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July 22, 2008

Does Sunscreen Really Screen?

Winter Sunbathe
Perhaps this is a safer bet?
AP Photo

by Tom Loftus and Julia Bainbridge

Next time you pack for an island vacation, you might want to think twice about what sunblock you throw in your bag. The New York Times reported on a study from an organization called the Environmental Working Group that questioned sunscreen safety--mainly because of an ingredient called oxybenzone.

The Environmental Working Group tested nearly 1,000 sunscreen products and found that four out of five either offered skimpy protection or contained ingredients that posed possible health risks. 

The Times noted some disagreement.

But dermatologists who reviewed the group's research say the biggest problem is that it lacks scientific rigor. In particular, they are critical of a sunscreen rating system that they say is arbitrary and without basis in any accepted scientific standard.

The Times article also said:

Another study, published two years ago in Free Radical Biology and Medicine, raised troubling concerns about what happens when sunscreen is absorbed into the skin and reacts with the sun. The report suggested that under certain conditions, sunscreens with oxybenzone and other ultraviolet filters could lead to free-radical damage to the skin, a process that in theory could lead to skin cancer. The study used laboratory models of skin, so some researchers say it is not a reliable indicator of what happens in people.

In the end, it looks like doctors still recommend applying (and re-applying) sunscreens with a high SPF. Keep in mind, though, that this is only one way to protect your skin.

"People focus so much on sunscreens," Dr. Morison said. "It should be a package of protection. A hat, staying out of the sun, avoiding the hottest part of the day, and covering up are all part of the whole story. It's not just the sunscreen."

Amen to that.

Further reading:
* "Sunscreen Safety Is Called Into Question"
* "Sunscreen Summary--What Works and What's Safe"
* The FDA aims to upgrade sunscreen labeling
* The CDC's breakdown of oxybenzone, a toxic sunscreen chemical

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