Environmental Group: Only 1 in 5 Sunscreens OK

Environmental Working Group Rates Sunscreens for Safety and Effectiveness; Industry Group Calls Report 'Reckless'

By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

May 23, 2011 -- Just in time for the beginning of summer, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has issued its 5th annual guide to sunscreen products.

Just one in five of more than 600 beach and sport sunscreens made the cut. Another 11 products earned a spot in the group's Hall of Shame.

The report also evaluates lip balms, moisturizers, and makeup products that claim sun protection.

The environmental group had some general advice for consumers, as well. "We recommend people avoid sunscreen sprays," says report co-author Sonya Lunder, MPH, a senior analyst at EWG. The concern, she says, is that chemicals can be inhaled.

Sunscreens with a form of vitamin A known as retinyl palminate -- in about 30% of sunscreens -- should also be avoided because of concerns about it producing skin lesions, she tells WebMD. Oxybenzone, which EWG calls a ''hormone disrupter," is another ingredient to be avoided, she says.

Meanwhile, the report is termed ''reckless'' by Farah Ahmed, chair of the Sunscreen Task Force for the Personal Care Products Council, an industry group. Ahmed reviewed the findings for WebMD. "It's very, very similar and probably 90% of it is verbatim from last year," she says.

Ahmed takes exception with some of the EWG evaluation methods.

Lunder counters: "We think the industry really needs to catch up with the science."

Best Sunscreens, According to EWG

Sunscreens earning a spot on the EWG recommended list contain the minerals zinc or titanium as their active ingredient. "We think they are the most stable," Lunder tells WebMD.

Among the sunscreens on the EWG top pick list:

  • Alba Botanica Mineral Sunscreen, Fragrance-Free, SPF 30
  • Aveeno Baby Natural Protection Mineral Block Face Stick SPF 50
  • Climb On! Mineral Sunblock SPF 30
  • Karen's Botanicals Simple Sunblock Lotion, Unscented, SPF 30
  • Loving Naturals Sunscreen, SPF 30 plus
  • Sun Putty Face SPF 30
  • Vanicream Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin, SPF 30

None of the recommended sunscreens include chemicals that EWG considers hormone-disrupting, such as oxybenzone. None of the recommended sunscreens had retinyl palminate.

Thumbs-Down Products, According to EWG

EWG named 11 products to its Hall of Shame. They earned the spot for various reasons. Some contain oxybenzone or retinyl palminate. Some were sprays. Others made exaggerated or misleading claims, according to EWG. Among products listed in the Hall of Shame:

  • Hawaiian Tropic Baby Stick Sunscreen SPF 50.
  • Baby Blanket SunBlankie Towelette SPF 45+
  • Coppertone Water Babies Sunscreen Lotion SPF 70+
  • Banana Boat Sport Performance Active Max Protect, SPF 110
  • Elizabeth Arden--Eight Hour Cream Sun Defense for Face, SPF 50
  • Rite Aid Kids Sunscreen Spray Lotion SPF 45
  • Anthony Logistics for Men Sun Stick SPF 15
  • iS SPF 20 Powder Sunscreen & Peter Thomas Roth Instant Mineral SPF 30 & colorescience Suncanny Face Colore SPF 20

EWG also calls out the FDA for its failure to finalize the proposed regulations on sunscreen, first suggested in 1978. The most recent version of the proposed regulations was issued in 2007. They are not yet finalized.

The proposed regulations would require sunscreen makers to give information on the amount of UVA screening their products provide, among other requirements.

FDA spokeswoman Shelly Burgess says the regulations are expected to be finalized shortly. "We're close, we're really close," she tells WebMD. In an email, she says that the "FDA recognizes the importance of publishing a final OTC monograph for sunscreen products and is making every effort to publish it as soon as possible."

EWG Report: Industry Response

Ahmed takes exception to the report, including the method used to evaluate the sunscreens.

For instance, she says, EWG calculated the protection level of individual ingredients. In its report, EWG explains that it determined the amount and type of UV light filtered out by an ingredient or ingredient combination at every wavelength along the UVA and UVB spectrum.

According to the EWG report: "We based our analysis of sunscreen effectiveness in part on the absorbance spectrum of each active ingredient."

Ahmed says protection could change, either increasing or decreasing, when ingredients are evaluated in combination, as they are in the product.

As for concerns about retinyl palminate, Ahmed says "We have no data to demonstrate there is an issue."

Sun Protection: Common Ground

On one point industry and EWG agree: sunscreen is only part of a good sun protection program. "We never say sunscreens alone are enough," Ahmed says.

Covering up with clothing, wearing sunglasses, and avoiding the most potent sun rays at midday are also advised.

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SOURCES: Sonya Lunder, MPH, senior analyst, Environmental Working Group.Farah Ahmed, chair, Sunscreen Task Force, Personal Care Products Council.EWG's Skin Deep: Sunscreens 2011.Shelly Burgess, spokeswoman, FDA. ©2011 WebMD, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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