Sunscreen abuse for intentional sun exposure

Br J Dermatol. 2009 Nov:161 Suppl 3:40-5. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09448.x.


Skin cancer is caused by exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UV) and the sun is the main source of this radiation. Sunscreens were initially formulated to prevent sunburns; laboratory studies later revealed that in rodents they could reduce UV-induced skin cancer which resembles human squamous cell carcinoma. Three randomized trials in older adults showed the ability of sunscreens to moderately reduce the occurrence of solar keratoses and of squamous cell carcinoma. However, no effect was observed for basal cell carcinoma. There is no animal model for human melanoma and observational studies often found sunscreen use associated with a higher risk of nevus, melanoma and basal cell carcinoma. These higher risks were found when sun exposure appeared to be intentional, that is, with the desire to acquire a tan, a healthy look or simply to spend as long as possible in the sun with as much skin exposed as possible. Three randomized trials showed that sunscreen use by sun sensitive subjects engaging in intentional sun exposure could increase the duration of exposure without decreasing sunburn occurrence. This increased duration could be the reason why melanoma risk is increased when sunscreen is used. Hence, sunscreen abuse may extend sun exposure duration thus allowing sun exposure behaviours that would not be possible otherwise. Advertising for sunscreens and labeling of sunscreen bottles should inform consumers of the carcinogenic hazards associated with sunscreen abuse. It would be good to use a personal UV dosimeter which would give an alert when one's individual sunburn threshold in the absence of sunscreen use is nearing. The combination of sunscreen and a UV dosimeter may be an option for reducing the melanoma risk among sun worshippers.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Basal Cell / prevention & control
  • Consumer Product Safety
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Health Behavior
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Melanoma / prevention & control
  • Mice
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Skin Neoplasms / prevention & control*
  • Skin Pigmentation / radiation effects
  • Sunburn / prevention & control*
  • Sunburn / psychology
  • Sunlight / adverse effects*
  • Sunscreening Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Time Factors
  • Ultraviolet Rays / adverse effects*


  • Sunscreening Agents