From Our 2010 Archives
Group Calls Some Sunscreens 'Snake Oil'
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Environmental Group EWG Says Only 8% of Sunscreens Are Safe and Effective
By Salynn Boyles
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD
May 24, 2010 -- An environmental group is once again questioning the effectiveness and safety of top-selling sunscreens, claiming that many contain potentially hazardous ingredients and make exaggerated claims.
In its fourth annual Sunscreen Guide, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) evaluated 500 sunscreens and found only 8% to be acceptable.
EWG Senior Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan called most of the best-selling sunscreens in the U.S. "the equivalent of modern-day snake oil," claiming they do not protect as well as they say they do and may be dangerous.
The group is specifically warning against high-SPF sunscreens, which Houlihan says promote a false sense of security for users. The EWG also warns against products that have little or no protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) rays and products that contain the vitamin A derivative retinyl palmitate, which has been linked to the accelerated growth of skin lesions in some lab animal studies.
Representatives for the sunscreen industry strongly disputed the group's claims, and a dermatologist interviewed by WebMD called the claims unsubstantiated.
"EWG is kind of the Chicken Little of the sunscreen arena," St. Petersburg, Fla., dermatologist James Spencer, MD, tells WebMD. "There is no evidence that the active ingredients in sunscreens are dangerous. These are products used by millions of people every day. There is real danger all around us, and one very real danger is skin cancer and skin aging from sun exposure."
Mineral Sunscreens Best, Group Says
Once again this year, the sunscreens recommended by the EWG all contained the minerals zinc or titanium as their active ingredient.
Although more and more products are including these minerals in their formulations to boost their UVA protection, Houlihan tells WebMD that the vast majority of best-selling brands are not mineral based.
She says about 60% of sunscreens contain the chemical ingredient oxybenzone, which the EWG considers unsafe because of concerns that it can penetrate the skin and disrupt hormone balance.
None of the recommended products contained oxybenzone or vitamin A and none was sprayed on or powdered. Spray- and powder-based sunscreens are easily inhaled and can enter the bloodstream through the lungs, Houlihan says.
The group looked at 500 sunscreens and recommended just 39, including three by the small New Hampshire skin care company Badger and three from the company Soleo Organics.
The top-selling sunscreen brands tended to be the poorest rated, with none of the market leaders considered to be both safe and effective by the EWG.
The EWG's top picks included:
Houlihan acknowledged that consumers may have to search for many of these products because they don't tend to be sold by major retailers.
"You won't find most of them at CVS or Target or Wal-Mart," she says.
Although not recommended by the group, several best-selling sunscreens did score higher than others and were considered the best choices among the chemical sunscreens evaluated.
Sunscreen Industry Responds
Rather than relying on sunscreens alone for protection from the sun, the EWG recommends avoiding sun exposure entirely during peak hours and wearing protective clothing whenever possible.
"The longer we examine sunscreen the more we favor the message that hats, shirts, and shade are the very best sunscreens of all," Houlihan says.
In an interview with WebMD, Lisa Powers, a spokeswoman for the sunscreen industry group Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), called the EWG report "reckless."
"I would hate to think of a parent not using sunscreen on their child based on the baseless claims in this report, when the science on the dangers of sun exposure, especially in childhood, is so solid," Powers says.
PCPC Chief Scientist John Bailey, PhD, called "ridiculous" the EWG claim that sunscreens don't provide adequate protection against the sun because people rarely use them as recommended.
According to the EWG report, a 100 SPF product typically protects more like an SPF 3 because people tend to use far less sunscreen than they should and reapply it less often than recommended.
"This is just a ludicrous charge," Bailey tells WebMD. "I don't know how they came up with this."
The industry representatives agree with the environmental group on one thing, however: that long-awaited changes in sunscreen labeling by the FDA will help consumers better understand the difference between sunscreens.
For the first time, sunscreen manufacturers will be required to provide information on the amount of UVA screening provided by their products.
UVA rays do not cause sunburns, but they do contribute to skin cancer and sun-related skin aging.
The new regulations are also expected to prohibit manufacturers from claiming SPF of more than 50+.
A spokeswoman for the FDA tells WebMD that the finalized guidelines should be made public later this year.
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