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The Dark Side of Sunscreens

Here comes the sun -- and the most crucial time of year to protect yourself from it. Sunscreens, as most people know, are important for guarding against burns, skin cancer and premature aging. The catch is that certain ingredients found in many sunscreens might not be so green, or so safe.

Some studies have linked specific chemical UV filters with the transsexualization of male fish and coral reef degradation. They've also been associated with hormone-disrupting activity in lab tests (oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3; 4-MBC; and homosalate) and low birth weight in infant girls (specifically, oxybenzone -- a chemical found in urine samples of 97 percent of subjects in one recent study by the Centers for Disease Control). "We don't need to have sunscreens that end up in the blood of a kid," says Richard Wiles, co-founder of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit. EWG's researchers say some sunscreens are better than others; the group operates a database of cosmetic products vetted for potential health hazards ( For its sunscreen section, updated each June, the organization subjects thousands of products to lab tests for effectiveness and combines the results with safety assessments of each ingredient.

Other experts maintain that there's nothing to worry about. "Some people feel there's no [federal] oversight, but that's not true," says John Bailey, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council, a trade association representing suncreen and other cosmetics manufacturers. The council runs its own Web site,, that presents scientific information about various sunscreen ingredients. "The sunscreens' active ingredients are regulated by the FDA as over-the-counter drugs under a drug approval scheme that takes into account both safety and efficacy," he says. About the oxybenzone found in the CDC's study, he says, "These are very, very low levels, below levels that may be showing effects in animal or cell culture testing. All evidence that we have is that it's not a risk to health."

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