Worshipped by ancient peoples and present-day beachgoers alike, the sun conjured both awe and fear among humans long before the dawn of the Instagram influencer.
Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that sunscreen has become a contentious topic in the social media era. But the algorithms certainly aren’t helping.
For years, a faction of wellness influencers has advocated that their followers avoid sunscreen altogether. In the past year, anti-sunscreen voices online have been intensified by a combination of concerns about product recall news and social media algorithms that reward sensationalist, emotion-driven content and have also boosted claims about topics such as vaccines. As a result, sunscreen brands and a new contingent of science-focused influencers are fighting back.
“In the last year, there has been more anti-sunscreen social content than ever,” said Esther Olu, a skinfluencer, cosmetic chemist and licensed esthetician who tracks sunscreen conversations online and posts frequently about the topic. Her tweets, TikTok videos and Instagram posts address a range of sunscreen claims she finds on social media, imploring followers not to attempt DIY sunscreen and disputing claims by influencers that coconut oil alone is an effective sunscreen or that sunscreen causes vitamin D deficiency.
Sunscreen concerns on social media have also increased after recalls due to contamination with benzene, which the CDC identifies as a carcinogen. Earlier this month, Banana Boat voluntarily recalled sunscreen over benzene contamination. That followed a large spate of recalls in 2021 after products were found to be contaminated with benzene; brands included were Coppertone, Neutrogena and Aveeno.
Benzene contamination recalls are not limited to sunscreen, due to the fact that the contamination occurs not from sunscreen ingredients, but as “a by–product of manufacturing aerosol sprays,” said Dr. Amy Forman Taub, a dermatologist with Advanced Dermatology. Other recalls for benzene contamination in recent years have occurred with aerosol deodorants, dry shampoos, athlete’s foot treatments and bug sprays.
Nonetheless, the benzene recalls have become “fuel for anti-sunscreen people” specifically, said Olu.
Following the recalls, “I did have a lot of people asking, ‘What should I do? Should I not wear it? Should I just wear a hat?'” said Dr. Liia Ramachandra, founder of makeup and skin-care brand EpiLynx, which offers mineral sunscreens. “We’re focusing a lot on science” in messaging to consumers, she said, and “doing a lot of education about the importance of wearing sunblock all the time during the year.”
There have also been concerns about several common chemical ingredients in sunscreen. One of the most prominent ones to come under scrutiny is oxybenzone. According to Forman Taub, a claim that oxybenzone causes skin cancer is “definitely false.” She said that concerns come from some studies related to endocrine disruption rather than cancer. “A 2021 report from the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety also noted that, while there are concerns that oxybenzone may disrupt hormones, that data is ‘not conclusive.’ It did say, however, that products should only be considered safe if oxybenzone makes up no more than 2.2% of their formula; U.S. sunscreens can contain up to 6% oxybenzone.”
According to an August 9 report by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, more research needs to be done into chemical sunscreen ingredients including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate. It stated, “To date, no levels of toxic effects have been found in humans that outweigh the benefits of these filters in reducing overexposure to UV rays.” But, it said, “the authors all recognize substantial data gaps.”
As a result of this and other studies, “two camps started within the last five or so years: the mineral sunscreen people and the chemical sunscreen people,” said Alison Haljun, co-founder of Gen-Z skin-care brand Kinship. The brand’s Self Reflect mineral sunscreen, which uses zinc as its active ingredient, is now its top-selling product.
But another group goes far beyond these two camps. These are the “people who are religiously like, ‘I don’t want sunscreen; I don’t wear sunscreen,’” said Haljun.
Wellness influencers in this latter faction have been reaching millions of social media users with advice to cut back on or eschew sunscreen. Paul Saladino, an influencer who goes by the moniker “Carnivore MD” and is known for advocating a meat and fruit diet on Joe Rogan’s podcast (483,000 Instagram followers), posted a Reels and TikTok video in July 2022 stating, “I don’t use any sunscreen right now.” He told viewers they should “worry about skin cancer” if they “use conventional sunscreens” with chemical ingredients including oxybenzone.
His video and other influencers’ anti-sunscreen posts also include statements linking “seed oils” with disease, another common topic for wellness influencers. A June 2020 post shared by an Instagram wellness influencer who goes by Natasha M. (@simpleorganix; 35,700 Instagram followers) says that the sun is a “life force,” and states, “Your body is just cooking toxins, pesticides, synthetic ingredients, seed oils and heavy metals.”
The theme that going out in the sun sans sunscreen is “healthy” and a source of vitamin D has been common. “Natural living” influencer Essentially Erin (139,000 Instagram followers) shared a post on her Instagram account in June saying, “Does the sun cause cancer or does repeatedly spraying and lathering up in toxic chemicals and bad ingredients and then spending hours in the sun cause cancer?” She adds, “Is the sun really the bad guy or is it villanized because it is healing and free?” The post goes on to recommend getting a “base tan” and using a “non-toxic sunscreen” as “minimally as possible.” The U.S. Surgeon General has stated a “base tan” only has an SPF of about 3.
Some clean beauty brands have also gotten on board with sunscreen skepticism. Skin-care brand Primally Pure, for example, posted on its Instagram account on June 30 that “maybe excessive sunscreen use isn’t the answer” to the rise of skin cancer. It recommended zinc sunscreen for “extended time in the sun” and doesn’t sell a sunscreen.
The obsession with the sun as a “healing” force and source of vitamin D has also led to the extreme trend of “perineum sunning” that has been promoted by influencers on TikTok and Instagram, which doctors say is “absolutely not” safe.
Many skin-care and sunscreen brands have increasingly begun to engage in “myth-busting” posts to combat claims on social media. For example, Black Girl Sunscreen has an entire “myth-busting” Stories section on Instagram, while Supergoop’s blog content disputes common claims around mineral-versus-chemical sunscreen. Bliss, meanwhile, had a “hack or fiction” section on its Instagram Stories to dispel claims about sunscreen.
Brands have also tapped into the claim-debunking skinfluencer crowd as allies. Cosmetic chemist and influencer Michelle Wong (386,000 Instagram followers) frequently disputes social media claims about sunscreen on her blog Lab Muffin Beauty and social media accounts. She has become so focused on sharing sunscreen content that her Twitter name currently says, “professional SPF video maker.”
Wong has done sponsored content for sunscreens by brands including Isntree and Cetaphil. She also participated in an online “Sunscreen E-Summit” sponsored by Deciem, Neutrogena and Croda geared toward “standing up to misinformation in the cosmetics industry.”
Tiara Willis (186,000 Instagram followers), a skinfluencer and professional esthetician who frequently posts sunscreen content, has done sponsored sunscreen content for CeraVe. Known for the “two-finger rule” of measuring enough sunscreen to apply to the face, she said, “Since 2018, I’ve been taking sunscreen a lot more seriously, especially in the past two years, really highlighting why it’s crucial, specifically for Black skin. There’s a huge misconception that Black people don’t need sunscreen, that our melanin is enough.”
Anti-sunscreen sentiment is not brand new. Back in 2014, Lululemon, for example, received backlash when its bags stated that sunscreen absorbed into the skin “might be worse for you than sunshine.”
Before Instagram took off as a platform, Wong first began seeing anti-sunscreen content on on Facebook.
But among social media platforms with anti-sunscreen content, “TikTok is one of the biggest” platforms for spreading sunscreen misinformation, said Willis. This is due to the shock-driven nature of the algorithm, she and other influencers said.
“On any social media platform, any outrage or fear spreads faster than rational, calm, fact-based information. TikTok is just a supercharged version of that. But anything that’s kind of scary gets shared,” said Wong.
“Unfortunately, we have seen a huge rise in the [number] of consumers that are influenced by beauty TikTokers,” said Forman Taub. In a recent study by Advanced Dermatology, 28% of women and 39% of men said they “rarely or never” wear sunscreen. While this is often due to a lack of interest in sunscreen or awareness, some are being influenced by online anti-sunscreen content, she continued.
But that still hasn’t dampened sales. NPD Group found that the sunscreen category grew by 51% year-over-year in the second quarter of 2022 as sunscreen has become a skin-care staple; a wide range of new product launches have hit the market.
This is true for the clean beauty community, as well. Elena Severin, senior director of merchandising at The Detox Market, said that sunscreen is the retailer’s “strongest-growth category for the year.”
“There have been some customers that have come in and said, ‘You don’t need to wear sunscreen,’” with claims about vitamin D, she said. But the majority of customers are “on board with sunscreen.”