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Shining a light on sunscreen guidelines

Dermatologists are at odds with some points made by the Environmental Working Group. Here's a look at some of the main issues.

June 30, 2012|By Karen Ravn, Special to the Los Angeles Times

There are two main types of sunscreens: physical (mineral or inorganic) and chemical (organic). Physical screens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) work by deflecting UV rays, while chemical screens work by absorbing them (instead of your skin doing so). The trouble with physical screens, as Aasi says, is mostly that "people don't like the look." Sunscreen makers have solved that problem by using micronized versions of the minerals — "Very few are really nanoparticles," Rigel says — and the EWG says there's no evidence that the minerals, even in miniature form, can penetrate the skin and do any damage. Among chemical sunscreens, the group recommends using those that contain 3% avobenzone (for UVA protection) and avoiding "the notorious hormone disrupter oxybenzone."

Dermatologists are not generally convinced that oxybenzone deserves that bad rap. Evidence of its disruptive nature has only come with lab animals. "And in order to achieve the levels used in the animals, you'd have to apply sunscreen to your whole body for 100 years," says Dr. Henry Lim, chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit and spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology.


EWG recommendation: Use sunscreens, "just not as your first line of defense against the sun."

"Findings really argue that sunscreen usage is only part of a balanced sun protection that includes covering up and seeking shade," EWG senior scientist Andrews says.

That's something all the experts seem to agree on.

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