Saturday, May 11, 2013

Sunscreen and stuffer bags

Published in the Sun May 11, 2013

Why do I have to use the special yellow bag to recycle my other plastic bags and cellophane?  Isn’t that wasteful?  Why can’t I just put all my bags inside a plain bag?

It does seem counterintuitive but there is actually a reason.  The bright yellow “Bag the Bag” stuffers are made to stand up to compaction.  They are made of a tough plastic, and there are some little holes at the bottom to let air out so that they deflate when compacted, rather than explode.  A regular bag would come apart when squished and your bags would all fly around and get caught up in the moving parts of the sorting equipment, jamming it up.  The yellow bags are free at the Georgetown Municipal Complex at 300-1 Industrial Avenue, at Garden-Ville at 250 Walden Drive, and at the Sun City Social Center on Texas Drive.  A stuffer lasts at least a month at my house because I really cram them full.

Hey, if you still don’t like the stuffer bags, just don’t recycle plastic films.  It’s OK; the world won’t end if bags and wrappers are low on your priority list.  Repurposing is better than recycling anyway.  Use your plastic bags to line your trash cans or pick up dog poop, and then throw them in the regular trash.  A few plastic wrappers will hardly make a difference.  It’s the big things that matter, like cans, glass, milk jugs, junk mail, newspapers, cardboard, and plastic containers.   If those all go into your single stream recycling bin, you are still an awesome recycle superhero.

Summer is coming.  Does is matter what kind of sunscreen I use?

As with most good questions, this one is complicated.  If you have watched television lately, you have seen a handsome middle aged man applying a medication to his armpit that promises to resolve his manly problems.  Even if you have no interest in that guy’s medical issues, the advertisement demonstrates that stuff you rub on your skin doesn’t just sit there on the outside.  The skin is a doorway to the bloodstream for many chemicals.  The man rubs a little hormone under his arm, and then the fast voice at the end of the commercial advises women and children to stay away from his armpit to avoid exposure to even a tiny bit of leftover medication.  (Most women stay away from men’s armpits even without a warning.)  So now imagine a sunscreen that has multiple active chemicals in it.  You slather that sunscreen all over your toddler’s tender skin, head to toe, and then, if you follow instructions, you repeat the application after a few hours.  One chemical contained in 52% of all American sunscreens, oxybenzone, has hormone-like effects.  Oxybenzone has been detected in the urine of 96% of all Americans, and even penetrates into mothers’ milk.  Retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A used in 25% of sunscreens, actually increases skin cancer in mice exposed to sunlight.  Those are just two of the dozens of chemicals used in sunscreens.  (It should be noted that the American Academy of Dermatology maintains that both of these ingredients are harmless as used in sunscreens by humans.)

Sunscreens which physically block radiation with zinc or titanium oxides do not appear to penetrate the skin and are probably safer choices than chemical sunscreens.  Hats are even safer.  The only real side effect with hats is “hat hair,” which in some instances can be quite serious.

Effectiveness is the other big issue with sunscreens.  Many sunscreens protect only against ultraviolet B radiation, the cause of sunburn.  To have even a hope of protection against skin damage, you have to protect against ultraviolet A radiation also.  Even with coverage for both A and B radiation, the Food and Drug Administration does not allow sunscreen makers to claim that their products will protect against cancer or premature aging.  It turns out that the evidence that sunscreens prevent skin cancer is pretty tenuous.  (Now I can expect an angry letter from an indignant dermatologist.)  Sun exposure causes skin cancer, but sunscreen won’t automatically prevent it.  Some researchers claim that sunscreen gives users a false sense of security and they stay out in the sun longer, increasing their risks.

The Environmental Working Group ( has the gold standard guide to over 1800 brand-name sunscreen products, all rated for safety and effectiveness on a scale of 1 to 10.  The website discusses the different ingredients, and presents more of the research than you will have time to read.  If you spend a lot of time out in the sun, it would be well worth your time to do a bit of reading.  Don’t just buy the cheapest sunscreen in the front of the store.  And do get a nice hat.

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