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Sunscreen gives us a false sense of security

The importance of sunscreen has been emphasized by health campaigns worldwide. Its popularity is on the rise, with more people than ever relying on sunscreen to protect their skin

Sunscreen paradox 

However, recent findings suggest that this growing trust might be misplaced, hinting at what experts call the “sunscreen paradox.” This unsettling concept suggests that the rising use of sunscreen correlates with increasing melanoma and skin cancer rates.

Dr. Ivan Litvinov, Chair of the Dermatology Division at McGill University, together with a team of researchers including Dr. Sandra Peláez, Dr. Richie Jeremian, and Dr. Pingxing Xie, have published two studies that delve into the sunscreen paradox. 

Misguided belief 

A concerning revelation from the research is the way that sunscreen is viewed by the general public. “The problem is that people use sunscreen as a ‘permission slip’ to tan,” said Dr. Litvinov. “People think they are protected from skin cancer because they are using a product marketed to prevent a condition.” 

Many people assume that sunscreen application offers complete protection. The result is a false sense of security, the researchers noted.

Skin cancer

While sunscreen is essential, it is not a guaranteed way to protect yourself from skin cancer. 

“Sunscreen is important, but it is also the least effective way to protect your skin when compared to sun protective clothing, rash guards, and sun avoidance. People can and should enjoy the outdoors, but without getting a sun burn or a suntan,” said Dr. Litvinov.

Melanoma incidence

In the first study, the team investigated the melanoma incidence rates in the Atlantic provinces of Canada. 

Here, residents of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, despite being better informed about sun protection and more proactive in monitoring the UV index, showed higher melanoma incidence rates.

“Cutaneous melanoma (CM) is one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer, with a propensity for metastasis and poor prognosis,” wrote the study authors. 

Higher melanoma rates were attributed to increased sun exposure due to higher temperatures and a preference for outdoor activities.

“Within the Canadian population, several sociodemographic variables have been associated with sun exposure rates and subsequent CM development, including geographic latitude, climate, vegetation, genetic predisposition, Fitzpatrick skin phototype, socioeconomic status, occupation, and behavioral habits,” explained the researchers.

Alarming discovery

The second study, focused on the UK Biobank, unearthed a startling correlation: sunscreen use is linked with more than double the risk of skin cancer development. 

“These combined findings suggest a sunscreen paradox, whereby individuals with higher levels of sun exposure also tend to use more but not an adequate quantity of sunscreen or other sun-protection measures, providing a false sense of security,” explained Dr. Litvinov.

Study implications 

This growing body of evidence highlights a necessary shift in the global understanding and application of sun protection. We must adopt a comprehensive approach to sun safety, which includes awareness, the right sun-protective attire, and limited sun exposure.

The research is published in the journal Cancers.

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