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The Dark Side of Sunscreens

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Here comes the sun -- and the most crucial time of year to protect yourself from it. Sunscreens, as most people know, are important for guarding against burns, skin cancer and premature aging. The catch is that certain ingredients found in many sunscreens might not be so green, or so safe.

Some studies have linked specific chemical UV filters with the transsexualization of male fish and coral reef degradation. They've also been associated with hormone-disrupting activity in lab tests (oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3; 4-MBC; and homosalate) and low birth weight in infant girls (specifically, oxybenzone -- a chemical found in urine samples of 97 percent of subjects in one recent study by the Centers for Disease Control). "We don't need to have sunscreens that end up in the blood of a kid," says Richard Wiles, co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit. EWG's researchers say some sunscreens are better than others; the group operates a database of cosmetic products vetted for potential health hazards ( http://www.cosmeticdatabase.com). For its sunscreen section, updated each June, the organization subjects thousands of products to lab tests for effectiveness and combines the results with safety assessments of each ingredient.

Other experts maintain that there's nothing to worry about. "Some people feel there's no [federal] oversight, but that's not true," says John Bailey, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association representing suncreen and other cosmetics manufacturers. The council runs its own Web site, http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org, that presents scientific information about various sunscreen ingredients. "The sunscreens' active ingredients are regulated by the FDA as over-the-counter drugs under a drug approval scheme that takes into account both safety and efficacy," he says. About the oxybenzone found in the CDC's study, he says, "These are very, very low levels, below levels that may be showing effects in animal or cell culture testing. All evidence that we have is that it's not a risk to health."

So what is an eco-minded beachgoer to do? Although the thought of tainting one's favorite swimming hole, or oneself, is alarming, it's also true that living in the modern world exposes us to plenty of chemicals as it is. And the potential risks of sunscreen are far less certain than the very real threat of skin cancer.

That said, if you're concerned about chemicals, sunscreen containing the naturally occurring minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which work as physical rather than chemical barriers, are less likely to be absorbed into the skin than many of their counterparts. They also work particularly well against deeper-penetrating, cancer-causing UVA rays (that is, when they're reapplied generously and frequently, and immediately after swimming). The catch? Those minerals, in large enough quantities, might not be great for fish either, and some formulas achieve a sheer, non-chalky effect by breaking the minerals into nano-size particles, which have their own set of safety concerns. "Evidence shows that [zinc and titanium nanoparticles] don't penetrate skin," says Wiles, "but we'd love to see more data."

On a reassuring note, sunscreens aren't your only line of defense against the rays (though few experts would suggest forgoing them altogether). Antioxidants such as green tea and natural sunlight absorbers such as shea butter can boost a cream's protective properties. Wearing hats and staying in the shade when possible are always smart strategies. And eating an antioxidant-rich diet consisting of plenty of fruits and vegetables also can help to minimize the risk of sun damage -- and their effects won't rub off.

-- Eviana Hartman

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