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How Safe and Effective Are Sunscreens?

Environmental Working Group Sees Improvements, but Still Gives Industry Low Marks

WebMD Health News

July 2, 2009 -- Sunscreens are improving, but three of five brand-name products either don't protect the skin from sun damage sufficiently, contain hazardous chemicals, or both, according to a report by the watchdog organization Environmental Working Group (EWG).

"I'd give the industry a C minus," says Jane Houlihan, EWG's senior vice president for research. "They have moved from a D to a C-minus in my book."

Overall, however, she says the industry is "not doing enough to protect consumers from UVA radiation."

The report is called the EWG 2009 Sunscreen Guide. An industry spokesman says the report is flawed.

Dermatologists who reviewed the report for WebMD offered praise and criticism. "Some points are definitely correct,'' says Henry Lim, MD, chairman of the department of dermatology at Henry Ford Health Systems in Detroit, who is a member of the photobiology committee of the Skin Cancer Foundation and chairman of the Council on Science and Research of the American Academy of Dermatology. 

But, he adds, ''This report has somewhat of an alarmist tone.''

Sandra Read, MD, a Washington, D.C., dermatologist and member of the board of directors of the American Academy of Dermatology, says she finds the report discouraging but says she hopes it will raise awareness of the need for sunscreen.

The 2009 Study on Sunscreen Effectiveness

This year's report is the third annual from EWG, which investigated 1,572 sunscreens, lip balms, and daily moisturizers with sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, typically the minimum recommended.

This year's study, as those in the past, was triggered, according to EWG, because the FDA has not set comprehensive safety standards for sunscreens. The agency has set guidelines for UVB protection but those for UVA are pending. UVA rays are associated with skin sagging and wrinkles, but more recently have also been associated with skin cancer; UVB rays can lead to skin cancer and sunburn.

The FDA is lagging behind other countries, the report charges, because it has approved only 17 sunscreen chemicals for U.S. use, compared to at least 29 in other countries.

To do the 2009 study, EWG scientists got a list of ingredients from retailers and then used numerous databases to evaluate safety and effectiveness.

10-Best Lists

Scientists from EWG developed a "best" list for sunscreens, lip balms, and moisturizers. On the 10 best sunscreens list (many sold online):

  • Soleo Organics Sunscreen Organic chemical-free sunscreen, SPF 30+
  • Badger Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • UV Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+
  • Mexitan Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
  • Lavera Sunscreen Neutral, SPF 40
  • California Baby Sunscreen Lotion No Fragrance, SPF 30+
  • Trukid Sunny Days Facestick Mineral Sunscreen UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum, SPF 30+
  • Kabana Skin Care Green Screen Organic Sunscreen, SPF 22, Skin Tone Tinted
  • Obagi Nu-Derm Physical UV Block, SPF 32
  • Elta MD UV Physical, SPF 41.

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