The Strange And Sunburned World Of Anti-Sunscreen TikTok
A growing number of wellness influencers are convinced sunscreen is bad for you— here's what dermatologists have to say.
Experiencing an uncomfortable sunburn is usually enough motivation to lather yourself head-to-toe in sunblock the next time you hit the beach. For those who haven’t felt the burning, peeling, and stinging sensation of a bad burn, today’s emphasis on sun protection in the booming world of skin care might be enough warning to make sure you apply SPF—and reapply every two hours, as directed. However, while skin care TikTok is jam-packed with best sunscreen recommendations and application tips, there’s also another wellness community online pushing out a steady stream of content discouraging the use of SPF. Herein is the strange and sunburned world of anti-sunscreen TikTok.
Using sunscreen is a no-brainer to many, as it is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime and scientific evidence supports that sunscreen reduces the risk of developing both nonmelanoma and melanoma skin cancer. However, anti-sunscreen advocates online claim the risk is “toxic ingredients” in sunscreen that can get into your bloodstream. Their solutions to that perceived problem are not particularly practical, from forgoing sunscreen altogether to making your own sunscreen out of mayonnaise (both gross and ineffective as sun protection). Ironically, most of the creators posting content on TikTok telling people to avoid sunscreen because our ancestors hunted and gathered in the sun already look visibly burnt and in dire need of some after-sun care.
A common thread among the emerging anti-sunscreen videos popping up online seems to be that the sun is a “healing life force that shouldn’t be avoided”. Blair Murphy-Rose, a board-certified cosmetic and medical dermatologist at the Laser and Skin Surgery Center of New York, says that short amounts of sun exposure (10-15 minutes a day) can help to convert vitamin D to its active form in the body and elevate your mood, but it is very clear that over-exposure has negative effects on our skin, both medically and cosmetically. “All skin types should wear sunscreen and everyone should avoid jumping on these trends,” she says, noting that skin types that are more sun sensitive (with fairer skin, a history of burning easily, and a personal or family history of skin cancer) should take extra care.
When it comes to concerns around “toxins” in popular sunscreen brands, the voluntary recall of some Banana Boat sunscreen products earlier this year only added fuel to the fire. The brand stated that “some samples of the product contained trace levels of benzene”, which the CDC identifies as a carcinogen, and explained that, “benzene is not an ingredient in any Banana Boat products”. While other aerosol products like deodorants and dry shampoos have also recently been recalled for benzene contamination before, anti-sunscreen influencers have taken and run with the “toxic sunscreen” message. Many also claim that a popular sunscreen ingredient, oxybenzone, causes skin cancer and fear that other sunscreen ingredients are “hormone disrupters”.
Brendan Camp, a double board-certified dermatologist at MDCS Dermatology in Manhattan, says the increase in anti-sunscreen content now is due to a misinterpretation and regurgitation of legitimate research articles. “The influence of alternative health communities and personal anecdotes can propagate a message about sunscreen that is in direct opposition to that communicated by dermatologists for years,” he says. Camp also adds that, while The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) did release a statement regarding studies that showed that some ingredients in chemical sunscreens were absorbed into the bloodstream, the statement emphasized that the study authors and the FDA conclude that consumers should continue to use sunscreen to protect themselves from the sun.
Murphy-Rose says that those concerned about some sunscreen ingredients can always reach for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide options instead, also known as mineral sunscreens. “These provide excellent UV protection without evidence of systemic absorption,” she says. Whatever sunscreen you choose (not mayonnaise hopefully), Camp says the AAD recommends using sunscreens that offer “a minimum SPF 30, broad-spectrum coverage for UVA and UVB and are water resistant”. That’s for everyone—including people with melanated skin and anyone who may not be concerned about red, rashy burns. “Skin cancer can affect anyone with skin, so anyone with skin should use sun protection which includes sunscreen,” he says.
Among the sea of anti-sunblock discourse on TikTok there are crazy trends like “perineum sunning,” where you expose your private parts to the sun (not recommended by derms). But there are also skin care-focused creators, dermatologists, and cosmetic chemist trying to get out the good word about SPF. Mary Odusami, who works in product development and marketing for a Los Angeles skin care company and is also known on TikTok as @GlowingWithMary, says she’s “always talking about sunscreen” on her platform. “I think it's just devastating that so many people are still losing their lives to one of the most preventable cancers in the world,” she explains. “Wellness discourse is becoming so overpopulated by consumerism that isn't even really backed by science, just on trusting anyone that looks thin and conventionally beautiful.”
Odusami notices a trend of anti-sunscreen content originating from three types of people: “individuals that fear society in general”, “the hyper-natural ‘clean’ beauty people”, and “marginalized communities with a history of medical racism”. The third category of people is where she directs her sunscreen re-eduction content to. “When I was younger, I used only a tiny bit of sunscreen until an amazing dermatologist told me I was sunburned,” she says. “Now I am able to recognize what sunburn looks like on darker pigments but that alone shows how much people aren’t aware.” Historically even medical textbooks and training materials have lacked the diversity of images needed to teach how to properly diagnose skin conditions on melanated skin.
For creators like Odusami, there’s a large amount of sunscreen re-eduction currently underway to counter the current wave of concerns. She aims to add more context and nuance to sunscreen dialogue online, especially for her Black followers. “If I only saw a headline about benzene contamination, I too, might think all sunscreens are bad,” she says, “but there's more nuance to it and sunscreen is actually regulated by the FDA very strongly.”
Armed with the popular wellness trope of “removing toxins from the body” and a growing distrust in science (hello, anti-vaxxers), some wellness creators seem to have turned their (sunburned) backs on sunscreen in recent years but that doesn’t mean you should. As Camp puts it: “The risks outweigh the benefits of excessive or unprotected sun exposure.” Until the sunscreen misinformation stops, Odusami and other experts will continue to reapply their sunscreen every day online. “I love sunscreen,” Odusami says. “I carry three—a mist, a liquid, and a stick— at all times in my bag.”