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Many Sunscreens Not What You Think

Watchdog Group Finds Most Sunscreens Lacking; Industry Disagrees

WebMD Health News

June 22, 2007 -- Deciding which sunscreen to buy just got more difficult. A report issued this week by a Washington-based watchdog organization shows most sunscreens on the market offer inadequate protection or have safety issues.

The Environmental Working Group, which focuses on health and environmental advocacy, analyzed 783 sunscreen products with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or above. It says 84% don't measure up. Industry groups and manufacturers took issue with the report, however.

After the detailed evaluation, the EWG recommends only 128 products, giving 618 products a "caution" rating and another 37 an "avoid" rating.

"We found that about one in every six [sunscreen] products are among the safest, most effective on the market," says Jane Houlihan, vice president for research for the EWG. But five in six are not, she says.

How the Study Was Done

The sunscreens weren't tested in the lab; instead, researchers obtained an ingredient list for all 783 sunscreens. Next, they evaluated the sunscreen chemicals currently approved for use in the U.S., referring to nearly 400 peer-reviewed studies of the chemicals. They also used 60 industry and government databases to analyze sunscreen ingredient toxicity. They evaluated how well the products protect from both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays are associated with wrinkles and skin sagging but more recently have also been linked to skin cancer. UVB rays can lead to sunburn and skin cancer.

They also analyzed the stability of the products. They gave each product a sun hazard rating for effectiveness, taking into account UVA and UVB protection, as well as the stability of the sunscreen in the sun. They gave each product a health hazard rating, based on the safety of the ingredients.

Among the findings:

Some big-name brands ended up with an "avoid" rating. Among those on the "avoid" list are Coppertone Sport Sunblock Lotion SPF 15, Neutrogena Healthy Skin Face Lotion SPF 15, and Banana Boat UVA & UVB Sunscreen Lotion.

The "best" list includes:

  • Badger SPF 30
  • Peter Thomas Roth Titanium Dioxide Sunblock SPF 30
  • Lavera Sun Screen Neutral SPF 40
  • UV Natural Baby SPF30+ Broad Spectrum Sunscreen
  • Vanicream Sunscreen Sport SPF 35
  • UV Natural Sport SPF 30 & Very Water Resistant
  • Colorescience Shake It Up Sunforgettable SPF 30
  • Mustela Bebe High Protection Sun Lotion SPF 50
  • Obagi Nu-Derm Physical UV Block Step Six SPF 32

Of the top 10 selling brands evaluated, only three got good ratings: Blue Lizard Australian Suncream SPF30/Baby, California Baby Water-Resistant HypoAllergenic Sunscreen SPF30-plus, and Aveeno Baby Sunblock Lotion Continuous Protection SPF 55.

Thirteen percent of the high-SPF products evaluated (with an SPF 30 or above) provide poor UVA protection.

Fifty-four percent of the products have ingredients that can break down in the sun, compromising protection.

At least 48% of the products have claims considered unacceptable or misleading under the FDA draft of sunscreen safety standards, the EWG says. They looked at such claims as "all day protection" and "blocks all harmful rays."

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