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What Is the Connection between Sunscreen and Cancer?

Some people will acquire cancer as a result of their inherited genetic makeup, while others may acquire it as a result of certain chemicals they’ve been exposed to. It’s long been known that smoking cigarettes is bad for a person's health, for example, and the chemicals in them can cause cancer. Fried foods, too, can lead to a cancer diagnosis for some people with a hereditary risk of acquiring the disease, studies have shown. With this knowledge in hand, many people have become more careful about their health, with one example being the extra protection from skin cancer they try to obtain by using sunscreen. Even this product, however, may be contributing to their cancer risk, some researchers believe, because of the way the product breaks down in sunlight. Sunscreen and cancer, paradoxically, could be a dangerous combination.

The substance in nearly half of all sunscreens that is under scrutiny as a possible cancer-causing agent is retinyl palmitate, which is a vitamin A compound. Experiments conducted on mice to determine the relationship between sunscreen and cancer found that the breakdown of retinyl palmitate combined with sunlight can cause skin cancer. Doctors, however, are quick to point out that the results of a study performed on mice does not necessarily foretell the same results in humans because a mouse’s genetic vulnerability to skin cancer is different than a human’s.

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Dermatologists say people should continue using sunscreen because it is an important weapon in the defense against skin cancer, despite the claims by researchers that there is a link between sunscreen and cancer. On the other side of the sunscreen and cancer debate, researchers have said the breakdown of the vitamin A compound in sunscreens speeds up the development of skin lesions and tumors by slightly more than 20 percent in mice that are covered with the vitamin A-laced product, compared to mice wearing a sunscreen that did not contain vitamin A. Other forms of vitamin A are also used in cosmetics, but proponents of its use note the cosmetics are used mainly in an indoor environment, while others say this sunscreen and cancer relationship should be further investigated for health and safety reasons.

More than a million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year. Sunscreen application is still considered important skin cancer prevention. Preventing cancer means not only applying sunscreen, but also reapplying after water exposure or sweating, and using common sense, which means cutting down on sun exposure.

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