Advocacy Group Says Many Popular Sunscreens Offer Inadequate Sun Protection, Calls on FDA to Implement Label Changes
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Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD
July 1, 2008 — An environmental research and advocacy group claims that four out of five brand-name sunscreens either provide inadequate sun protection or contain chemicals that may be unsafe, but industry representatives strongly dispute the charge.
In a report released Tuesday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls on the FDA to implement promised changes in sunscreen labeling that would require manufacturers to provide more detailed information about the level of sun protection their products provide.
For the first time, manufacturers would have to test and label their products for protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which does not cause sunburns but can damage collagen and cause wrinkles and sunspots. Research suggests that UVA is a cause of skin cancer.
The labeling upgrade was proposed by the FDA last August, but the changes have not been finalized.
The current sun protection factor (SPF) labeling system, which was implemented three decades ago, measures only protection from UVB rays — the ultraviolet rays that cause sunburns.
"You can buy a high SPF product and still have no assurance that you are being protected from UVA, as well as UVB rays," EWG research director Jane Houlihan tells WebMD.
Sunscreens Under Scrutiny
In their newly published analysis of more than 900 brand-named sunscreens, EWG researchers concluded that 7% of the products with SPF ratings of 30 or higher did not protect against UVA rays.
Only 15% of the sunscreens met the group's criteria for safety and effectiveness by providing broad-spectrum sun protection (denoting protection against both UVA and UVB radiation), remaining stable in sunlight, and containing only active ingredients considered safe by the EWG.
The top-selling sunscreen brands tended to be the poorest performers, with none of market leader Coppertone's sunscreen products consider to be both safe and effective by the EWG.
Just one of 103 products from the second-largest seller, Banana Boat, and the third largest seller, Neutrogena, were recommended by the EWG.
Here are their top picks:
- Keys Soap Solar Rx Therapeutic Sunblock, SPF 30
- Trukid Sunny Days Facestick Mineral Sunscreen UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum, SPF 30+
- California Baby Sunblock Stick No Fragrance, SPF 30+
- Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30
- Marie Veronique Skin Therapy Sun Serum
- Lavera Sunscreen Neutral, SPF 40
- Vanicream Sunscreen, SPF 35
- UV Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+
- Sun Science Sport Formula, SPF 30
- Soleo Organics Sunscreen all natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+
Among more widely available brands, Blue Lizard, California Baby, CVS, Jason Natural Cosmetics, Kiss My Face, Neutrogena, Olay, SkinCeuticals, Solar Sense, and Walgreens made the list.
More on the recommended brands along with the complete list of rated sunscreens can be found at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/special/sunscreens2008.
In a statement issued to WebMD on Tuesday, a spokeswoman for Coppertone manufacturer Schering-Plough disputed the report's findings with regard to its products.
"All Coppertone products are photostable, provide UVA/UVB protection, and are routinely evaluated for safety and efficacy by independent dermatologists and scientists," Julie Lux of Schering-Plough says.
"Coppertone is committed to the science and safety of sun care and is concerned that reports like this one released by the Environmental Working Group will inappropriately discourage consumers from protecting themselves from the sun."
A spokeswoman for Neutrogena parent company Johnson & Johnson also defended its sunscreens.
"All Neutrogena products undergo extensive testing to ensure safety and efficacy," Iris Grossman says in a statement.
Banana Boat issued a statement saying that all Banana Boat products "use only ingredients that are safe and approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other worldwide regulatory bodies," that their products won't break down in the sun, and that the Skin Cancer Foundation officially recommends Banana Boat as an effective UV sunscreen.
The EWG analysis suggested that nearly half of the products contained ingredients known to become inactive in strong sunlight.
"It may seem counterintuitive, but of the 17 'active ingredients' that FDA has approved for use as sunscreens in the U.S., at least four of them break down significantly when they are exposed to sunlight," the EWG report notes. "They lose their ability to absorb the sun's harmful rays and stop working effectively in as little as 30 minutes, ranging up to several hours."
Products containing the sun-stable and UVA filtering ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide were more likely to score highly in the group's analysis.
The report also criticized what EWG analysts called "over-the-top" marketing claims that they contend would not be allowed under the proposed FDA guidelines.
"There are more than 1 million skin cancers diagnosed in the United States every year," Houlihan says. "Sunscreen is a very important part of sun protection, and it is important that consumers know what they are getting."
Two spokesmen for the sunscreen industry called the EWG claims unfounded and erroneous.
Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) general council Farah Ahmed calls the contention that 7% of high SPF sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays "highly inaccurate."
"It is very clear to me that they have a very low level of understanding of the way sunscreens work and the way they are regulated by the FDA and tested by the industry," Ahmed tells WebMD.
Personal Care Products Council chief scientist John Bailey, PhD, says sunscreens are both safe and effective and highly regulated by the FDA.
Bailey noted that the agency already has the authority to bring action against any manufacturer that makes unsubstantiated claims about a sunscreen.
"The contention that (sunscreens) are too loosely or ineffectively regulated is just not true," he tells WebMD.
Bailey also strongly disagrees with the suggestion in the EWG report that the FDA is moving too slowly on its promised sunscreen label changes.
"The idea that FDA is somehow in cahoots with the industry and that we have fought to delay the process is inaccurate," he says. "The agency has received thousands of comments (on the label change), and they are in the process of reviewing these comments."
Both Bailey and Ahmed expressed concern that the EWG report could cause people to stop using sunscreens.
"I would hate to think that there are parents out there not using sunscreen on their kids because of a report like this that is not based on real science," Ahmed says.
In a statement issued Monday, American Academy of Dermatology President William Hanke, MD, said people should choose a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen as part of an overall sun protection regimen.
"The FDA is currently addressing requirements for UVA coverage in sunscreens and considering sunscreen labeling changes to help the public make knowledgeable decisions about protecting themselves from the danger of the sun," Hanke said. "The American Academy of Dermatology currently awaits the FDA's final ruling."
SOURCES: Environmental Working Group report on sunscreens, June 30, 2008. Jane Houlihan, environmental engineer and research director, Environmental Working Group. John Bailey, PhD, chief scientist, Personal Care Products Council. Farah Ahmed, assistant general council, Personal Care Products Council. C. William Hanke, MD, FAAD, president, American Academy of Dermatology.
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