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Forget melanoma, the first thing that comes to my mind when researching sunscreens is melodrama. Chemical sunscreens are accused of a variety of ills including cancer and gender bending. So how bad are they and what are the alternatives?
The ingredient to studiously avoid is PABA. Once widely used, few products contain it these days and many go out of their way to say that they are PABA-free. The problem with PABA - and other sunscreen chemicals - is that they actually generate free radicals and damage DNA. This can lead to cancer. Avobenzone, on the other hand, is widely used and can be found in products such as Neutrogena Ultra Dry Touch Sunblock. This ingredient has been permitted by European regulators for years and is widely regarded as safe. Nevertheless, some skin specialists say avobenzone can be as harmful as PABA.
The best (in terms of sun protection) chemical sunscreen on the market is probably Lancome's UV Expert. It may also be one of the safest. This uses a proprietary ingredient (owned by L'Oreal, Lancome's parent company) called Mexoryl that has only recently been approved by the FDA. UV Expert also contains avobenzone. L'Oreal's moisturizer Anthelios XL also contains Mexoryl.
Mexoryl is effective because it is very stable and it absorbs light at a broader range of UVA wavelengths than other sunscreen ingredients. Unlike other sunscreens, mexoryl doesn't absorb the UV light into the skin and, therefore, it is claimed that it doesn't do all that free radical damage.
If you want to avoid chemical sunscreens altogether, then look for products based on titanium oxide or zinc oxide. These don't have any of the nasty side effects of the chemicals, but there is one drawback: aesthetic. Skin is whitened by the pigment and attempts to produce versions (with finer molecules, for example) haven't solved the problem - instead these products often contain a skin-toned pigment as a counteract.