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Sun Cream Protection or Risk? Everything You Need to Know About Sun Creams

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Have you ever wondered how effective are sun creams? 

This is the question we ask ourselves every year at the beginning of summer.

While dermatologists advise sun-hungry people to apply sunscreen several times a day to minimize the risk of skin cancer, toxicologists sound the alarm for it.

Sunlight — both vital and risk factor

After a long, dark winter and a cloudy spring, the longed-for summer sun is like a balm for body, mind, and soul. 

We would love to soak up the energy-giver for hours and bathe in its warming rays. But as important as sunlight is for our general well-being and especially for vitamin D production, too long direct UV radiation may lead to cell damage and skin cancer.

A distinction is made between two types of potentially damaging UV rays: UVA and UVB. 

uva uvb rays

The UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and can affect more cells than UVB rays. UVB rays, on the other hand, remain on the surface of the skin and can cause sunburn, but they also help activate vitamin D, which in turn is believed to protect our skin from excessive sun exposure.

In order to absorb sufficient vitamin D from the sun with as little risk as possible, dermatologists recommend applying a cream, sun milk, or sun spray with a high sun protection factor, especially for light skin types. 

But this is where the insanity of the sun protection discussion takes its course.

Sun cream — no protection against carcinogenic UVA rays

Since the beginning of the marketing of sun protection products, the skin cancer rate has been increasing. 

How can this be possible? You may wonder.

According to studies, it is not UVB rays that are responsible for skin cancer, but UVA rays that penetrate deep into the skin layers.

Tests confirm that three out of five sun creams do not provide adequate protection against potentially carcinogenic UVA rays.

So while manufacturers have been marketing sun creams with UVB blockers for decades and consumers feel safe, UVA rays cause long-term damage.

For instance, the vitamin D level in the blood may drop by 99% because most sunscreens block UVB rays. Vitamin D deficiency, in turn, is said to promote certain types of cancer.

Conventional sun creams and sprays are not only questionable in terms of their protection against UV radiation. Just as scandalous is the claim that certain ingredients of these “sunscreens” are themselves suspected of causing cancer!

Ingredients as potential carcinogens

The majority of commercially available sunscreen products contain ingredients that are harmful to health. 

This was the conclusion reached by the Sunscreen Guide published by the U.S. Environmental Working Group (EWG), which states that only 25% of the 800 products tested effectively protect the skin from harmful UV rays and also be free of potentially dangerous ingredients.


According to the guidelines of the Sunscreen Guide, sunscreen products that are free of oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate are considered safe. Both substances act as irritants, allergens, hormone disrupters, or carcinogens. 

Thus, toxicologists warn against the light protection filter oxybenzone, which can lead to cell damage and skin cancer. 

In addition, the UV filter substances titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are increasingly being targeted by cancer research.

The risk from sunscreen, cell-damaging UV blockers

The EWG recommends sun creams with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide because these physical UV-blockers, in contrast to chemical light filters, are not supposed to penetrate the skin’s protective layer.

More recent studies give reason to believe that these substances can indeed disturb cell growth. The reason for the damage is said to be the nanoparticles contained in these sun creams. 

The tiny particles, whose size is like a football to the earth, are said to break through the lipid barrier and penetrate the deep skin layers as well as the bloodstream. 

Ian Illuminato of Friends of the Earth, an international coalition of environmental organizations, points to studies that show nanoparticulate titanium dioxide damages DNA and is considered a contributory cause of Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy, and autism. 

Nanoparticulate zinc oxide is, in turn, suspected of killing intestinal cells and brain stem cells. Besides, both substances appear to cross the placental barrier of pregnant women unhindered and thus pose a potential danger to the development of babies in the womb.

Until now, nanoparticles have been contained in sunscreens without an adequate declaration. Since 11 July 2013, this has changed. 

The Cosmetics Regulation came into force, according to which nanoparticles on cosmetic products must be declared. The term “nano” must then appear in brackets after the respective substance.

Zinc oxide sun cream: danger for the DNA?

Researchers at the Missouri University of Science and Technology recently published findings on the effects of zinc oxide on human cells. 

The substance contained in many particularly natural cosmetic sun creams is said to trigger a chemical reaction when it comes into contact with UV radiation in which unstable molecules are formed. According to Dr. Yinfa Ma, head of the study, these free radicals form compounds with other molecules and attack the DNA.

However, for the studies — which only took place in the test tube — not skin cells but lung cells were exposed to long-wave UV light.

After three hours, half of the cells died, allegedly due to the reaction of zinc oxide with sunlight. After twelve hours, 90% of the cells were destroyed.

This is not particularly surprising since lung cells would not, in the least, be made or suitable for being exposed to sunlight. Lung cells are located deep inside the organism — and not on the surface like skin cells. 

Many people also know from experience that the use of sun creams containing zinc oxide from health food stores does NOT kill 90% of the skin cells — even if you have been on the beach all day with such a sun cream.

Professor Mas’s study also used nanoparticles smaller than 100 nm, i.e., not those recommended for healthy sunscreens and much larger (over 330 nm).

A healthy sun cream also contains antioxidants, such as vitamin E oil, so that any free radicals that are formed could be eliminated right on the spot.

Moderate sunbathing — natural protection without risk

Sunlight activates the production of vital vitamin D and the happiness hormone, serotonin. So it cannot be an alternative to avoid the sun because of dubious sun creams. No less serious than the health risks caused by too much sunlight is a vitamin D deficiency caused by too little sun.

Too little vitamin D in the body is associated with 16 different types of cancer, as well as with autoimmune diseases, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, and dementia. 

Instead of frying in the summer sun for hours on end, just 10 to 15 minutes of direct sunlight on bare skin (without sunscreen) is enough to cover our daily vitamin D requirements without sunburn. 


If you are exposed to the sun for long periods, protect yourself with appropriate clothing such as sun hats, especially at lunch and on hot summer days.

When choosing a sunscreen, the annually updated EWG recommendations can be helpful (EWG’s Skin Deep). Prefer natural products that mostly avoid chemical additives.

Also, you must know that a sunscreen with SPF 50 completely blocks the useful, only latently harmful UVB rays, but not the most harmful UVA rays!

spf factors

It’s ideal if you buy your sun cream in a natural product store or simply make it yourself.

In this case, you choose the ingredients and decide what may and may not be included in the sun cream. 


  • published on May 7, 2012, by Andrew Careaga
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To our readers

The information from this article is not entirely medical-grade level and should not be treated as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor. No one will know you, your medical history, the meds you’ve taken or are taking, your sensitivities and drug interactions, allergic reactions, and your lifestyle, but your doctor does.

Virginia Decker
Virginia Decker
Virginia Decker is one of the most experienced members of our team. With over 20 years of practice in the skincare field, she always shares the best and most transparent information to our community.
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