Dear EarthTalk: Isn't spray sunscreen a health and environmental nightmare when it seems that more of the sunscreen ends up going up my nose than on the kid at the beach next to me?--Lillian Robertson, Methuen, MA
Spray cans of sunscreen may no longer contain chlorofluorocarbons (also known as CFCs, which were phased out in the 1990s for causing holes in the stratospheric ozone layer), but many contain other chemicals that are no good for our health or the environment. Researchers have found that the chemicals and/or minerals in the vast majority of commercially available sunscreens--even the rub-in creamy or oily varieties--can cause health problems just from ordinary use; inhaling them only magnifies the risks.
And just what are the risks? According to the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), there are two major types of sunscreens available in the U.S. "Chemical" sunscreens, the more common kind, penetrate the skin and may disrupt the body's endocrine system, as their active ingredients (e.g., octylmethylcinnamate, oxybenzone, avobenzone, benzophone, mexoryl, PABA or PARSOL 1789) mimic the body's natural hormones and as such can essentially confuse the body's systems. Quite a risk to take, considering that the chemical varieties don't even work for very long once applied.
Meanwhile, "mineral" sunscreens are considered somewhat safer, as their active ingredients are natural elements such as zinc or titanium. But "micronized" or "nano-scale" particles of these minerals can get below the skin surface and cause allergic reactions and other problems for some people. EWG recommends sticking with "mineral" sunscreens whenever possible but, more important, taking other precautions to avoid prolonged sun exposure altogether. "At EWG we use sunscreens, but we look for shade, wear protective clothing, and avoid the noontime sun before we smear on the cream," the group reports.
As for spray varieties, EWG...