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What consumers need to know about sunscreen as more ‘fun in the sun’ days approach

The vast majority of sunscreens available to the consumer aren’t as good as most people think they are, but a handful of products rise above the rest.

Sunscreen-older womanThose are the findings of the Environmental Working Group, which recently released its 7th annual Sunscreen Guide that rates the safety and effectiveness of more than 1,400 sunscreens, lotions, lip products, and makeups that advertise sun protection.

The EWG researchers found that only 25 percent of products on the market in 2013 offer strong and broad UV protection and pose few safety concerns.

Protection from clothing and shade

“The best advice for concerned consumers is to use sun-protective clothing, stay in the shade to reduce intense sun exposure, and schedule regular skin examinations by a doctor,” said Sonya Lunder, senior research analyst at the EWG.

Lunder said consumers should use the EWG’s guide to find the best sunscreens for skin that isn’t protected by clothing.

“Despite an increasing awareness of the sun’s risks, rates of melanoma – the deadliest skin cancer – have tripled over the past 35 years, with an annual increase of 1.9 percent per year since 2000,” she said.

Sunscreen protection weak

Part of the reason for the increase may be the decades of deceptive marketing claims by sunscreen manufacturers, EWG researchers said. 

The EWG believes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration should require companies to stop selling high-SPF sunscreens – above 50+ – which account for one in seven products on the market. As a result of misleading and confusing marketing claims, consumers frequently misuse sunscreens and spend more time in the sun than they should, putting themselves at greater risk, according to the EWG.

In addition, until recently, sunscreens provided little protection from the sun’s ultraviolet A rays. Sunburns are caused mostly by short but intense ultraviolet B rays. Longer UVA rays, which penetrate the body more deeply, inflict more damage and may contribute to or cause cancer. 

The FDA’s current definition of “broad-spectrum” still results in inadequate UVA protection, according to the EWG.

In 2011, the FDA issued long-awaited sunscreen labeling standards promised since 1978. Under the new rules, companies are now prohibited from making misleading advertising claims such as “sunblock,” “waterproof,” and “sweat-proof.” The FDA also set the first-ever standards for sunscreens that claim to provide broad-spectrum protection.

However, the agency now allows most sunscreens on the American market to make claims that they help lower the risk of skin cancer and sun-related skin aging.

The FDA still hasn’t issued final rules on excessively high SPF claims, potentially harmful chemical ingredients, and sunscreen sprays that may be dangerous when inhaled.

The EWG’s analysis of 750 beach and sport sunscreens found that the new FDA rules haven’t led to dramatically better sunscreens than those offered in previous years.

Standards stronger in Europe

While nearly every sunscreen on the market meets the new FDA rule for broad-spectrum protection, that standard is so weak that half of the sunscreens on the American market couldn’t be sold Europe, where the safety and effectiveness rules are more stringent.

European sunscreen makers voluntarily comply with European Union recommendations that a product’s UVA protection and SPF be coordinated so that the UVA protection is at least one-third as strong as the SPF.

EWG’s top four things not to bring to the beach or pool or on vacation

  • No sprays. While easy to apply, these popular spray sunscreens may pose serious inhalation risks and may not fully cover skin. About one in four sunscreens in EWG’s database is a spray.
  • No super-high SPFs, above 50+. Products with high SPF values provide little additional skin protection and may contribute to consumer misperception and misuse. About one in seven sunscreens has an SPF value greater than 50+.
  • No vitamin A or retinyl palmitate. Vitamin A is touted for its anti-aging effects on skin. But retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A added to almost one in four SPF-rated sunscreens, makeups, and moisturizers, could speed development of tumors and lesions on sun-exposed skin, according to a government study.
  • No oxybenzone. Commonly used in sunscreens, oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream, and acts like estrogen in the body. It can trigger allergic reactions. Data are preliminary, but studies have found links between oxybenzone and health problems. Nearly half of all beach and sport sunscreens in EWG’s 2013 guide contain oxybenzone.

I hope your days in the sun are safe as well as fun.

Copyright 2013, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist


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