Does Sunscreen Really Prevent Skin Cancer? Studies Say Maybe Not

posted: 05/24/16
by: Mara Betsch
woman putting on sunscreen

If you are slathering on your sunscreen (which you absolutely should be doing), you may not be preventing skin cancer. That's right, even though this statement may go against everything you thought you knew about skin care, it's true.

After years of hearing that sunscreen can protect us from the sun, studies shows that its power is limited. In their latest annual report, the EWG took a really hard look at the research linking skin cancer and sunscreen use. They found that, especially for certain types of skin cancer (specifically basal cell carcinoma), sunscreen use doesn't appear to reduce your risk. Regular sunscreen use does, however, appear to lower the risk of squamous cell carcinoma, another form of skin cancer. But, unfortunately, the jury is still out on melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, with some studies showing sunscreen users are at an increased risk while others show that sunscreen can prevent against melanoma.

So, should you stop wearing sunscreen? Definitely not.

"The biggest problem with sunscreen is that people think it's more effective than it is," says Sonya Lunger, senior analyst at the EWG and one of the authors of this report. Research tells us that people who wear sunscreen more often are also more likely to get sunburns. Though that may sound counterintuitive, that's because those who wear sunscreen are typically more likely to be outside (and exposed to the sun's harmful rays). This is important, because when it comes to skin cancer, the number of sunburns a person has in their life can increase their chances for melanoma, as well as other types of skin cancer.

So how do you enjoy warm weather without putting your skin at risk? Cover up. "Get more protection by wearing a hat, sunglasses, and, of course, sunscreen," says Lunger. The biggest mistake people make with sunscreen is applying it properly -- it needs to be applied, in full, every two hours. The SPF you see on the bottle is the protection factor when it's used in the idealized situation. Unfortunately, few of us are diligent enough to apply sunscreen as often and as thoroughly as you'd need to in order to avoid a sunburn. Rash guards and other protective covering can help. A 2011 Australian study found that participants cut their risk of melanoma in half by age 50 when they applied SPF 15 sunscreen daily, wore hats and avoided the sun in other ways.

So invest in protective clothing -- just don't go out and buy SPF 100. According to Lunger, these products often come with misunderstanding and misuse. After SPF 50, the benefits of higher SPFs are slight at best. Consider this: Properly applied SPF 50 sunscreen blocks 98 percent of sunburn rays; SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. And it also needs to be applied every two hours.

Your best defense is protective clothing and a sunscreen you'll actually use. According to the latest report, 72 percent of the 750 sunscreens they tested offered inferior protection! Use the EWG's guide of more than 200 sunscreens as well as their children's sunscreen guide and moisturizer recommendations to ensure you're taking the best possible care of your skin.