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Are you putting blind faith in your sunscreen? 5 scary SPF secrets

Slathering on sunscreen is the best way to ward off evil rays, but don't put blind faith in its efficacy. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington, D.C., reviewed nearly 1,400 sunscreens in 2010 and found that only 8 percent made the grade in terms of preventing skin cancer and signs of aging. (Scary, right?) So choosing the right one is critical. These fascinating facts and tips will help keep your skin healthy this summer and beyond.

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1.  Some Dangers Lurk Within A form of vitamin A is added to some sunscreens to minimize the aging effects of the sun. What's not to love about that? Potentially plenty: Researchers with the National Toxicology Program say retinyl palmitate--a vitamin-A compound used in at least 40 percent of American sunscreens--may speed up the development of skin cancer-related tumors and lesions when used on skin hit with sunlight. Lab animals coated with a vitamin A-laced skin cream and exposed to the equivalent of just nine minutes of midday sunlight every day for a year developed tumors and lesions up to 21 percent sooner than animals coated in vitamin A-free block.

While there's disagreement in the medical community about whether vitamin A has the same effect on humans, it's best to proceed with caution.

"If there's a question about the safety of something, avoid it. Plenty of sunscreens don't have retinyl palmitate," says Robert J. Friedman, M.D., a dermatologic oncologist in New York City and a clinical professor at the New York University School of Medicine. Try Jason Family Natural Sunblock SPF 45 ($12, at health-food stores).

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Vitamin A isn't the only controversial ingredient slipped into some SPFs. Oxybenzone and octinoxate, common block chemicals, are linked to allergic contact dermatitis and photocontact dermatitis (irritation caused when certain chemicals are on skin that's exposed to sunlight), as well as hormone disruption, in lab animals.

2. Sunscreen Can Harm the Environment Twenty thousand tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers, divers, and surfers into the oceans every year, eventually affecting marine life, according to a 2008 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives. And coral reefs are getting especially creamed. Researchers say sunscreens with octinoxate, oxybenzone, parabens, or camphor derivatives are killing hard corals (which could negatively impact biodiversity and reef ecosystems). None of this is a problem if you're hiking, biking, or sunbathing on dry land. But if you plan to swim in the sea, slather on a biodegradable sunscreen that doesn't contain ingredients that are mean to marine life. Try Alba Botanica Very Emollient Fragrance Free Mineral Sunblock SPF 30.

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3. SPF Doesn't Always Block UVA Rays The magic number shown on the bottle refers only to a sunscreen's ability to block the sunburn-inducing UVB rays, not to be confused with UVA rays, the ones that cause wrinkles and skin cancer (though excessive exposure to both rays can lead to skin cancer). The FDA is considering a set of guidelines that would use a four-star system to rate a sunscreen's effectiveness against UVA rays. In the meantime, check the ingredients on the bottle for one of these UVA blockers:

Titanium dioxide or zinc oxide: These ingredients are famous for their UVA blockage, and new formulas won't leave you with a Casper-like film on your face. Try Episencial's Sunny Sunscreen SPF 35 Water-Resistant Protection for Face and Body.

Avobenzone (a.k.a. Parsol 1789): This common UVA fighter is among the most effective chemical-based blockers. Choose one like MDSolarSciences No Touch Body Spray SPF 40.

Ecamsule (a.k.a. Mexoryl SX): This chemical ingredient is 3.8 times more protective than avobenzone and has long been a staple in European and Canadian sunscreens. It's now available in a few American blocks, including La Roche-Posay's Anthelios line and L'Oreal's Ombrelle line. But it's not cheap--a 3.4-ounce bottle of La Roche-Posay costs $30 (laroche-posay.us).

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4. Sunscreen Expires If you pull a half-empty, sand-caked tube of last summer's sunscreen out of your beach bag, check the expiration date before using it. Most sunscreens are designed with specially formulated stabilizers that protect its potency for up to three years, but that's assuming you didn't let it bake for days in your backyard. "Leaving sunblock in intense heat for a prolonged amount of time may make it less effective," says Mitchell Chasin, M.D., medical director of Reflections Center for Skin and Body in New Jersey and fellow of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery. So store sunblock in a cool place, and while you're at the beach, keep it in the shade.

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5. Meds Can Make You More Vulnerable Medications like tetracycline, diuretics, and painkillers such as Celebrex, Aleve, and ibuprofen up your chances of getting a burn, says Barbara Gilchrest, M.D., professor and chair emeritus of the department of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine and chief emeritus of dermatology at Boston Medical Center. "They make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, specifically to UVA wavelengths, which means you need to be extra vigilant about sunscreen when you're taking them." Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, like Neutrogena Pure & Free Liquid SPF 50 ($10, neutrogena.com), to ward off sunburn and photo damage, which results from chronic exposure to UV rays.

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Tell us: What are your best, and worst, habits when it comes to sunscreen???

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