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June 12, 2013

When did sunscreen get so complicated?

Summer is almost here, which means it's time for picnics, pool parties, and every parent's favorite pastime: chasing after your kid with the sunscreen bottle. But what's arguably more arduous than slathering lotion onto a screaming 3-year-old is choosing the right sunscreen.

Not only are we presented with hundreds of choices — cool mist or lotion, sensitive skin or extra sensitive skin, SPF 30 or 50 or 75 — many are apparently unsafe, too. Some critics warn that sunscreens can cause cancer while others claim that certain ingredients increase the risk of infertility. Dr. Oz says your sunscreen might be poisonous. In its 2013 Guide to Sunscreens, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group says that only 25 percent of sunscreens on the market are "free of ingredients with serious safety concerns." So should we keep our kids indoors for the next three months?

There is some scientific evidence to support the safety risks, but it's hardly conclusive. Many media outlets have overinterpreted research results, making broad statements that don't reflect what scientists actually know. Plus, while there is research to support avoiding controversial ingredients like oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate (the Environmental Working Group's guide is an excellent resource for identifying sunscreens without them), some experts warn that other sunscreen compounds could pose similar risks we don't yet know about because only a few have been extensively studied.

It helps to have a short primer on sunscreen and how it works. By far the most popular sunscreens are the "organic" ones, so-called because they contain carbon, not because they were grown without pesticides or on a free-range farm. These include most Coppertone and Banana Boat products. These sunscreens protect us from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation by absorbing rays before they penetrate deep into our skin. (Not all organic sunscreens absorb both UVA and UVB rays, which have different wavelengths, so it's important to pick "broad spectrum" versions that protect against both types.)

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