Sunscreens need to protect skin from UVA rays
The Chronicle 25 May 2011
The sunblock slathered all over the pale hordes gallivanting on the beach this Memorial Day weekend may not protect skin from cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, an environmental watchdog group warned this week.
More than half of the sunscreens on the market do not provide adequate UVA protection, and many of them actually contain hazardous ingredients, according to an analysis of 292 national brands and 1,700 products by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, based in Washington.
The problem, the group's researchers said, is that the sunscreen industry has taken advantage of lax federal regulations and allowed a marketing Wild West to develop. Many products with high sun-protection factor, or SPF, ratings contain bad ingredients, and companies use unsubstantiated claims about their effectiveness to market them, the group said.
"We recommend people avoid those sunscreens with ultra-high SPFs because they offer a false sense of protection," said Sonia Lunder, the working group's senior analyst, adding that a high SPF means you are protected from sunburn but not melanoma. "They are not really giving you protection for other types of UV rays. You can still get cancers and skin aging."
The group lists 128 of the best beach and sport sunscreens, all of which contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, two ingredients that the researchers said block skin cancer-causing UVA rays. UVB rays are the kind that cause sunburns.
Among the brands that have multiple top-ranked products with SPF ratings of 30 or higher were Eco Skin Care, Elemental Herbs, Kabana Skin Care, Kiss My Face, Loving Naturals, Purple Prairie Botanicals and Raw Elements USA. Close to 90 other brands, including CVS, Neutrogena, Banana Boat, Walgreens and Aveeno, now offer sunscreens with zinc and titanium.
The recommended brands, however, make up only 20 percent of the more than 600 beach and sport sunscreens that were studied.
The group urged sun worshipers to avoid retinyl palmitate, a form of Vitamin A that is used in 30 percent of the sunscreens that were analyzed. Lunder said studies of this ingredient have shown higher rates of skin tumors and lesions in animals. Another ingredient that should be avoided, Lunder said, is oxybenzone, a sun-blocking agent that is also a hormone disrupter and skin irritant.
The fifth annual guide to safe and effective sunscreens provoked an immediate response from the Personal Care Products Council, which called it an "unscientific" report "fraught with unsubstantiated assertions, contradictions and distorted facts."
"The group's allegations are in direct conflict with established scientific safety assessments of sunscreen products and their ingredients and the assessments of regulatory authorities in the U.S., European Union, Canada and several other countries," the industry group said on its website. The Environmental Working Group "invents its own sunscreen product rating system not based on credible scientific methodology," the council said, adding that the working group's "methodology for calculating SPF values has been proven to be inaccurate and unreliable by sunscreen experts, both in the U.S. and abroad."
The Personal Care Products Council claims the retinyl palmitate test was seriously flawed and that both ingredients are safe for human use.
Many of the products on the working group's Hall of Shame list contain at least one of the two questioned ingredients, and quite a few of them are marketed specifically for use on babies. Among them are Hawaiian Tropic Baby Stick Sunscreen SPF 50, which has both retinyl palmitate and oxybenzone.
Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70+ recommends that users apply the product "liberally," even though scientists have recommended against using its key ingredient, oxybenzone, on large areas of skin, particularly on young children, the report said.
No cancer protection
Banana Boat Sport Performance Active Max Protect, SPF 110, provides minimal UVA protection, according to the guide. Analysts say some consumers may mistakenly believe high SPF ratings like this one will protect them from skin cancer.
Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour Cream Sun Defense for Face, SPF 50, is a prime example of how a label can give a person a false sense of security, Lunder said. "You need to be putting sunscreen on every two hours," she said.
In all, 60 percent of the sunscreens in the study provided inadequate UVA protection and would not even pass muster in the European market, according to researchers.
There was, nevertheless, some improvement this year. The group recommended 1 out of every 5 products this year, compared with 1 out of 12 last year, officials said.
Shelly Burgess, the spokeswoman for the Food & Drug Administration, said Tuesday that administration officials recognize the need for improved guidelines. She said her agency is close to publishing new rules for sunscreen products, including ingredient testing requirements for both UVB and UVA protection.
The working group pointed out that those rules have been in the works since 2007. U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, was so frustrated that he introduced a bill this year that would require proper labeling of sunscreen products.
"For too long the FDA has allowed manufacturers to get away with inaccurate claims about sun protection, and consumers are getting burned," said Reed, whose Sunscreen Labeling Protection Act would give the FDA 180 days to implement labeling requirements. "It is time to impose sunscreen safety and labeling standards."
Read the list
The Environmental Working Group lists 128 of the best beach and sport sunscreens, all of which contain either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, two ingredients that researchers say block skin cancer-causing UVA rays. To see the report, go to sfgate.com/ZKZH or www.ewg.org/release/2011-sunscreen-database-profiles-1700-products.
E-mail Peter Fimrite at firstname.lastname@example.org.