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Is Sunscreen Dangerous? A Dermatologist Weighs In

Brandith Irwin, MD - Blogs
By Brandith Irwin, MDBoard-certified dermatologistAugust 29, 2017
From the WebMD Archives

It’s becoming more and more difficult to figure out what to believe about anything – even something as basic as sunscreen. This is partly because companies, and some individuals, have figured out how to use the power of suggestion and incomplete (or false) information, to direct our thought patterns in favor of, or against, certain products.

Some news stories that popped up this summer might lead you to believe that there’s a troubling new safety concern with sunscreen. The stories were centered around a single study published in a lesser-known journal (Chemosphere). Journalists took partial truths from the study and amplified them into more partial truths. The echo effect! And voila – unfounded hysteria!

What the study really said was that one ingredient (avobenzone) in some sunscreens could, when exposed to chlorine and light in a swimming pool, convert into a small amount of toxic chemical (which would then be diluted in a very large swimming pool). Note that this was not tested in an actual swimming pool. It was tested in a lab under conditions – NOT at all like the real world.

So, how should you respond?

  • If you are swimming in a chlorinated pool, avoid the ingredient avobenzone for now, until we have better science.
  • Don’t drink quarts of pool water. Swallowing a little bit will not be an issue.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time licking your skin in a chlorinated pool. Not something most of us do anyway.

What you shouldn’t do is abandon sunscreens altogether. Why?

  • They help protect you from the deadliest form of skin cancer – melanoma
  • They help protect from the other types of skin cancer, basal cell, and squamous cell carcinomas
  • They keep your skin youthful, unwrinkled, and help prevent sagging
  • They prevent brown spots and blotchiness
  • They prevent precancerous spots (actinic keratosis)

All of the above is according to verified science, from a multitude of research.

The bottom line is, safety is an issue for all of us. Is it safe to cross the street or drive your car? Not completely.  But we accept these risks. Is it safe to eat food? Yes, but not all food (sugar, soft drinks, pesticide-treated veggies, fried foods – probably not so much). The degree of risk we take all depends on the way we think about risks in our environment for ourselves, and our families.

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About the Author
Brandith Irwin, MD

Brandith Irwin, MD, is a board certified dermatologist and founder of Madison Skin & Laser Center in Seattle, Washington. She is also Co-Founder of SkinTour.com a website focused on accurate consumer education on nonsurgical, aesthetic procedures and products. Through her books and website, Dr. Irwin is dedicated to educating people about skin care in the context of a global conversation about beauty, self-esteem and inclusiveness.

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