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New Sunscreen Guide: 1 in 4 Products Deemed Safe

Group Flags Questionable Ingredients in Sunscreens; Manufacturers Say Report Is Flawed

By Brenda Goodman, MA
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

May 16, 2012 -- With warmer weather on the way, the Environmental Working Group has just released a new edition of their popular sunscreen guide.

In the sixth annual guide, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends just 25% of 1,800 sunscreens they reviewed for the guide, though that number is up from 20% last year.

Some dermatologists take issue with the EWG's approach. But they and the EWG agree on this much: It's not about whether you should wear sunscreen.

EWG Sunscreen Report

"We were happy that we were able to recommend more products this year than in previous years, but still 1 in 4 is not good enough," says Nneka Leiba, MPH, a senior analyst for the nonprofit EWG, which is based in Washington, D.C. "We want ideally for consumers to pick up any product off of the shelf and be assured of its safety. With the poor regulation offered by the FDA, we're far from that at this point."

The EWG wags a finger at the FDA's new rules for sunscreens, which were announced last year after more than three decades of consideration.

The EWG says the new rules, which were supposed to take effect in June but have been delayed until December, still leave key safety gaps. Among the EWG's concerns:

  • Poor UVA protection: UVA rays account for 95% of the sun's radiation. They contribute to skin cancer and wrinkles. Though the new FDA rules require sunscreens to pass a test before they can claim "broad spectrum" protection against UVA rays, the EWG says the new test is so easy to pass that most sunscreens on the market will make the grade with no reformulation. That's bad news, they say, since over half the sunscreens they reviewed offer such weak UVA protection that they would not be sold in Europe, where standards are stronger.
  • Super-high SPFs: The FDA debated banning manufacturers from using SPFs (sun protection factors) higher than 50. But the agency ultimately abandoned its bid to rein in super-high SPFs. The danger with sunscreens with SPFs that climb past 50 is that they offer only marginally better protection than an SPF of 30, and they may lull consumers into thinking they are better shielded than they actually are. A false sense of security can lead people to spend too much time in the sun, putting them at greater risk for burns and skin cancer.
  • Spray and powder sunscreens: The EWG says aerosol particles in these products may get inhaled into the lungs. They say the FDA is investigating their toxicity risks.

Questionable Ingredients?

The EWG also says many products contain ingredients that make them risky for health. The biggest offenders include retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, and oxybenzone.

Retinyl palmitate is added to products as a stabilizer. It's also an anti-aging ingredient that can make skin more sensitive to sun. The EWG says studies show retinyl palmitate, found in 1 of 4 products that were reviewed, may actually promote cancer when it's used on sun-exposed skin.

Oxybenzone is an active ingredient found in more than half of all beach and sport sunscreens. Some studies suggest the chemical may mimic the hormone estrogen in the body. The EWG suggests avoiding sunscreens formulated with oxybenzone.

In general, the EWG says mineral sun blockers like zinc and titanium make for safer sunscreens.

Doctors, Industry Respond

Darrell S. Rigel, MD, is a dermatologist at New York University's Langone Medical Center and a former president of the American Academy of Dermatology. He studies sunscreens and skin cancer. He has also consulted for sunscreen manufacturers.

"I sort of cringe a little bit when I see these recommendations," Rigel says.

His main objection is that he feels the report looks at studies out of context.

For example, for an article that raises concerns over the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone, the EWG cites research including a 2001 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. In that study, Swiss researchers fed high doses of oxybenzone to rats. After four days, the rats' reproductive organs had grown by 23%, suggesting that the chemical was acting like the hormone estrogen.

Realizing that study was causing concerns over the safety of some sunscreens, Steven Q. Wang, MD, a dermatologist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, tried to find out how much sunscreen a person would need to apply to get the same dose of oxybenzone that was fed to the rats.

In a study published in July 2011 in the Archives of Dermatology, Wang calculated that a person would need to slather on sunscreen, at recommended amounts, head-to-toe, daily for 34 years to reach the same exposure.

To be sure, other studies have raised questions about the chemical. But Rigel says they are far from definitive.

"This is like adding one and one and getting three," he says.

He says it's much more dangerous for people to feel confused about whether or not sunscreens are safe.

"I get melanoma patients who come in, and they say, 'You say use sunscreens. [The EWG says] they can be dangerous. I don't know what's right so I'm going to do what I want,'" Rigel tells WebMD. "They're actually convincing people to not use sunscreen. That, to me, is the scariest thing."

The Personal Care Products Council, a trade group, rejects the report. "Consumers should completely disregard the report. It's entirely irresponsible and does a great disservice to public health," says Farah Ahmed, who chairs the council's sunscreen task force. "It's chock-full of misinformation and science that's been entirely mischaracterized," she says.

Tips for Consumers

For its part, the Environmental Working Group says it isn't trying to discourage the use of sunscreens. It just wants consumers to be better educated about what they're getting and how it should be used.

"We have two general tips for consumers," says Leiba. "Although sunscreen is an important part of a full sun-protection routine, it cannot be taken in isolation. Continue to seek shade. Avoid the midday sun. Wear sun-protective clothing in addition to using sunscreens. It's only part of a full routine," she says.

Part of proper usage, she says, is proper application. She says it's important to apply the sunscreen every two hours. It's also critical to apply an adequate amount. That's a palmful for adults.

Second, she says, because they can lead to a false sense of security in the sun, "We suggest you avoid SPFs higher than 50."

SOURCES: The Environmental Working Group: "Sunscreens Exposed," updated 2012. Wang, S. Archives of Dermatology, July 2011. Schlumpf, M. Environmental Health Perspectives, March 2011. Nneka Leiba, MPH, senior analyst, Environmental Working Group, Washington, D.C. Farah Ahmed, chair, sunscreen task force, Personal Care Products Council, Washington, D.C. Darrell S. Rigel, MD, professor of dermatology, New York University Langone Medical Center, New York.

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