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Group Calls Some Sunscreens 'Snake Oil'

Environmental Group EWG Says Only 8% of Sunscreens Are Safe and Effective

WebMD Health News

May 24, 2010 -- An environmental group is once again questioning the effectiveness and safety of top-selling sunscreens, claiming that many contain potentially hazardous ingredients and make exaggerated claims.

In its fourth annual Sunscreen Guide, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) evaluated 500 sunscreens and found only 8% to be acceptable.

EWG Senior Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan called most of the best-selling sunscreens in the U.S. “the equivalent of modern-day snake oil,” claiming they do not protect as well as they say they do and may be dangerous.

The group is specifically warning against high-SPF sunscreens, which Houlihan says promote a false sense of security for users. The EWG also warns against products that have little or no protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) rays and products that contain the vitamin A derivative retinyl palmitate, which has been linked to the accelerated growth of skin lesions in some lab animal studies.

Representatives for the sunscreen industry strongly disputed the group’s claims, and a dermatologist interviewed by WebMD called the claims unsubstantiated.

“EWG is kind of the Chicken Little of the sunscreen arena,” St. Petersburg, Fla., dermatologist James Spencer, MD, tells WebMD. “There is no evidence that the active ingredients in sunscreens are dangerous. These are products used by millions of people every day. There is real danger all around us, and one very real danger is skin cancer and skin aging from sun exposure.”

Mineral Sunscreens Best, Group Says

Once again this year, the sunscreens recommended by the EWG all contained the minerals zinc or titanium as their active ingredient.

Although more and more products are including these minerals in their formulations to boost their UVA protection, Houlihan tells WebMD that the vast majority of best-selling brands are not mineral based.

She says about 60% of sunscreens contain the chemical ingredient oxybenzone, which the EWG considers unsafe because of concerns that it can penetrate the skin and disrupt hormone balance.

None of the recommended products contained oxybenzone or vitamin A and none was sprayed on or powdered. Spray- and powder-based sunscreens are easily inhaled and can enter the bloodstream through the lungs, Houlihan says.

The group looked at 500 sunscreens and recommended just 39, including three by the small New Hampshire skin care company Badger and three from the company Soleo Organics.

The top-selling sunscreen brands tended to be the poorest rated, with none of the market leaders considered to be both safe and effective by the EWG.

The EWG’s top picks included:

  • Badger Sunscreen for Face and Body, SFP 30
  • California Baby, Sunblock Stick, SPF 30+
  • Loving Naturals Sunscreen, SPF 30+
  • Purple Prairie Botanicals SunStuff, SPF 30
  • Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30+
  • Jason Natural Sunbrellas, SPF 30+

Houlihan acknowledged that consumers may have to search for many of these products because they don’t tend to be sold by major retailers.

“You won’t find most of them at CVS or Target or Wal-Mart,” she says.

Although not recommended by the group, several best-selling sunscreens did score higher than others and were considered the best choices among the chemical sunscreens evaluated.

They included:

  • Bull Frog Ultimate Sheer Projection, SPF 30
  • Coppertone ultraGUARD, SPF 15
  • La Roche-Posay Water Resistant Sunscreen Cream, SPF 15


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