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Are Natural Sunscreens Better for You?

Perusing the sunscreen aisle at the local pharmacy, I study the long lists of ingredients — avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, diethylexyl, triethanolamineand — and shake my head. It’s confusing trying to decide which sunscreen to buy. Do I need to get my 5 and 8-year-old daughters “baby” sunscreen? How much SPF should it have? And are there ingredients that could be dangerous in them?

Natural sunscreens are a lot more appealing since I can actually pronounce most of the ingredients. In fact, some of them sound good enough to eat (for example, organic macadamia nut, green tea extracts). But do they work as well?

That’s the question that Los Angeles Times reporter Susan Carpenter recently explored. The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is a bit more complicated.

The active ingredients in natural sunscreens are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which work by physically blocking the sun’s rays. But most people don’t apply enough of it to be truly effective. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you use enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass. How many of us really do that? Natural sunscreens also require a lot more rubbing in and advance application time to do the job. If you’re like me, you probably remember to apply sunscreen right before you’re heading out of the house.

Traditional sunscreens use chemical blocks to absorb ultraviolet rays and stop them from causing damage. Oxybenzone is the ingredient most often used to absorb UVB, the type of ultraviolet light that causes sunburn. But there are concerns that if sunscreen is absorbed by the skin into the body, it could cause damage. You follow so far? Here’s where it gets troubling.

Oxybenzone can disrupt hormones. Its presence in pregnant women correlates with lower baby birth weights, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 9% of the oxybenzone applied to skin soaks through it, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization. Experts are also questioning the active ingredients in natural sunscreens.

Despite questionable ingredients in both types of sunscreen, the CDC recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or above to prevent sun damage.

Both types of sunscreens also could be causing environmental damage. Sometimes it seems as if we just can’t win. Of course, the safest bet is to stay out of the sun when it’s at its strongest and to wear sun protectve hat and clothing.  But that’s not entirely realistic. So just remember that  whatever sunscreen you use, apply generously and re-apply after swimming or sweating.

Try not to fret too much. And, oh yeah, don’t forget to have fun!

Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/guywilliamwelch/

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