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Beauty Basics: Sun 411

Body+Soul, July/August 2007

Once one of life's simplest pleasures, basking in the summer sun has gotten complicated lately -- and not just because of the ever-shrinking ozone layer. The past year has given rise to a host of developments in the world of SPF, from sudden safety concerns over "natural" sunscreens to claims of false labeling among major brands. Then there's the buzz about a new chemical ingredient that has even some holistic-leaning experts interested.

With the industry developing so quickly, what is the best approach to skin protection this summer? As always, stay out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., wear protective clothing, and liberally apply your choice of sunscreen. As for the latest news, we talked to several of the nation's top dermatologists, as well as the Skin Cancer Foundation and the FDA. Chart your course of sun protection this summer with their advice.

Too-Tiny Minerals
Physical sunscreens (which use the minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to scatter and reflect UV radiation) have long been considered more natural than chemical sunscreens, which use photosensitive chemicals to absorb the sun's rays. But their safety has recently come into question. Essentially ground-up mineral particles mixed in an emollient base, they're effective -- but not without leaving a telltale white residue. To address this issue, cosmetics companies have taken to shrinking (or "micronizing") these particles for a less pasty look. Hence the controversy: Recent reports suggest that particles micronized too finely could be absorbed by the skin. Worse, UV light from the sun may interact with them to cause cellular DNA damage.

How serious is this threat? At the moment it's unclear. "The FDA is collaborating with the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences on studies examining the skin absorption and phototoxicity of nano-size titanium dioxide and zinc oxide preparations," says FDA spokeswoman Susan Cruzan. The Skin Cancer Foundation deems the minerals safe, as do most mainstream dermatologists, even those who remain open to the idea that future research may prove otherwise. "Sure, there's an off chance of it," says Dr. David Bank, an associate in clinical dermatology at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University in New York City, and director of the Center for Dermatology, Cosmetic and Laser Surgery in Mount Kisco, New York. "But what we've been certain about for a long time is that unprotected exposure to UV rays causes cancer. These minerals are among the most effective blockers of those harmful rays," he adds.

Bottom Line
"The known protection offered by these substances still outweighs their relatively small, theoretical risk," says Dr. Catherine Hoffman, a dermatologist in Fresno, California. Until we have more definitive research that shows otherwise, the more natural choice continues to be physical sunscreens.

Overblown Claims
Legal troubles are brewing in the world of big-name sunscreens. Several prominent drugstore brands, including Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, and Banana Boat, face lawsuits on everything from waterproof claims to their products' ability to prevent cancer. As it turns out, the issue may stem more from consumer habit than fraud. "When research labs test sunscreens, they use two milligrams per square centimeter of skin," says Dr. Steven Wang, director of dermatologic surgery and dermatology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. "But by most accounts, people in real life use only a quarter of that." We also, it seems, don't follow directions. For a product to live up to its claim, says Wang, we must "apply it 20 minutes prior to sun exposure, reapplying every couple hours -- or after swimming or sweating." Because most of us slack on these counts, protection diminishes accordingly.

Bottom line
"Use sunscreen early, often, and in copious quantities," says Hoffman. That means one shot glass-full per average application. The Skin Care Foundation recommends putting on sunscreen a full 30 minutes before exposure. If the idea of using chemical sunscreens runs counter to your natural sensibilities, know that even some noted authorities on integrative medicine, such as Dr. Andrew Weil, urge us to look for ingredients such as Parsol 1789 (a synthetic chemical commonly found in drugstore formulations) to stave off UV damage. If you feel safer using mineral-based screens, great -- but remember to apply just as much.

The Uber Ingredient?
Another big development this year was the much-anticipated FDA approval of Mexoryl. Used (and found safe) in Europe since 1993, this ingredient screens out the short-wave section of the UVA spectrum. Until now, no chemically based sunscreen in America has been able to offer complete full-coverage protection. So far, the FDA has approved only a couple of products that contain Mexoryl: Anthelios SX SPF 15 by La Roche-Posay and Lancome UV Expert 20 Sunscreen SPF 20. (Higher SPF versions may be in the pipeline, but neither the FDA nor the company will comment.) Mexoryl has the backing of many dermatologists, including New York City-based Dr. Brad Katchen. "Not only does it address previously unaddressed UVA rays, it's the most stable anti-UVA ingredient in use," he says. Still, for the holistically minded, the fact that Mexoryl is a synthetic chemical may overshadow its promising benefits.

Bottom Line
"Sometimes what's natural isn't what's best for us," says Hoffman, who points out that UV radiation itself is natural. You can get solid protection from mineral-based (physical) sunscreens, but if you have any questions about their safety, Mexoryl may be a good choice for full-spectrum coverage.

Skin Savers
Aubrey ORGANICSNatural Sun Green Tea Protective Sunscreen, SPF 25.
Physical screen with shea butter. $8.50, aubrey-organics.com

La Roche-Posay Anthelios SX Daily Moisturizing Cream with Sunscreen, SPF 15.
Contains Mexoryl SX. $29, anthelios.com

Orlane Paris Anti-Aging Sun Cream Vulnerable Areas Face and Body, SPF 30.
A chemical-physical blend. $115, neimanmarcus.com

Colorescience Sunforgettable Dispensing Brush, SPF 30.
A physical screen powder with mica for sparkle. $45, blissworld.com

Text by Abbie Kozolchyk