Sunscreen alert: As summer begins, read the labels and choose wisely



Scripps Howard News Service

The sun can be a merciless force.

And while sunscreen is an outdoor necessity in any season, nowhere does the need for it become more apparent than when late spring bleeds into early summer.

The Environmental Working Group, a consumer organization, is offering some advice in its 2012 "Skin Deep" sunscreen guide. The Washington-headquartered nonprofit scores hundreds of major brands of sunscreen based on their ingredients and effectiveness. You can view it at:

This is the sixth year that EWG has released a sunscreen report, but there's an added incentive for the group to post this information this year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently backed off a June 2012 deadline for sunscreen manufacturers to refine the labeling on their bottles, eliminating misleading terms like "waterproof" and "sweat-proof," among other tweaks. That deadline has been pushed back to December for larger companies and December 2013 for smaller ones.

Here are a few things to look for in a sunscreen.

-- Broad spectrum protection. The sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation falls into two categories: ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B.

Many commercial sunscreens focus their protection efforts on ultraviolet B rays -- the kind that causes sunburns (an easy way to remember: "B'' is for "burn"). But they do little to shield against ultraviolet A, which does real damage -- contributing to skin cancer and early skin aging.

Products labeled with "broad spectrum" protect against both. It's the handiest shorthand for finding a well-rounded sunscreen.

However, the EWG cautions that the FDA has maintained lax standards in which products qualify for "broad spectrum," so sometimes it pays to dig a little deeper.

Check the ingredients. Among the things you want to find in your sunscreen: zinc and titanium dioxide.

These substances hold off ultraviolet A and don't penetrate the skin.

Meanwhile, there's a debate as to whether certain chemicals in sunscreen can do more harm than good. For example, some research has indicated that oxybenzone, an active ingredient in more than half of U.S. sunscreens, can be absorbed by the skin during use, and potentially contribute to hormone disruption or skin cancer. In its report, the EWG warns against products containing oxybenzone.

The American Academy of Dermatology has called the ingredient safe, and the FDA has backed up that assertion by allowing the ingredient to stay in commercial products since its introduction in 1978.

Peter Grothaus, a plastic surgeon in Abilene, Texas, deals with these topics daily in consulting patients about their skin care. While he's read the research, he ultimately deters to the FDA's judgment, saying that broad spectrum protection is the most important thing to look for in a sunscreen.

"There are almost no sunscreens that don't contain something that someone has said is a problem," Grothaus said. "I can't say do not use this, or don't use that, because all of the research is based on anecdotal evidence as far as I can tell."

-- Think of the children. Despite its overall pessimistic tone, the EWG study does have some good things to say about children's sunscreens.

Most of them, about 63 percent, feature "mineral ingredients that provide good protection" against ultraviolet A rays, the EWG study says. That said, there are a few brands that list the same ingredients in their children's sunscreen as in their adult formulas. The study cautions against using children's sunscreens with fragrances.

-- Be sun smart. It's important to reapply sunscreen every two hours, no matter what claims the bottle makes about the product's endurance or SPF rating. Any SPF rating above 50+ is suspect and, really, immaterial.

Grothaus recommends dressing appropriately, with hats, long sleeves and sunglasses. It also helps to avoid peak hours of midday sunlight.

"One rule of thumb: If your shadow is shorter than you, you shouldn't be in the sun," Grothaus said.

And finally: while all sunscreens obviously aren't created equal, just applying some is far preferable to none at all.

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