The slippery quest to invent a safer, more effective sunscreen

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I GREW up in Queensland, Australia, which is, to put it mildly, a very sunny place – and, to put it bluntly, the skin cancer capital of the world, with a higher incidence per capita than anywhere else. As a pale-skinned person, I have experienced a blistering case of sunburn more times than I would like to admit and I know that for Caucasian people, even one instance more than doubles the risk of getting melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Sunscreen, then, is my constant friend.

Lately, however, I have been worrying that being sun-smart may have unintended consequences. I have heard that the chemicals in sunscreen could be harming coral reefs, and maybe even our own health. So I was curious – not only about the extent to which these concerns are really justified, but also whether science is any closer to producing safer and more effective sun creams.

I found that although the evidence for sunscreen’s harmful effects is patchy and conflicting, a new generation of preparations is emerging from laboratories. Many are based on compounds found in algae, plants and even coral, and they are being formulated in ways that promises to solve the problems with today’s products. In one case at least, there is even the prospect of a sunscreen you truly won’t have to laboriously reapply throughout the day.

When sunshine beats down on us, we are getting a dose of two types of skin-damaging ultraviolet light, called UVA and UVB rays. The former are the less energetic of the two, but penetrate deeper into our skin, where they can create chemicals called …

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