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8 Burning Questions About Sunscreens

Experts Give Advice on Choosing and Using Sunscreens

2. Do some sunscreen ingredients really carry health risks?

Experts disagree, with some thinking they do and others saying the link is unproven.

Sutton thinks some ingredients are definitely hazardous, including oxybenzone. "We have animal studies that indicate we should be concerned about hormone disruption," she says. "Oxybenzone is found to have weak estrogenic effects in fish."

What some experts suspect happens is that the body interprets the presence of the chemical as some sort of hormone. "It could be turning on or off certain functions," she says. "The hormonal balance is becoming disrupted."

In laboratory studies, some sunscreen ingredients, including Padimate-O and Ensulizole, have been linked to cell mutations that can be linked to cancer, Sutton says.

But the official stance of the Skin Cancer Foundation is that oxybenzone is a "safe and effective UV filter," according to a spokesperson.

The American Academy of Dermatology has no official position on the use of oxybenzone sunscreens, a spokesperson says.

3. What do I look for when I go sunscreen shopping?

Sunscreens using physical blockers (titanium dioxide, zinc oxide) are preferred by EWG scientists and the doctors interviewed by WebMD.

For shopping help, see EWG's list of recommended brands at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/special/sunscreens2008. Or ask your doctor to suggest a brand.

Choose a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, Badreshia-Bansal says. And know that SPF applies only to UVB rays.

4. Which sunscreens are best to use on children and infants?

Best for kids, says Sutton, are sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide at levels of at least 7% and with an SPF of 30 or higher. "You can typically find the percent on the list of active ingredients on the label," she says.

The sunscreens with physical blockers are preferred for kids, agrees Pat Treadwell, MD, a pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis and a member of the executive committee for the dermatology section of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "If there is a generic brand, that should work fine," she says.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should keep babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight as much as possible. For babies older than 6 months, the Academy recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 on all exposed areas. For babies younger than 6 months, use sunscreen on small areas, such as the backs of the hands and the face if shade or protective clothing aren't options. The Academy recommends broad spectrum products and products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide for sensitive areas such as nose, cheeks, tops of the ears and shoulders. Some are now available in "fun" colors.

5. Which is better, spray sunscreens or cream sunscreens?

While a spray form of sunscreen is often viewed as more convenient -- especially for hard-to-reach areas -- most experts say creams offer better coverage and are more likely to be used properly.

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