March 31, 2006 -- As beach season quickly approaches, a class action lawsuit is alleging that five of the leading U.S. makers of sunscreen lotions and sprays deceptively promote their products as protection from harmful sun rays.
But dermatologists tell WebMD that using sunscreen as a part of an overall sun-safety strategy still makes good sense.
Published reports suggest that the lawsuit, filed Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks to return money that consumers say they spent on these products. The suit names as defendants Schering-Plough (which makes Coppertone), Johnson & Johnson (which makes Neutrogena), Playtex Products (which makes Banana Boat), Tanning Research Labs (which makes Hawaiian Tropic), and Chattem (which makes BullFrog).
Protection From Harmful Rays
The lawsuit claims the manufacturers promote sunbathing by claiming to protect users from harmful ultraviolet rays. It says while the products might protect against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays -- the shorter-length ultraviolet rays that cause sunburn and increases the risk of skin cancer -- they do little to stop ultraviolet A (UVA) rays -- longer-length rays reaching deeper into the skin, which can also increase the risk.
"We have not had an opportunity to review this lawsuit, but Schering-Plough has vigorously disputed these allegations in the past and our current labeling is in compliance [with FDA regulations]," says Denise Foy, spokeswoman for Schering-Plough.
When contacted by WebMD, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, a trade group which represents some of the major sunscreen manufacturers, said they do not comment on lawsuits to which they are not a party.
Are Sunscreens Waterproof?
Also at issue is the claim of some products to be waterproof. The class action suit alleges that the "waterproof" designation was deceptive because all sunscreen products lose their effectiveness when immersed in water.
And that's something that dermatologists have known for a long time, says Bruce E. Katz, MD, the medical director of the JUVA Skin and Laser Center in New York City. "A lot of sunscreens that claim to be waterproof really are not," he says. "They may be water-resistant, but people still have to reapply sunscreen after swimming or perspiring after sports."
And the truth is there is not a reliable way to measure UVA, he says. "Sun protection factor (SPF) is really is a measure of UVB, not UVA, so that is definitely an issue. It's more important to know what's in a sunscreen. So look for one with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or parsol (avo-benzone) and then you know you have the best possible protection. You still need to reapply it every two to three hours and right after sweating or swimming."
Other sun safety tips include avoiding sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (when the sun is the strongest) and wearing protective clothing, a hat with a wide rim, and sunglasses. "It's not a good idea to rely solely on your sunscreen," he says.