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Is Your Sunscreen Doing More Harm Than Good?

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Most people have enough fear of skin cancer and photo-aging to give tanning salons wide berth, pun intended. But how safe are sunscreens themselves? Weeks after the New York Times exposed the caprice in assignment of sun protection factors (SPF) last year, Sen. Charles Schumer (D- New York) called on the FDA to investigate reports that an ingredient in most sunscreens - retinyl palmitate - actually causes cancer.

In one FDA study on animals, dismissed by a dermatologist consultant to sunscreen companies as "very premature to even cast doubt about the safety of this chemical," retinyl palmitate accelerated tumors and lesions in the sun by 21 percent! (Similar studies on humans not animals would be "unethical" say scientists).

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And there are other sunscreen doubts. Many people don't apply the needed amount of sunscreen to protect themselves from UVA and UVB sunrays because the products are expensive (and no one wants to be a goo monster). But when they do, they still may not be safe since ingredients like oxybenzone - which is an endocrine-disrupter, as are most fragrances - and titanium dioxide are now thought to penetrate the skin and enter the bloodstream.

Once upon a time, before links between skin cancer and sun bathing were confirmed, people didn't use sunscreen. They used baby oil and iodine to enhance the sun's effect, literally sautéed themselves in the sun and using reflectors. (They were also smoking Tareytons or Kents which also wasn't seen as self-destructive.) Having the best suntan in the room was like being the thinnest person in the room was to became later: a badge of social status and sex appeal. Who knew that wrinkles would develop later? Or cared since no one thought they would get old anyway.

Then the pendulum swung and the sun was as bad as, well, cigarettes. The era of sunscreens and long sleeves began and spray-on tans, often carrot-orange, were the rage, with Hollywood leading the way.

In fact the sun-avoidance pendulum swung so far, sunscreens began to be blamed for a possible national Vitamin D deficiency. The sun presumably couldn't find bare skin on which to make Vitamin D anymore. Patients everywhere we told to seek sun instead of avoid it!

But last year, an Institute of Medicine report suggested that the deficiency fears might have been an over reaction. "The number of people with vitamin D deficiency in North America may be overestimated because many laboratories appear to be using cut-points that are much higher than the committee suggests is appropriate," it said. Now, some are hoping the Institute of Medicine will address the sunscreen ingredients retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone.

Martha's Rosenberg first book on these topics will be published next year by Prometheus Books.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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