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FeaturesThe Green Leaf

Sunscreen is essential, but check the label first

For the graduating class of 1999, film director Baz Luhrmann’s first words of advice through his hit single were, "If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it."

The single, "Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)," which is still a popular hit on YouTube today, gives plenty of advice on living life to the fullest but ends with "trust me on the sunscreen."

As summer heats up in Hawaii, sunscreen is indeed vital to apply under the scorching sun. Besides protecting the skin from sunburn, sunscreen can help prevent skin cancer and spotting.

While most of us pick out a sunscreen from the store shelf, based on packaging, the SPF level, fragrance or whether it’s waterproof, there are growing concerns about the chemicals the products contain.

Those chemicals, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that conducts its own research, have an impact on health as well as the ocean.

Most of us are unaware of this, and the FDA has yet to set enforceable consumer guidelines (an effort it initiated in 1978), which are long overdue.

Benzophenon (BP-3), also known as oxybenzone, is rated a high hazard by the EWG because it can cause allergic reactions. When washed off into the ocean, it can contribute to viral infections in coral reefs and has been implicated in the feminization of male fish.

Other synthetic chemicals that can be both allergenic and toxic, while not effectively protecting the skin against UVA rays, include homosalate, octinoxate/octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) and padimate O (PABA).

The scary thing is that if you pick up sunblock from the local drugstore, most include these very ingredients.

Oxybenzone — linked to allergies, hormone disruption and cell damage — is in hundreds of sunscreens sold in the U.S.

As if that’s not frightening enough, the FDA is now investigating whether a form of vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) — found in about 41 percent of sunscreens — speeds up the development of skin tumors and lesions when applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight.

What to do about it? Arm yourself with all the research and information you can find. Check the ingredients on the back of the sunscreen bottle, and choose carefully.

The EWG says the best sunscreen is to cover up with a hat and a shirt. It also recommends against sprays and powders (because those harmful chemicals can end up in the lungs), as well as products with an SPF above 50.

There is no proof that a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 50 is more effective or allows you to stay in the sun longer.

Companies still make this exaggerated claim (with SPFs of up to 100) despite the FDA’s proposed regulations in 2007 saying the numbers were misleading.

If you need a sunscreen, as most sun-worshippers and active water-sports participants here do, there are options.

Among the EWG’s recommended sunscreens are those that contain the minerals zinc or titanium for UVA protection. Some of EWG’s top-rated brands for beach and sport sunscreens include All Terrain, Beyond Coastal, California Baby, Loving Naturals and Soleo Organics.

To learn more or see how your sunscreen rates with EWG, go to www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen. Nina Wu can be reached at nwu@staradvertiser.com.


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