Can Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Cause Cancer?

Ask a dermatologist questions on the webDear Dr. Bailey,

I really like your skin care blog!

I’ve also noticed that many of the sunscreen products that you recommend contain zinc oxide. I have family members who have seen news reports that using sunscreen containing zinc oxide actually causes skin cancer when the skin is directly exposed to the sun.

How do I answer their concerns?

-Susan H.

Hello Susan,

Actually all of the sunscreen products that I recommend – that I use for my family and that I personally use – contain zinc oxide. I’m a big zinc oxide fan and I trust the protection that it provides. I also see the benefits of how well it reduces skin cancer risk every day in my dermatology practice; once patients begin using zinc oxide sunscreen, along with following my advice for sun protection, they get fewer skin cancers and precancerous growths.

Your question is great because this is a hot topic right now. There are a bunch of recent media discussions that have started over a new scientific study done on cells in a petri dish. The study suggests that nano-zinc oxide plus UVA is harmful. The study, about to be published in the Journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, is a study of vulnerable cells in a dish that are completely different than the cells in healthy human skin. As is sadly common, the media’s questions sound like conclusions and, unfortunately, it’s scaring people who want to do the right thing for their skin health.

The situation is that human lung cell in a petri dish were bathed in a solution with nano-zinc oxide and then exposed to UVA. The researchers found that more cells exposed to the nano-zinc oxide died compared with the cells not exposed. The scientific paper is not out yet, so I don’t have the details. However, the BIG point is that our skin is not like vulnerable cells in a petri dish; human skin has a complex structural barrier called the stratum corneum covering its living cells. Excellent scientific studies show that nano-zinc oxide in sunscreen doesn’t get into human skin. Plus, it’s a complex living system that’s nothing short of a miracle. There’s simply no comparison between the skin and the petri dish cells, so valid conclusions cannot be drawn.

Even the lead author, Dr. Yinfa Ma, is quoted by media sources (Science Daily, Huffington Post) as saying that you can’t conclude that sunscreen applied to your skin is bad. He cautions people from drawing conclusions and he recommends the use of sunscreen. He says:

More extensive study is still needed. This is just the first step. I still would advise people to wear sunscreen. Sunscreen is better than no protection at all.

So Susan, add to this all the data we have showing that sunscreen use actually prevents skin cancer IF it’s broad spectrum, and I think we know what to do:

  1. Wear our broad spectrum zinc oxide sunscreen and know that we are taking good care of our skin.
  2. Cover as much skin as possible with clothing and shade our face with a broad brimmed hat when outdoors because wearing broad spectrum sunscreen does not mean it’s safe to run around in the sun exposing our skin to UV rays.
  3. Seek out shade when possible.

I would add a few more recommendations:

  1. Eat lots of fresh fruits and veggies to load the skin from the inside out with free radical fighting antioxidants.
  2. Apply antioxidant rich skin care products to the outside of your skin. I think the best topical antioxidants for fighting skin cancer are green tea (Replenix CF or Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy – Replenix Power of Three Cream being the best products for this and have the highest level of green tea antioxidants that I know of) and vitamin C if your skin can handle the acid pH. Professional Cell Repair Serum is the best of the best vitamin C products, again in my opinion.

Click here for the trustworthy zinc oxide sunscreens that I rely on for my skin cancer patients, my family and for myself.  These products include some made with non-nano zinc and organic ingredients for people wanting “natural skin care” options.

dermatologist recommended natural broadspectrum sunscreen

Click here for the two Replenix products (that I’ve seen help my skin cancer patients reduce the number of skin cancers their skin develops) and Professional Cell Repair Serum, the vitamin C product that I use in my dermatology practice.

Green Tea Antioxidant Skin Therapy

I hope that helps you sort out the confusion surrounding sunscreens and your skin’s health.

Warm Regards,

Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist

If you have questions about skin care or skin health, please send them to me using the Contact Dr. Bailey button at the top of the page.

Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only.




J Clin Oncol. 2011 Jan 20;29(3):257-63. Epub 2010 Dec 6.
Reduced melanoma after regular sunscreen use: randomized trial follow-up.
Green AC, Williams GM, Logan V, Strutton GM.

Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2009;22(5):266-75. Epub 2009 Aug 18.
Stratum corneum is an effective barrier to TiO2 and ZnO nanoparticle percutaneous absorption.
Filipe P, Silva JN, Silva R, Cirne de Castro JL, Marques Gomes M, Alves LC, Santus R, Pinheiro T.

J Biomed Opt. 2008 Nov-Dec;13(6):064031.
Imaging of zinc oxide nanoparticle penetration in human skin in vitro and in vivo.
Zvyagin AV, Zhao X, Gierden A, Sanchez W, Ross JA, Roberts MS.

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11 Responses to “Can Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Cause Cancer?”

  1. Brenda June 12, 2012 at 6:12 am #

    Is the all natural, baby sunscreen ok for use on dogs? I’ve been told to get an all natural with zinc. Please advise as I’ve been unable to find anything in stores.

  2. Cynthia Bailey MD June 12, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    Hello Brenda,
    I am a dog lover but not a vet and so can not comment on what is and is not safe. You can copy and paste the ingredients and take them into the vet for their opinion.

  3. Brenda June 12, 2012 at 8:34 am #

    Than you, will do.

  4. Tiffany June 12, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    Dr Bailey, can you give me your opinion on the safety of powdered mineral sunscreen? I have been using a powdered sunscreen/makeup that is applied with a brush and love it, but have, coincidentally, seen other recent articles about the dangers of using powdered mineral products (due to possible inhalation, lung cancer risk, etc). I liked the idea of having both some sunscreen for routine in-out of the car, office, etc (mine is spf 30) and the coverage/oil absorption. Thanks very much for any thoughts on this!

  5. Cynthia Bailey MD June 13, 2012 at 7:48 am #

    This is a good question Tiffany. I actually recommend avoiding powdered sunscreens and the Environmental Working Group and FDA do too. They can augment sun protection but they are no substitute for the protection you get from a liquid/cream product applied to the skin. That’s because protection is dose dependent and it’s very difficult to know if you put enough powder on to get the spf out of a product. Plus, there is concern about inhalation and the impact on the lungs. Especially with the nano particle products. The same issues apply to spray products which is why we don’t recommend those either.

    I really like my mineral makeup, which is not a nano product. It is just mineral dust and there has not been concern with pulmonary diseases and mineral makeup. Because it is mineral dust it functions in the same way that mineral sunscreen does by blocking the passage of UV rays into your skin. It looks great too because it’s triple milled for a light, natural finish on the skin that never leaves you looking powdered. I have patients put it over their sunscreen and I can tell you the protection is fantastic! I like the Baked or Pressed for this purpose the best. It’s also really well priced and will last a long time. It can be used exactly the same way as a powdered sunscreen and be reapplied through the day – but always over a base coat of a liquid/cream sunscreen.

  6. Joyce J. June 13, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    Hi Dr. Bailey,

    What is your thought on peptides as part of the anti-aging routine during the daytime for people that cannot tolerate the acid ph in Vitamin C serums while on a nightly Renova routine?

    Just wondering whether daytime application of peptides would work with your antioxidant skin kit.



  7. Cynthia Bailey MD June 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm #

    Peptides are a non-irritating option for anti-aging skin care that will not increase sun sensensitivity. The science on their efficacy is weaker than with tretinoin, glycolic acid and vitamin C. They do work with the anti-oxidant kit. In fact, CRS has the peptide TBF-beta-1 so there already is a peptide with anti-aging benefit in the kit!

  8. Angie C June 24, 2012 at 6:28 am #

    Dr. Bailey,
    Is it possible to be allergic to zinc oxide? I have tried so many different sunscreens (most recently being the EltaMD) and still have the same irritation reaction after using a few days. Do you know of any product I could try? I realize the importance of sunscreen and am really hoping for something that will work.

  9. Angie C June 24, 2012 at 6:30 am #

    P.S. I am talking about sunscreen for my face only. Dont have any problems with using any brand of sunscreen on my body. I do have rosacea and very sensitive skin.

  10. Cynthia Bailey MD June 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Hello Angie,
    I’ve never heard of or seen anyone allergic to zinc oxide. There are so many other ingredients in sunscreens, including often chemical sunscreen agents like octinoxate. I would consider those other ingredients more likely to be the problem. For my sensitive skin patients I have them use pure zinc oxide products.

  11. Angie C June 25, 2012 at 6:38 am #

    Can you recommend some brands that are the pure zinc oxide? Thank you!!