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Only a few sunscreens protect consumers from harmful rays, survey shows

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By Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

Consumers can trust only 20 percent of the more than 1,700 sunscreens assessed for the 2011 summer season, according to the Environmental Working Group’s annual survey of sun products.

Even with a wide array of sunscreens available on the market, consumers are faced with problematic ingredients, unsubstantiated marketing claims, and lack-luster protection, the EWG said in a statement. Three out of five sunscreens offer inadequate UVA protection.

The EWG offers a sunscreen database for consumers interested in seeing how well their products protect them from UVA and UVB rays, and if they contain hazardous ingredients.

Although the Food and Drug Administration has the responsibility to oversee the safety of personal care products, questionable sunscreen ingredients are still being widely sold, putting children, teens, and adults at risk for endocrine disruption and expedited skin tumor developments, according to the EWG.

In 1978, the FDA announced its intention to regulate sunscreens, but the agency’s efforts since then have been ineffective, said the EWG. The FDA has been slow to address concerns about a vitamin A derivative, retinyl palmitate, used in about 30 percent of the sunscreens in the EWG’s database.

"FDA neglect has allowed the proliferation of overstated safety claims, misleading SPF values, and the use of phototoxic ingredients," EWG Senior Analyst Sonya Lunder said. "Without firm guidelines, consumers only have a one in five chance of picking a safe and effective sunscreen from store shelves."

"You shouldn’t need to be a doctor to determine if your sunscreen is safe and effective," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.). "For too long the FDA has allowed manufacturers to get away with inaccurate claims about sun protection, and consumers are getting burned. It is time to impose sunscreen safety and labeling standards." Reed will introduce the Sunscreen Labeling Protection Act this week.

In August 2007, the FDA released a proposed rule to regulate the sunscreen industry. Reed’s bill would give the FDA 180 days to finalize and carry out new rules making sunscreen labels more clear and accurate about their rate of protection against the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays.

EWG President Ken Cook wrote to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, M.D., urging her to issue the FDA's over-the-counter sunscreen regulations.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) also wants the FDA to finalize its sunscreen rules. Previous drafts from the agency show it would require companies to prove UVA protection and substantiate marketing claims.

"Consumers deserve to have the most accurate and comprehensive information available about the protection sunscreens offer against potentially dangerous ultraviolet rays," said Lowey. "That is why I continue urging FDA to require disclosure of protection that sunscreens offer against not just sunburn-causing UVB rays, but also skin cancer-causing UVA rays. I commend Environmental Working Group for its continued efforts to keep consumers educated and safe about the potential dangers of inadequate sun protection."

The EWG’s website offers general tips for sunscreen shopping and safe sun enjoyment, including:

  • Look for mineral protection from zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
  • Avoid oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, sometimes listed as vitamin A.
  • Pick creams and lotions over sprays and powders.
  • Try to physically block the sun with protective clothing, sunglasses, and hats.
  • Minimize sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when rays are strongest.
  • Reapply sunscreens at least every two hours, or after getting wet or sweaty.

In addition to using the EWG’s database to check your sunscreen, you’ll also find a list of the top 129 beach and sport sunscreens on its website.

Copyright 2011, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist

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