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It’s Easy Being Green: Sunscreen: Friend or Foe?

SOURCE: Flickr/ RogueSun Media

Name-brand sunscreens have been criticized for not offering enough protection and including harmful ingredients. Zinc dioxide or titanium dioxide are often cited as less harmful alternatives.

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Summer’s almost here, and many of us will soon begin slathering on the sunscreen to protect ourselves from harmful rays. But how effective and safe is that sunscreen from your local drugstore?

Most of us were told as children to put on sunscreen before we went outside in the summertime. But some studies question how well typical sunscreens work. An Environmental Working Group, or EWG, study in 2009 analyzed 1,796 name-brand sunscreens and found that only 7 percent block both UVA and UVB radiation, remain stable in sunlight, and contain few ingredients with known or suspected health hazards.

The study also claimed that some sunscreen ingredients are absorbed by the blood and linked to toxic effects. These ingredients could release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight or disrupt hormone systems, and several are strongly linked to allergic reactions, while others may build up in the body or the environment. EWG also blasts the Food and Drug Administration for dragging its feet over establishing safety standards for sunscreens.

A 2006 study from the University of California-Riverside also suggested that certain sunscreen ingredients may cause more free radicals to form. Free radicals disrupt cell functioning and are believed to lead to many cancers.

Other studies look at sunscreen’s environmental effects. A 2007 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that at even very low levels of sunscreens can cause coral bleaching by killing zooxanthellae, the algae that form a symbiotic relationship with corals. The study’s authors calculated that close to 10 percent of the world’s reefs could be at risk from the 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen that wash off on an annual basis.

Some organizations, however, are not as quick to sound the alarm on sunscreen. The Skin Cancer Foundation assures consumers that sunscreen products are safe and effective when used as directed. They recommend using sunscreen with a sun protection factor or SPF of 15 or higher as part of a “complete sun protection regimen” that includes seeking the shade and covering up with clothing. They are also highly critical of the Environmental Working Group study and are concerned it will scare consumers away from sunscreen.

We need to protect ourselves from the sun regardless of studies and claims. The sun’s ultraviolet radiation is clearly linked to skin cancer, and we’ve all experienced a sunburn at one time or another from heading outside with no protection. But those who wish to avoid the potentially harmful effects cited in the above studies can seek greener options that work.

Sunscreens containing zinc dioxide or titanium dioxide, for example, are alternatives to those with chemicals such as cinnamate or benzophenone, which were called out in the Environmental Health Perspectives study. Zinc and titanium are minerals that provide broad-spectrum coverage and reflect both UVA and UVB rays. Combining these with clean, nontoxic ingredients such as shea butter, beeswax, unrefined oils, green tea, and chamomile can also nourish and protect skin.

When shopping for a sunscreen also consider avoiding ones with harsher chemical preservatives such as parabens (including butylparaben and methylparaben), which have mixed health reviews. Instead, look for sun products without preservatives or those with milder preservatives such as potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.

Finally, consider buying sun protective clothing you can wear in the water and on the beach. And seek the shade whenever possible, especially between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. You can also see your physician every year for a professional skin exam.

Summertime quickly turns into playtime, and taking precautions against the sun can ensure that a bad sunburn doesn’t spoil your fun.

Read more articles from the "It’s Easy Being Green" series

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