There is no scientific consensus that the use of sunscreen reduces the absorption of vitamin D or that high levels of vitamin D reduce the risk of skin cancer
Following a recent viral video on TikTok and a video on YouTube, you asked us on our WhatsApp service (+34 666 908 353) whether it was true that using sunscreen increases the risk of getting skin cancer. The TikTok video is based on the idea that, since sunscreens absorb ultraviolet rays, they also reduce vitamin D levels that our body synthesises, which supposedly increases the risk of getting skin cancer. This claim is FALSE. The video is based on a review from 2016 that does not affirm this claim. In fact, there is no scientific consensus that the use of sunscreen reduces the absorption of vitamin D or that high levels of vitamin D reduce the risk of skin cancer.
Using sun protection products is a practice promoted by different scientific associations from all over the world, among them the Spanish Academy of Dermatology and Venerology, the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology and Spain’s Ministry of Health. What’s more, European legislation prohibits sunscreen from containing any carcinogenic ingredients.
Using sunscreen increases the risk of skin cancer
The creator of the viral video bases his claims on a review from 2016, published in Dermato-Endocrinology, a magazine specialised in dermatology that stopped being published in 2018. The article was published less than three weeks after the scientists submitted the document for review via a practice of the Taylor & Francis publishing group, the owners of the magazine, called “accelerated publication” – a practice that has been criticised by the scientific community.
In any case, the study does not advise against the use of sunscreen. Rather, it concludes that white people in middle latitudes “can meet their annual vitamin D requirements after exposing their face, arms and legs to the sun for approximately 15 minutes between two and three times a week” between May and October.
“Today, on 4 May, in Spain’s latitudes and with a clear sky, our normal everyday habits already allow us to synthesise the vitamin D levels we need”, explains José Aguilera, coordinator of the Spanish Photodermatology Group of the Spanish Academy of Dermatology and Venereology (AEDV). But this does not mean that it is recommendable to be exposed to the sun without putting on sunscreen. “From late March until practically the end of September, sun exposure without protection for just 20 to 25 minutes” is enough to develop erythema, the first level of sunburn, the expert points out.
Taking precautions related to sun exposure
Sun exposure is one of the main causes of skin cancer worldwide. At the same time, the sun is the main source of vitamin D, an element that helps us prevent diseases such as osteoporosis and others. To avoid the occurrence of melanomas, it is necessary to find a balance between sufficient sun exposure to synthesise adequate vitamin D levels, and avoiding sunburn. This vitamin can also be obtained from certain foods and, if necessary, through dietary supplements.
An efficient way of preventing melanoma is to use various photoprotection methods, such as avoiding peak sun hours, using sunscreen or wearing light, breathable clothing that covers the skin. Numerous scientific associations from all over the world – among them, the Spanish Academy of Dermatology and Venereology, the Spanish Society of Medicinal Oncology and Spain’s Ministry of Health – recommend adhering to this mixed approach.
Sunscreen and vitamin D absorption
Even though sunscreens absorb UV rays, two reviews from 2019 (1, 2) as well as the Skin Cancer Foundation suggest that sunscreens do not cause vitamin D deficiency in their users, as we explained, although they reflect on the lack of solid studies on products that have an elevated protection factor. Other studies, such as this one from 2021, show that there are still controversies on the subject.
The link between high levels of vitamin D and a lower risk of developing cancer is also unclear. Although scientific evidence has established links between the two factors, these associations have still not been confirmed, according to the cancer institutes of the United States and the United Kingdom, nor has any causal relationship between them been established.