This summer, I've been having second thoughts about sunscreen.

I

have a really sweet tan going on.

The tops of my feet have two white stripes across them: a sandal tan. My arms are sporting a T-shirt tan. My entire torso shows an outline of my bathing suit. My knees are tanner than any other place on my body from riding my bike. And on my stomach you can clearly see a white outline of two hands. Yes, they're my hands. Like I said, pretty sweet.

But I can explain. This summer, I've been having second-thoughts about sunscreen. I've been reading research that shows some chemicals in traditional sunscreens may be toxic. A form of vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, found in more than 40 percent of sunscreens, may accelerate the development of skin cancer when applied in sunlight, according to a recent Food and Drug Administration study.

I've also been talking with friends about the topic. And I've been trying to figure out where I stand.

Here's the rub: No one really knows whether sunscreens, and all the chemicals in them, are safe. Frankly, sunscreens haven't been around that long. And new chemicals are added to them all the time.

I bought an organic sunscreen from the Ashland Food Cooperative, but I've been using it sparingly. When I went camping at Castle Lake two weeks ago, I put it on once, on my face and shoulders. And right after that, I must have wiped my hands — and the sunscreen on them — across my belly. The proof is still there.

Even though I'm fair-skinned, I didn't get burned at the lake. But my friend burned the tops of his feet. They're now peeling. He's stoic about it, but I'm sure it's painful.

So I'm still thinking about this sunscreen thing. What's better: to use sunscreen or to get burned?

I don't know. And I'm not about to give people medical advice in a column.

But most of my friends agree the best thing is to wear protective clothing and to stay out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day, if possible. Sit in the shade instead of lying in the sun. Better a weird tan line than a burn.

Still, 'tis the season for sunburns and sometimes they sneak up on us.

I asked a friend of mine, a family practice doctor who just moved to Ashland from Hawaii, what he thinks about sunscreens. He's also questioning the "slip, slap and slop sunscreen culture," he said.

He agreed that covering up and avoiding long periods of sun exposure is probably best. He also mentioned that a high dose of vitamin C, which cleans up free radicals, results in a natural SPF of 2.

Many sunscreens contain potentially harmful nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, as well as hormone-disrupting chemicals, he said. But in addition to leaching into the skin, the doctor mentioned that the chemicals wash off in rivers and lakes, potentially disturbing sensitive ecosystems.

The doctor pointed me to the Environmental Working Group's website on sunscreen, www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen. It includes some sobering information on sunscreens and a very helpful rating guide for nearly all sunscreens on the market.

The group recommends using sunscreen sparingly. "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 website states.

It also recommends using mineral sunscreens, with zinc or titanium, instead of those with potentially hormone-disrupting ingredients.

As for me, I'm planning to sit in the shade next time I go to the lake. And when I'm out in the sun, I'll cover up.

Because tan lines are sweet. I'm collecting them now.

On Monday night, I went to the Jackson Wellsprings with my friends. My tan lines were pretty obvious, but you know what? So were everyone else's.

Practicing safe sun looks pretty cool. And it's healthy — for you and for our ecosystems.

Contact reporter Hannah Guzik at 541-482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com. For past columns see dailytidings.com/ecologic.