Since the beginning of summer and following a few weeks of sunshine, we have received several emails and messages regarding an article that claims to ‘show’   that ‘malignant melanoma and all other skin cancers increased significantly with ubiquitous sunscreen use over a 30-year period’.   The article, quoting Elizabeth Plourde, has been shared on social media, leading to concerns amongst many people.

We asked our dermatologist, Dr Christian Aldridge, to set the record straight:

For the last 10 years various articles have been ‘published ‘ attributing an increase in Melanoma numbers to the use of sunscreens, in particular, connected  to various carcinogenic chemicals within them and also to the fact that sunscreens prolong the time you spend outdoors.  The naysayers believe that melanoma rates were much lower prior to the advent of sunscreen. Melanoma rates were lower many years ago but it’s disingenuous to blame the use of sunscreen and to ignore all the cultural and behavioural practices that have historically increased the risk of Melanoma.

Actually, skin cancers have always existed. There is evidence that Pharaohs suffered from skin cancer. While there has been an increase in the lifetime risk of developing invasive melanoma (in 1935, the risk was 1 in 500; it is now 1 in 25), this can be attributed to a number of factors, including longer lifespans (the sun damage that leads to skin cancers generally accumulates over time); the increased popularity of outdoor activities; clothing styles that leave more skin exposed; easy travel abroad; and the advent and popularity of tanning booths. Improved diagnostic techniques also allow doctors to detect more skin cancers at an early stage therefore increasing , statistically, the incidence of recorded melanoma.

Until the 1920s, a tan was not considered a desirable attribute. Fair, untanned skin indicated that a person did not have to work outdoors and enjoyed higher social standing. Fashionable people wore protective clothing, including hats, to avoid tanning. But in 1929, fashion and beauty magazines began promoting tans as signs of beauty, health, and affluence. The greater UV exposure that tanning entails, rather than the advent of commercial sunscreens, provides the most compelling explanation for the increase in skin cancers.

Current evidence points to the need to protect skin against the sun’s rays, regardless of skin type and ethnicity, and most dermatologists recommend using sunscreens that protect against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, in addition to following other protective measures to lower the risk of cancerous and precancerous lesions.

 

Dr Aldridge is the Chair of the All Wales National Specialist Advisory Group for Skin Cancer. He has previously been the Skin Cancer MDT Lead at Cwm Taf NHS Trust for a 4 year tenure and currently operates the Rapid-Access Skin Cancer Clinic at Prince Charles Hospital , Merthyr Tydfil, which incorporates a same-day operating list which excises those skin cancers identified in clinic without delay.