Sunscreens (UV Filters)

At a Glance

Research has found that many sunscreens contain chemicals that mimic estrogen in the body, disrupt the endocrine system, and can play a significant role in breast cancer development. 

You shouldn’t have to choose between skin cancer and breast cancer.

Sunscreens breast cancer prevention tip card infographic

What are UV filters?

Ultraviolet filters, or UV filters, are chemicals that screen out UV-A and UV-B rays from the sun. Although some exposure to UV-B light is necessary for the production of Vitamin D, a compound which is protective against breast cancer,[1] excessive exposures to UV rays increase the risk of developing skin cancer. UV filters are therefore added to many personal care products to help provide protection against these potentially harmful ultraviolet rays. They are also added to products to prevent fading and degradation as a result of sun exposure. Common UV filters include benzophenone (BP) and its derivatives (e.g., BP-1, BP-2, and oxybenzone or BP-3), homosalate, octinoxate (OMC), 4methylbenzylidene camphor (MBC) and PABA.

Where are UV filters found?

UV filters are primarily found in sunscreens but may also be added to hair color, shampoo, makeup foundation, lipstick, nail polish, skin creams and lotions.[2]

What evidence links UV filters to breast cancer?

  • UV filters easily penetrate the skin and have been found throughout the breast in tissue taken from women undergoing mastectomies for breast cancer.[3] UV filters have also been measured in human placental tissue[4] and milk[5], as well as in adult urine and blood [6],[7]
  • Many chemicals used as UV filters in personal care products can mimic estrogen in the human body, and are thus considered to be endocrine disruptors.[8]
  • Some of these chemicals have been shown in laboratory studies to increase the growth and proliferation of breast cancer cells.[9] Other studies have shown that these UV filters increase the migration and invasive activity of human breast cancer cells.[10]
  • Studies have shown that exposure to some UV filters can affect the development of reproductive organs in animals exposed in utero, while other studies have shown that exposure to some UV filters could affect the thyroid gland.[11]

Who is most likely to be exposed to UV filters?

Anyone who uses sunscreen or personal care products is likely to be exposed to UV filters.

Who is most vulnerable to the health effects of UV filters?

People who are most vulnerable to the potential health effects of UV filters are pregnant women, infants who are breast-feeding and agricultural and landscaping workers, especially those who regularly use pesticides, because some UV filters can increase the permeability of skin to certain pesticides. [12],[13],[14]

What are the top tips to avoid exposure?

The best way to reduce exposure to UV filters is to read labels on sunscreens, cosmetics and other personal care products and avoid purchasing those that list chemical UV filters, such as octinoxate, octyl methoxycinnamate, benzophenone, oxybenzone, PABA and padimate O.

  • Choose sunscreens that use sun-blocking compounds derived from minerals, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, in a non-inhalable form;
  • Avoid purchasing lipsticks, hair products, nail polish and other personal care products that list chemical UV filters such as octinoxate or octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC).
  • When spending long periods of time in the sun, use good sun sense. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, lightweight long sleeves and pants, and apply a mineral-based sunblock liberally and frequently.


Updated 2019

[1] Atoum, Manar, and Foad Alzoughool. “Vitamin D and Breast Cancer: Latest Evidence and Future Steps.” Breast Cancer 11 (2017): 1178223417749816. doi:10.1177/1178223417749816.

[2] DeLima Associates. “Consumer Product Information Database.” Accessed November 18, 2020.

[3] Barr L, M Alamer M and PD Darbre. “Measurement of concentrations of four chemical ultraviolet filters in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast.” Journal of Applied Toxicology 38, 8 (2018): 1112–20. doi:10.1002/jat.3621.

[4] Valle-Sistac, Jennifer et al. “Determination of parabens and benzophenone-type UV filters in human placenta. First description of the existence of benzyl paraben and benzophenone-4.” Environment International 88 (2016): 243-249. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2015.12.034.

[5] Rodríguez-Gómez, R et al. “Determination of benzophenone-UV filters in human milk samples using ultrasound-assisted extraction and clean-up with dispersive sorbents followed by UHPLC-MS/MS analysis.” Talanta 134 (2015): 657-664. doi:10.1016/j.talanta.2014.12.004.

[6] Calafat, Antonia M et al. “Concentrations of the sunscreen agent benzophenone-3 in residents of the United States: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003–2004.” Environmental Health Perspectives 116, 7 (2008): 893-7. doi:10.1289/ehp.11269.

[7] Janjua, N R et al. “Sunscreens in human plasma and urine after repeated whole-body topical application.” Journal of the European Academy of Dermatology and Venereology 22, 4 (2008): 456-61. doi:10.1111/j.1468-3083.2007.02492.x.

[8] Krause, M et al. “Sunscreens: are they beneficial for health? An overview of endocrine disrupting properties of UV-filters.” International Journal of Andrology 35, 3 (2012): 424-36. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2605.2012.01280.x.

[9] Schlumpf, M et al. “In vitro and in vivo estrogenicity of UV screens.” Environmental Health Perspectives 109, 3 (2001): 239-44. doi:10.1289/ehp.01109239.

[10] Alamer, Maha, and Philippa D Darbre. “Effects of exposure to six chemical ultraviolet filters commonly used in personal care products on motility of MCF-7 and MDA-MB-231 human breast cancer cells in vitro.” Journal of Applied Toxicology 38, 2 (2018): 148-159. doi:10.1002/jat.3525.

[11] Lorigo, Margarida et al. “Photoprotection of ultraviolet-B filters: Updated review of endocrine disrupting properties.” Steroids 131 (2018): 46-58. doi:10.1016/j.steroids.2018.01.006

[12] Kunz, Petra Y, and Karl Fent. “Multiple hormonal activities of UV filters and comparison of in vivo and in vitro estrogenic activity of ethyl-4-aminobenzoate in fish.” Aquatic Toxicology 79, 4 (2006): 305-24. doi:10.1016/j.aquatox.2006.06.016.

[13] Mikamo, Eriko et al. “Endocrine disruptors induce cytochrome P450 by affecting transcriptional regulation via pregnane X receptor.” Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 193, 1 (2003): 66-72. doi:10.1016/j.taap.2003.08.001.

[14] Brand, R M et al. “Transdermal absorption of the herbicide 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid is enhanced by both ethanol consumption and sunscreen application.” Food and Chemical Toxicology 45, 1 (2007): 93-7. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2006.08.005.

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