What Is the Natural 'Sunscreen' Trend and Is It Causing Skin Cancer?

As the sun shines through the summer months, protecting your skin from powerful and potentially harmful rays is extremely important. But, a new trend for "natural" sunscreen has led to warnings from The Skin Cancer Foundation.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (ADD), skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Current estimates suggest that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

In a speech in July, President Joe Biden revealed his history with melanoma—a type of skin cancer that an estimated 1 million Americans live with.

Despite the well-known health implications of sun exposure, online people are shunning traditional suncare products in favor of "natural" alternatives.

In a series of viral videos on TikTok, people have advocated replacing your usual SPF, and instead, they use oils, sand, and even mud in an attempt to protect their skin from the sun.

When Was SPF Sunscreen Invented?

In the early twentieth century, UV exposure was a medically-prescribed activity, often suggested by physicians as therapies for conditions like tuberculosis and rickets.

It wasn't until some years later that sunbathing became a popular pastime, often attributed to Coco Chanel after she accidentally got sunburnt on a cruise to Cannes in 1923.

While various chemists produced different products designed to protect skin from the sun, it wasn't until 1974 that Franz Greiter, Australian chemist and founder of Piz Buin, introduced the term 'sun protection factor' or SPF, used to determine the fraction of UVB light that will reach the skin over time.

The formula for SPF works by determining the level of protection over time. For example, if a person was to burn without sun protection for 5 minutes, a lotion with SPF 10 would protect the same person in the same exposure for 50 minutes.

Why Is SPF Sunscreen So Important?

From coconut oils to sesame oils, millions have viewed videos advocating ditching chemical sun care this season. But, The Skin Cancer Foundation spokesperson and dermatologist Ramzi Saad, MD, has warned against ditching traditional sun protection products.

Saad told Newsweek: "The majority of skin cancers are caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun, so taking steps to protect yourself from the sun's rays can decrease your risk of developing skin cancer. Daily sunscreen use is an important part of a complete sun protection strategy that includes seeking shade and covering up with UPF clothing, wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses.

"A product can't protect your skin if you don't use it because you don't like it. The most important thing is choosing a sunscreen that is labeled broad-spectrum, with an SPF of at least 15 for daily use and at least 30 for extended time outdoors."

Sand-covered legs on beach
A stock image of a woman's legs on the beach, covered in sand. Among a wave of "natural" sunscreen alternatives online, an expert dermatologist has warned against ditching traditional sunscreen in favor of oils, mud or even sand. boophotography/Getty Images

Does SPF Sunscreen Cause Cancer?

A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examined sunscreen ingredient absorption. Concluding the need for additional research to determine the effects of sunscreen ingredient absorption, the report did note the long-established fact that UV filters, otherwise known as chemical sunscreen ingredients, may be absorbed into the body to some degree and then naturally excreted in breast milk and urine.

However, FDA-approved sunscreen ingredients have been used for many years and there is no evidence that any of these elements are harmful to humans. There is, however, substantial evidence that sunscreen helps reduce skin cancer risk, as well as skin aging. The study's authors note that daily use of an SPF 15 or higher reduced the risk of squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by around 40 percent and melanoma by 50 percent.

"Given recent news reports about sunscreen, it's understandable that there is confusion about sun protection options," said Saad: "Some people may be concerned about certain ingredients, like oxybenzone, and their effect on either the environment or their own body. More research is needed on these topics, and the FDA and sunscreen manufacturers are working together to gather new data."

Oxybenzone is an organic compound used in sunscreen that absorbs UVA rays. However, reports have begun to question the safety of the ingredient in recent years after it was revealed that oxybenzone could be considered a hazardous eye irritant and an allergen for certain people.

But the FDA and The Skin Cancer Foundation urge the public to continue to use sunscreens, adding: "There are many sunscreens available that do not contain oxybenzone and many that do not contain any chemical ingredient.

"It is very possible to maintain a robust sun protection routine using these products," explained the dermatologist: "If you are worried about oxybenzone—or any other UV filter—I recommend choosing a sunscreen without it and sticking to mineral, or physical, sunscreens."

But it isn't just forgoing suncare altogether that is causing concern from experts, many self-declared skincare experts and influencers on social media are also advocating for using different products in lieu of traditional sunscreen.

Why Natural Sunscreens Are So Dangerous

In hundreds of videos across TikTok and Instagram, suggestions have circulated on using oils, mud, and even sand instead of sunscreen.

But Saad warns against this and told Newsweek: "Applying oil to your skin instead of sunscreen is very harmful. Depending on the main ingredient, oils provide either zero protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, or very low protection—tanning oils typically have an SPF of 8. Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF 15 or higher provide adequate sun protection."

Furthermore, oil may even attract and focus UV rays onto your skin: "Many people use oils to get a tan, rather than protect themselves from the sun," he said: "But any tan, whether you get it on the beach, in a tanning bed or through incidental exposure, represents skin damage. About 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and 86 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun."

While covering the skin in mud or sand may, theoretically, shield the skin from the sun's rays in some sense, Saad says the reality of this solution is impractical.

"No one will remain buried under the sand or coated in mud," he said: "A better alternative is incorporating protective clothing into your sun protection routine. Clothing is the first line of defense against skin cancer, so cover up with long-sleeved shirts and pants whenever possible."