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The manufacturer of Banana Boat sunscreen recently recalled three batches of its product after an internal review found trace levels of benzene—a chemical that can cause cancer—in the propellant that sprays the sunscreen out of its can in some samples.
Despite public concern about this case, it’s important to protect your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. The two types of UV rays, UVA and UVB, damage the DNA in skin cells, producing changes that can lead to premature aging and skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer among people in the U.S. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, approximately one in five people will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Melanoma, a particularly aggressive skin cancer, occurs when pigment-producing cells become cancerous. The American Cancer Society estimates nearly 100,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2022, and more than 7,500 will die.
About 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers are caused by exposure to the sun’s UV rays. A broad-spectrum sunscreen or sunblock is your best protection from UV rays. Benzene is not an ingredient in sunscreen, and the FDA has not identified other cancer-causing components in these products.
Whether you choose sunscreen or sunblock, you’ll get protection against UV rays with a broad-spectrum, water-resistant product with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. The difference between sunblock and sunscreen is in the way the products’ active ingredients interact with your skin.
Sunblock or sunscreen? Both offer protection.
Sunblock: A physical barrier.
Sunblock creates a physical barrier on your skin that deflects the sun’s UV rays. Zinc oxide and titanium oxide, the active ingredients in sunblock, are not absorbed by the skin because their molecules are too large to penetrate the surface.
Sunblock can leave a white residue and tends to feel heavier on the skin. Some products come in tinted or matte versions to offer a more even application. The mineral-based ingredients in sunblock are gentler on the skin than sunscreen, so these products are good choice for babies, toddlers, and anyone with sensitivities.
Sunscreen: Chemical protection.
Sunscreen works like a sponge. The chemical ingredients are absorbed into the skin and then convert the sun’s UV rays to heat, rendering them safe. Sunscreen is easier to apply and can last longer than sunblock, so it’s a good choice for people who are actively swimming or sweating.
It’s important to remember to reapply sunscreen every two hours for continued protection because its benefits can wear off over time.
Some ingredients in sunscreen can be absorbed into the bloodstream, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But the FDA has not found that any of these ingredients are unsafe for use in sunscreens. If you are concerned about the ingredients in sunscreen, choose sunblock instead.
For additional protection from the sun, consider taking steps to further reduce your risk of getting skin cancer:
- Seek shade whenever possible.
- Wear long-sleeved clothing that covers all your skin.
- Choose garments with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 30 or greater for the best effect.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and wrap-around sunglasses.
Sunscreen and sunblock are your best resources to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer, and it’s important to understand how behaviors impact exposure, too.
Related reading: Learn more about how to stay safe in the sun.
Myths and misperceptions about sun protection.
Over the years, several misunderstandings about the sun and our skin have taken root. One of the most dangerous is the idea that “sunless” tanning is safer than sun exposure.
Indoor tanning and sun lights expose users to high levels of UV rays to darken the skin and can increase your risk of developing the most common types of skin cancer. One study found the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma was 58% higher and basal cell carcinoma 24% higher among people who used indoor tanning equipment.
Another pervasive myth is that people with more pigmentation in their skin are more protected from UV rays. This is false. Skin pigment does not provide UV protection. It is critical for people of all skin tones to wear sunscreen or sunblock to reduce the risk of developing skin cancer.
Another common misconception is that clouds offer protection from the sun. This is also false. The sun’s UV rays can penetrate many clouds. Plan to wear sunscreen or sunblock when you spend time outside, and especially when the the UV Index is 3 or above on the 11-point scale.
For more information about sunscreen and your skin cancer risk, make an appointment to talk with your doctor.