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What’s with social media’s growing anti-sunscreen movement?

With sunnier days starting to roll in, experts are warning against the worrying and unwarranted vilification of sunscreen taking place in digital spaces.

Hallelujah, summer is finally on the horizon.

As we look forward to long walks in the sun, days spent stretched out in the park, and afternoons by the sea, there’s one thing we should all be considering: purchasing some decent sunscreen.

Diligent use of SPF to protect our skin from the sun’s rays has risen in beauty circles in recent years, especially as cases of skin cancer rise and young people’s obsession with anti-ageing grows.

Global cancer data revealed that there were 325,000 new melanoma cases and 57,000 deaths due to melanoma in the year 2020. If this rate of disease growth continues, people diagnosed with melanoma could increase to 510,000 new cases and 96,000 deaths by 2040.

On an aesthetic level, even short bursts of intense UV exposure have been proven to accelerate ageing processes, resulting in the development of wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and dark spots.

Considering all of this, you’d think that health conscious and ageing-phobic Gen Z would be racing to obtain the best quality sunscreen they could find during their frequent trips to beauty supply stores.

Strangely, this isn’t the case.


During the last year, a worrying spell of misinformation about sunscreen has been making the rounds of TikTok and other social media platforms.

Wellness subgroups, prominent influencers, and beauty creators have been discouraging the use of SPF on the basis that it doesn’t work, is ‘chock-full of chemicals,’ and is even cancer causing.

These unsubstantiated claims have led viewers to resort to creating their own home-made versions of sunscreen using household staples, including mayonnaise, which is obviously ineffective at protecting skin from UV rays.

Dermatologists and medical experts are calling this new trend ‘dangerous’, attempting to clear up newly formed myths and reiterating years of science-backed facts about the benefits of sunscreen use.



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Debunking internet narratives

One of the first auspicious claims about sunscreen is that it prevents wearers from getting sufficient levels of vitamin D from the sun.

Studies have shown this is simply not true, given that sunscreen does not offer complete and total protection from the sun’s rays, which still reach the skin and do not prevent tanning completely.

Dermatologists say that the vitamin-D deficiency argument also falls flat due to most people inconsistently or improperly applying sunscreen in the first place and failing to reapply at regular intervals.

The second round of claims suggest that sunscreen increases the wearer’s risk of developing cancer.

Here, chemical sunscreens have borne the brunt of criticism due to their strange-sounding ingredients such as avobenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, and oxybenzone – the latter of which has been touted as cancer causing.

Experts at Harvard reiterate that there is no conclusive evidence that oxybenzone is causes cancer in humans. Claims about the chemical’s harmful impacts stem from studies completed on rats that were fed oxybenzone – and we are (hopefully) not eating our sunscreen.

Addressing these concerns, a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology states, ‘It would take an individual 277 years of sunscreen use to achieve the equivalent systemic dose that produced effects in these rat studies.’

Not to mention, this chemical is found in other commonly used household and beauty products, including plastics, under-eye cream, men’s deodorant, hairspray, and nail polish.

On the other hand, mineral sunscreens use two familiar ingredients that effectively protect against sun exposure: zinc oxide and titanium oxide.

A general familiarity with these names often leads consumers to believe that mineral sunscreens are the ‘cleaner’ option. In reality, science has yet to prove that there is anything worth worrying about with either of the two options.

There’s also an incredible amount of misinformation about sunscreens online – some even posted by health organisations – which claim that mineral sunscreens reflect UV light and chemical sunscreens absorb it. In fact, both absorb UV.

The deciding factor between mineral and chemical sunscreens really should be how they interact with your skin. In general, mineral sunscreens are gentler on those with sensitive skin types.

Why sun protection is important

Healthy-looking, glowing skin has always been sought after. But more than ever, impossible beauty standards are causing individuals to take more and more risks with their health.

Social media is fueling this fire, with unverified statements about the health and safety of certain products travelling across the digital sphere like wildfire.

In recent decades, rates of skin cancer have increased – not because we’ve started using sunscreen more – but because people tend to live longer and therefore spend more time exposed to the sun.

Still, people of all ages and ethnicities are at risk of developing skin cancer – including Black people, who are more likely to notice symptoms and signs of melanoma later on.

It’s important to remember that the likelihood of sunscreen resulting in health complications before unprotected sun exposure does is virtually zero unless people have allergies towards sunscreen ingredients.

In the end, social media is a place where we can learn helpful makeup and beauty tips – but it’s not the place our understanding of basic health concepts should begin and end.

It’s clear that fact-checking before we’re influenced by creators online, especially in health-related instances, should always be a priority.