Many Sunscreens Not What You Think

Watchdog Group Finds Most Sunscreens Lacking; Industry Disagrees

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

June 22, 2007 -- Deciding which sunscreen to buy just got more difficult. A report issued this week by a Washington-based watchdog organization shows most sunscreens on the market offer inadequate protection or have safety issues.

The Environmental Working Group, which focuses on health and environmental advocacy, analyzed 783 sunscreen products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or above. It says 84% don't measure up. Industry groups and manufacturers took issue with the report, however.

After the detailed evaluation, the EWG recommends only 128 products, giving 618 products a "caution" rating and another 37 an "avoid" rating.

"We found that about one in every six [sunscreen] products are among the safest, most effective on the market," says Jane Houlihan, vice president for research for the EWG. But five in six are not, she says.

How the Study Was Done

The sunscreens weren't tested in the lab; instead, researchers obtained an ingredient list for all 783 sunscreens. Next, they evaluated the sunscreen chemicals currently approved for use in the U.S., referring to nearly 400 peer-reviewed studies of the chemicals. They also used 60 industry and government databases to analyze sunscreen ingredient toxicity. They evaluated how well the products protect from both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are associated with wrinkles and skin sagging but more recently have also been linked to skin cancer. UVB rays can lead to sunburn and skin cancer.

They also analyzed the stability of the products. They gave each product a sun hazard rating for effectiveness, taking into account UVA and UVB protection, as well as the stability of the sunscreen in the sun. They gave each product a health hazard rating, based on the safety of the ingredients.

Among the findings:

Some big-name brands ended up with an "avoid" rating. Among those on the "avoid" list are Coppertone Sport Sunblock Lotion SPF 15, Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion SPF 15, and Banana Boat UVA & UVB Sunscreen Lotion.

The "best" list includes:

  • Badger SPF 30
  • Peter Thomas Roth Titanium Dioxide Sunblock SPF 30
  • Lavera Sun Screen Neutral SPF 40
  • UV Natural Baby SPF30+ Broad Spectrum Sunscreen
  • Vanicream Sunscreen Sport SPF 35
  • UV Natural Sport SPF 30 & Very Water Resistant
  • Colorescience Shake It Up Sunforgettable SPF 30
  • Mustela Bebe High Protection Sun Lotion SPF 50
  • Obagi Nu-Derm Physical UV Block Step Six SPF 32

Of the top 10 selling brands evaluated, only three got good ratings: Blue Lizard Australian Suncream SPF30/Baby, California Baby Water-Resistant HypoAllergenic Sunscreen SPF30-plus, and Aveeno Baby Sunblock Lotion Continuous Protection SPF 55.

Thirteen percent of the high-SPF products evaluated (with an SPF 30 or above) provide poor UVA protection.

Fifty-four percent of the products have ingredients that can break down in the sun, compromising protection.

At least 48% of the products have claims considered unacceptable or misleading under the FDA draft of sunscreen safety standards, the EWG says. They looked at such claims as "all day protection" and "blocks all harmful rays."

The Back Story

What triggered the study? "We did this analysis because the FDA has not set comprehensive safety standards for sunscreens," Houlihan says, "and we think people need to know about products on the market that are safe and effective."

The FDA has set guidelines for UVB protection in sunscreen but not for UVA protection. The FDA "is currently working on regulations for over-the-counter sunscreen drug products that would address, among other things, UVA testing and SPF labeling issues," according to a statement released by the FDA after the sunscreen report. In the U.S., sunscreen products are regulated by the FDA, either under the new drug approval process or over-the-counter drug review, with the majority regulated under the OTC review.  

A Dermatologist's View

The new report got mixed reviews from Henry W. Lim, MD, the vice president of the American Academy of Dermatology and chairman of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. One of his criticisms is that they did not test the sunscreens directly. Yet, he understands why they did not. "It's not practical for them to test these in the field," he says. "There are too many.

"I'm certain that some of the findings are accurate," he says. In particular, he says, some sunscreens indeed may contain ingredients that are not stable and do break down in sunlight, as the report shows. "But the way it came out, it seems to me it's a very negative report," Lim tells WebMD.

Industry Disagrees

Not surprisingly, the sunscreen industry blasted the findings. "They have taken a number of studies and then, without going into the lab, are asserting that somehow these products don't provide the amount of protection they should," says John Bailey, executive vice president for science for the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, a Washington, D.C.-based industry group.

In particular, Bailey took issue with the finding that some of the products break down in sunlight. The products have to be made according to good manufacturing requirements for drugs, he says. "They have to be shown to be stable as part of that requirement."

A statement released by the organization says that "Consumers should have a high level of confidence that sunscreen products are safe and effective when used as directed."


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"The report is encouraging people to be sure [the sunscreens] are 100% photo stable," says Julie Lux, spokeswoman for Schering-Plough Corp. in Kenilworth, N.J., which makes Coppertone sunscreens.

"Coppertone has reformulated," she adds. "If you get a Coppertone product all are photo stable."

Johnson & Johnson, which makes Neutrogena sunscreen products, some of which are on the avoid list, issued a statement saying, "All Neutrogena products undergo extensive testing to ensure safety and efficacy."

Point of Agreement: Use Sun Protection

On one point all sides agree: Sun protection is crucial. "Practice sensible photo protection," Lim says, "which include staying in the shade when possible and using protective clothing, such as a hat and using sunscreen." 

If you are planning to be in water, Houlihan adds, look for a sunscreen that's water resistant. The best sunscreens, she says, "have broad spectrum protection, UVA and UVB, they are stable in sunlight and they have few if any hazardous ingredients." 

The EWG advises consumers to shop based on their "best" list of sunscreens, posted at the site,

SOURCES: Jane Houlihan, vice-president for research, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C. Henry W. Lim, MD, chairman of  dermatology, Henry Ford Hospital, Detroit; vice president, American Academy of Dermatology. John Bailey, executive vice president, Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, Washington, D.C. FDA. Julie Lux, spokeswoman,  Schering-Plough Corp., Kenilworth, N.J. Iris Grossman, spokeswoman, Johnson & Johnson  Consumer Companies Inc., Skillman, N.J. Environmental Working Group Sunscreen Study, June 19, 2007.

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