From Our 2009 Archives
How Safe and Effective Are Sunscreens?
Environmental Working Group Sees Improvements, but Still Gives Industry Low Marks
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
July 2, 2009 -- Sunscreens are improving, but three of five brand-name products either don't protect the skin from sun damage sufficiently, contain hazardous chemicals, or both, according to a report by the watchdog organization Environmental Working Group (EWG).
"I'd give the industry a C minus," says Jane Houlihan, EWG's senior vice president for research. "They have moved from a D to a C-minus in my book."
Overall, however, she says the industry is "not doing enough to protect consumers from UVA radiation."
The report is called the EWG 2009 Sunscreen Guide. An industry spokesman says the report is flawed.
Dermatologists who reviewed the report for WebMD offered praise and criticism. "Some points are definitely correct,'' says Henry Lim, MD, chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Health Systems, Detroit. But, he adds, ''This report has somewhat of an alarmist tone.''
Sandra Read, MD, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Dermatology, says she finds the report discouraging but says she hopes it will raise awareness of the need for sunscreen.
The 2009 Study on Sunscreen Effectiveness
This year's report is the third annual from EWG, which investigated 1,572 sunscreens, lip balms, and daily moisturizers with sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, typically the minimum recommended.
This year's study, as those in the past, was triggered, according to EWG, because the FDA has not set comprehensive safety standards for sunscreens. The agency has set guidelines for UVB protection but those for UVA are pending. UVA rays are associated with skin sagging and wrinkles, but more recently have also been associated with skin cancer; UVB rays can lead to skin cancer and sunburn.
The FDA is lagging behind other countries, the report charges, because it has approved only 17 sunscreen chemicals for U.S. use, compared to at least 29 in other countries.
To do the 2009 study, EWG scientists got a list of ingredients from retailers and then used numerous databases to evaluate safety and effectiveness.
Scientists from EWG developed a "best" list for sunscreens, lip balms, and moisturizers. On the 10 best sunscreens list (many sold online):
On the top 10 lip balm list:
And the top 10 SPF moisturizers, according to EWG:
Failures and Improvements
Among the failings of the sunscreen products and industry, according to EWG:
EWG scientists did find that 70% of sunscreens available this year contain strong UVA filters, compared to just 29% last year. Among the top brands that were reformulated to boost UVA protection are Solbar, Zia Natural Skincare, Nivea, L'Oreal, and Hawaiian Tropic.
The ingredient oxybenzone, which the EWG contends disrupts hormone systems, was in 19% fewer sunscreens this year, according to the report.
Among the 339 sunscreens not recommended are:
The recent EWG report is "unscientific and unsubstantiated," says John Bailey, chief scientist for the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group, in a statement.
In part, the statement also reads: "Consumers can be confident in the safety of the sunscreens they buy for themselves and their families because all sunscreens sold in the U.S. are regulated as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which requires them to go through rigorous scientific assessment and approval process that includes safety and performance testing before marketing."
In a telephone interview, Bailey tells WebMD: "I think there are so many flaws in this report that it's difficult to really know where to start." One flaw, he says, is that "they should have consulted real experts in the area," Instead, he says, they developed their own way of scoring and didn't consider ingredient stability in a realistic way.
"The most important thing they highlight is that the FDA is really lagging behind in getting a UVA rating," says Eric Schweiger, MD, a Manhattan dermatologist and clinical instructor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York, who reviewed the report for WebMD.
The report also contends that higher SPF products may tempt people to stay out longer, but Schweiger says he tells patients to use as high as possible "because people tend to not apply it right."
Lim says the report's authors caution that oxybenzone can be absorbed into the skin. "It's true, but there is no evidence that it is of any clinical significance."
Lim also points out that sunscreens are improving, according to the report. "Not all products have good UVA protection," he says, "but more do."
"Ingredients are not the full story of good sun protection," says Read. Using sunscreen correctly, using the right sunscreen for your exposure and skin type, and reapplying every two hours is crucial, she says.
Lim advises patients to look for ingredients known to help protect against UVA, such as avobenzone (Parsol 1789), titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or mexoryl.
SOURCES: Environmental Working Group: "2009 Sunscreen Guide." Jane Houlihan, senior vice president for research, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C. Eric Schweiger, MD, dermatologist; clinical instructor of dermatology, Mt. Sinai School of Medicine. Henry Lim, MD, chairman of dermatology, Henry Ford Health Systems, Detroit; member, photobiology committee, Skin Cancer Foundation. Sandra Read, MD, member, board of directors, American Academy of Dermatology; instructor of dermatology, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Washington, D.C. John Bailey, chief scientist, Personal Care Products Council.
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