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New Report on Sunscreen May Make Sun Lovers Think Twice

These are confusing times for sun lovers like me.

As a teen of the 80s, I can still remember slathering on the Hawaiian Tropic oil and comparing tan lines on the beach as Pat Benatar blared on the boom box. Then came the 90s, when we began to realize our beloved sun could give us cancer, and make us look old. As a new Mom, I religiously sprayed my kids with SPF 50 or higher before a single ray landed upon their tender skin.

Then, in the 2000s, a new bit of info was thrown into the mix: Many of us weren’t getting enough Vitamin D – a critical nutrient synthesized in the skin via exposure to the sun.

Now, in a report released this week by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, I am told that many sunscreens don’t help and could hurt. What gives?

“There is a real misconception out there on the part of consumers about what sunscreens can really do to protect their skin,” lead author Sonya Lunder recently told me.

In its 7th Annual Sunscreen Guide, EWG reports that of 1,400 sun protectants looked at, just one in four “offer strong and broad UV protection and pose few safety concerns.”

According to the report: About half of beach and sport sunscreens contain oxybenzone, a potential allergen and hormone disruptor which penetrates the skin and bloodstream and acts like estrogen. One in four contains retinyl palmitate – shown in animal studies to speed tumor development. Aerosol sprays (the perennial favorite of parents with wiggly kids) may pose risks when inhaled and often don’t fully cover skin. (Aha! That’s why we all fried on the beach in Florida last month!) Other common ingredients (PABA, avobenzone) may generate cell-damaging free radicals. And technologies which “nano-size” particles so they go on easier may also be bad for you.

Ingredients aside, Lunder says exaggerated claims and ultra-high SPF labels lull people into a sense of security so they stay out in the sun too long. (Yes, it really does take 20 minutes for sunscreen to soak in and start working. And yes, you really do have to re-apply). Perversely, even when applied frequently, most sunscreens only protected against sun-burning UVB rays – not cancer-causing UVA rays, (so a well-meaning Mom who sprayed UVB SPF-100 over Junior at the pool could conceivably be boosting his cancer risk.) To address these issues, new FDA guidelines ban terms like “sunblock” or “water proof” on labels and require sunscreens that say “broad spectrum” to prove it. But EWG doesn’t think the new regs go far enough, and is calling for a ban of 50+ SPF sunscreens and those using suspect ingredients.

The chance of that happening any time soon is slim. As expected, the personal care product industry is loudly calling foul, referring to the report as “false and misleading” and lacking scientific credibility. (To be fair, the science is very young.)

“Our concern is that confusing, unsubstantiated claims could actually serve to discourage consumers from using sunscreen,” the Personal Care Products Council said in a statement.

Actually, there’s another option: Log on to EWG’s guide and check out its list of which sunscreens are safe, and how to use them properly. Yes: They may cost more. But given the alternatives – to stay inside; or to add to the pile of toxins already entering my body via foods and products some exec has assured me are safe – I’ll pay the few bucks extra.

Lisa Marshall is a freelance health and medical science writer in Lyons, Colo. Connect at www.lisaannmarshall.com.

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