supplements like food not medicine, so formulas on the market have only been deemed safe for consumption and not always necessarily proven to work. It’s important to tread carefully. Many so-called sun-protective supplements contain antioxidant-rich ingredients like green tea, tomatoes or grape seed. Antioxidants do have value in skin health, particularly when applied topically, but whether their inclusion in supplements can protect the skin from the sun has not yet been proven. "Antioxidants help stop free radical damage, which stops the premature signs of ageing," Dr Maruthappu confirms. "They won’t stop you from burning."
The sun is there to be enjoyed but only ever safely. It is always important to question the ingredients we put on our skin via topicals and the ones we ingest via supplements. However, there’s a difference between healthy critical thinking and scaremongering, which can lead to seriously unhealthy choices such as sunbathing and avoiding sunscreen entirely. The evidence to suggest sunscreen is toxic is scarce but research that links unhealthy sun-seeking behaviours to life-threatening cancer is in abundance. The writing really is on the wall and scientists, cosmetic chemists and dermatologists agree: Wearing sunscreen is one of the best things you can do for your skin and overall health.

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