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Chemical vs physical sunscreens

January 16, 2008 Reviewed by Marta 1 Comment

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.

  • November 4, 2008

    by Michelle


    <p> I am a bit confused about the differences and uses of SPF, and UVA/UVB protection. I was looking for a moisturizer that ALSO contains sun protection, and I've always thought that anything with a high spf is the way to go. However, for recommended products such as Lancome's UV Expert with SPF 20, and Anthelios SX Daily Moisturizing Cream with Sunscreen (which has UVA/UVB protection, but doesn't state any SPF), which would be the better product for sun protection? Is SPF better, or is UVA/UVB protection more effective? Or are they the same? Is there a difference?</p>

    <p>Also, are both products moisturizers with sunscreen, or is Lancome's UV Expert a sunscreen only, and the Anthelios SX is a moisturizer WITH sunscreen?<br />
    I also came across Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF30 recommended by Dr. Benabio from Is this only a sunscreen, or a moisturizer with sunscreen? The doctor wrote in his blog, "A product that I recommend is Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral Powder Sunscreen SPF30 it has high concentration of titanium dioxide (15%) and zinc oxide (10%) and goes on as a powder." I have read that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide have implications to cause cancer. Is this true? Would this Peter Thomas Roth product be safe to use since it was recommended by a dermatologist? </p>

    <p>I know I ask lots of questions, but I think I am becoming addicted to this site. I check it almost daily, even more than I check my Myspace now! O_o Thank you so much for your help and patience Marta! =] </p>

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