Sunscreen dubbed ‘snake oil’ by American lawyer

Here in the UK most parts have enjoyed a hot and sunny weekend. Yesterday, I spent a good portion of the day out in the sun, and there was a distinct whiff of sunscreen in the air. But it wasn’t coming from me: For some years now, I’ve been wary of using this form of sun protection, ever since I learned that their use is associated with an increased risk of malignant melanoma.

One of the theories put forward to explain this association concerns the fact that sunlight comes in two main forms: ultraviolet A (UVA) and UVB. UVB is essentially responsible for sunburn, and sunscreens are essentially designed to shield us from it. That’s all fine and well, except that sunscreens do not generally protect against UVA which is believed to promote the development of skin cancer including malignant melanoma. The result: that the enhanced sunlight exposure afforded to us by sunscreens increase our exposure to UVA and skin cancer.

This is one of the reason why when I wrote about the broad benefits of sunlight exposure on 4th April this year, I did not mention sunscreens when advising about the steps that nonetheless should be taken to avoid burning. At this time, my recommendation in this area if for us to seek shade and use suitable clothing when appropriate. This, of course, is particularly important for those who have fair skin.

The reason that I am writing this is because I noticed over the weekend a story about a class action suit that is underway in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The law firm Lerach Coughlin is accusing five leading manufacturers of sunscreen of misleading their customers regarding the supposed cancer-protective properties of their products. One of Lerach Coughlin’s lawyers, Samuel Rudman, is quoted in The Times as saying: Sunscreen is the snake oil of the 21st-century.

The Times article in which this quote appears looks at some of the issues associated with the development of UVA-blocking sunscreens. It also lists some products that claim to have UVA-quelling ability. Personally, I remain cautious about the use of such products: sunscreen use can reduce body levels of vitamin D [1] – a nutrient that (as I was keen to point out on 4th April) has broad cancer-protective properties.


1. Matsuoka LY, et al. Chronic sunscreen use decreases circulating concentrations of 25-hydroxyvitamin D. A preliminary study. Arch Dermatol. 1988;124(12):1802-4.

5 Responses to Sunscreen dubbed ‘snake oil’ by American lawyer

  1. Norma Laming 8 June 2007 at 9:46 pm #

    Hi Dr Briffa,

    I’m interested to read about the beneficial effects of sunlight – who knows how important this is in the Mediterranean diet? I have rheumatoid arthritis and I have read that both that and multiple sclerosis occur less frequently and the symptoms are more bearable nearer the equator.

    But.. there is a difference between being in the sun a bit every day over a life time and getting what you can in the summer. The problems with sunscreen often seem to be reported as being that people don’t use enough, thinking that to put it on once is ok, or that they don’t put enough on. That’s a problem with not following instructions, not with the sun screen.

    The only time I got a really good suntan (I don’t sunbathe) was when I went on swimming holidays. We covered ourselves in sun block (because your back is really exposed) and swam for about two hours non-stop each day and then usually walked a few kilometres, too, or sat in a boat. The big thing was that I didn’t burn and HAD NO FRECKLES. The bain of my life. I didn’t burn and it was great.

    best wishes,


  2. Tiggy 9 June 2007 at 1:21 am #

    I don’t know whether to spend time in the sun to get the Vitamin D or stay out of it to avoid ageing the skin!


  3. helen 11 June 2007 at 11:27 pm #

    I have always thought the whole sunscreen thing was a bit bogus but it wasn’t until I did more research on why we need the sunlight for our health that I began to believe it. I can’t wear the stuff at all or I come out in a rash – that can’t be good! I don’t think getting burnt is a good thing either & staying out playing in the hot sun or the hottest part of the day is not sensible either, but then neither is the paranoid fear that the sun will give you cancer. It has been proven that direct sun light can cut rates of prostate cancer in men because it gives them the vitamin D they need to protect not only their bones but their cell structures. As it benefits us all. My mum used to say she layed us in the sun for 15 minutes a day especially during winter it was just an accepted “old wives” bit of wisdom. As with many wisdoms of the past the “drug” culture we now live in has driven away common sense & natural healing cures.

  4. David Tucker 29 August 2007 at 6:11 pm #

    ..we’ve lived with the sun since time began
    ……sunscreen lotions for only a very short time
    ……during that time, cancer rates have soared.
    Sunscreen chemicals are often carcinogenic
    ….lack of vit D is cancer precursor
    “money, money, money”

  5. steve 12 December 2007 at 2:08 pm #

    i just make it easy on my skin by not staying out in the sun and keeping covered up.. I’d have to be pretty daft to sit on the beach allday and not expect damage as a result.

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