Sunscreen Ingredients

Avobenzone, Menthyl anthranilate, Zinc oxide, and Oxybenzone are just a few of the ingredients that make up most sunscreens sold today, but unless you have a Ph.D. in Chemistry you probably have never heard of these substances. That is why we rely on scientists, dermatologists, and the FDA to make sure that the products we use are effective and safe. But recently there has been a flood of media reports circulating the internet stating that a form of vitamin A found in sunscreen can be carcinogenic when exposed to sun rays.

These claims are alarming, especially if you use sunscreen on a regular basis. But is sunscreen actually detrimental to your health? In this article we will help you separate fact from fiction and learn why scientific research and accredited dermatologists are saying that the ingredients in sunscreen do not cause skin cancer but rather protect and preserve your skin.

The Issue

Vitamin A is found in a variety of foods ranging from whole milk, eggs, and cheese to cantaloupe, carrots, and sweet potatoes. The vitamin can improve your vision, bone growth, and immune system. A form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate is also used in over 200 over-the-counter sunscreens because it is an antioxidant which helps reduce premature skin aging caused by UV rays.1

The Environmental Work Group (EWG), a non-profit public health organization, has recently caused a media buzz over the use of retinyl palmitate in sunscreen. In 2010 it published articles saying that retinyl palmitate actually does more harm than good to your skin, citing evidence that retinyl palmitate increases one’s risk of skin cancer.2

This claim is based on research by the National Toxicology Panel (NTP) which tested the effects of a retinyl palmitate cream on lab mice when exposed to UV rays. The study found that exposure to 9 minutes of sunlight a day for a year caused cancer in mice with retinyl palmitate.3 As a result, countless health blogs and news programs have begun warning people against using sunscreen.

Sunscreen Is Still Safe

But the research used by the EWG has come under intense scrutiny. Most dermatologists believe that retinyl palmitate’s harmful effects on lab mice do not produce the same effects on humans.

A 2010 article in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology examined the data produced by the NTP and concluded that the program’s research failed to demonstrate a positive correlation between retinyl palmitate and skin cancer. The article’s lead author, Dr. Steven Wang, director of dermatologic surgery at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, stated that “mice in the NTP study are highly susceptible to the effects of UV radiation and can develop skin cancer … within weeks of UV exposure, even in the absence of retinyl palmitate.”4 In short, retinyl palmitate was not necessarily the cause of cancer in the mice. The results are inconclusive because the mice were especially sensitive to UV radiation, more so than humans.

Another issue raised by EWG and the NTP’s study is the fact that under sunlight retinyl palmitate produces free radicals which can cause cancer. But in his article Dr. Wang points out that there are a number of antioxidants in sunscreen that work together to counteract the free radicals created by retinyl palmitate, thus effectively eliminating the risk of cancer from free radicals.5

Many others dermatologists agree that the NTP’s data is unreliable. The president of the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. Ronald Moy, says that retinyl palmitate is commonly used in a variety of topical and oral medications for skin diseases like acne and psoriasis, and “there is no published evidence to suggest that either [topical or oral forms of retinyl palmitate] increase the risk of skin cancer” in those patients.6

Sunscreen Protects Skin

Despite the sweeping statements against the use of retinyl palmitate in sunscreen, the dermatological community has not found the research behind these claims persuasive. So be careful of media hype that is not backed up with scientific research.

What this means for you is this: keep using sunscreen. The medical research has demonstrated that sunscreen can reduce your risk of skin cancer when properly applied.7 That is why dermatologists still recommend it.

Make sure that you use a water resistant, broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF value of 30 or higher, and reapply every two hours. Also, apply several layers of sunscreen on all exposed areas of your body. Following these steps will help you get the maximum benefit from your sunscreen and will help protect your skin.


1 EWG Asks FDA, NTP to Wind Up Study of Vitamin A In Sunscreen. (2010, May 28). Retrieved from Environmental Working Group:

2 Jesitus, J. (2011). Shedding new light. Dermatology Times, 22-25.

3 National Toxicology Program. (2011). NTP Technical Report on the Photococarcinogenesis Study of Retinoic Acid and Retinyl Palmitate. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

4 Wang, S., Dusza, S., & Lim, H. (2010). Safety of retinyl palmitate in sunscreens: a critical analysis. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, 903-906.

5 Ibid.

6 Sunscreens remain safe, effective form of sun protection. (2011, May 23). Retrieved from American Academy of Dermatology:

7 Robinson, J. K., & Michael, B. (2011). Prevention of Melanoma With Regular Sunscreen Use. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 343-450.