A closer look at new research into UV chemicals found in sunscreens and beauty products

UV Chemical Research


A new study by our very own chairman, Lester Barr, has measured the presence of chemical UV filters in healthy human tissue for the first time.


The research, in collaboration with Professor Philippa Darbre from the University of Reading, has been published today in the Journal of Applied Toxicology. It shows varying concentrations of three UV filter chemicals at numerous locations within the healthy breast tissue of women undergoing a mastectomy. UV filter chemicals are most commonly found in sunscreens, but are also present in many personal care products to increase product stability, and are added to textiles marketed as being UV protective.


It’s important to note that this research does not imply any link between the presence of these chemicals and the development of cancerous cells. The chemicals are not carcinogenic (cancer causing), however, in a lab environment they do have the ability to mimic oestrogen. Excess oestrogen production is a recognised risk factor for breast cancer, so it’s important that we seek more information about what these chemicals do while they are in the body.


Lester Barr said: “We are by no means suggesting that people shouldn’t wear sunscreen or should avoid personal care products. However, this research raises a broader question about the unknown effects of many chemicals in our environment and it’s important that we develop our scientific knowledge on this.”


Lester Barr here answers some questions about this piece of research:

  1. Does this research say that UV filters cause cancer?

No. The chemicals aren’t carcinogenic (cancer causing), but they do have the ability to mimic the effects of the hormone oestrogen, which is why we’re interested to know if they have an effect on breast tissue.


  1. Should people stop wearing sunscreen or using personal care products?

Absolutely not. Sunscreens should be used sensibly to protect our skin from the harmful effects of sunburn. When it comes to personal care products, as these chemicals (and many more besides) are found in many aspects of modern life, avoiding one product is unlikely to make a difference. The issue here is a broader one of how society uses and disposes of plastics and chemicals.


  1. What do we know about the chemicals you tested for?

The chemicals we examined are ones which, in a lab, have the ability to mimic oestrogen. That is why we’re interested to know if they might be present in breast tissue and have any effect on breast cells.


  1. What are the next steps for researchers?

The chemicals found are present in minute quantities and, by themselves, may not be causing harm. However, we need to know if particular combinations of different chemicals within breast tissue might work alongside each other to have a cumulative harmful effect over a period of years. It might also be possible to work alongside manufacturers of personal care products, textiles, food products and packaging to minimise the use of artificial chemicals that might have a biological effect even at small doses – and, indeed, that is already happening within these industries.