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New Sunscreen Guide: 1 in 4 Products Deemed Safe

Group Flags Questionable Ingredients in Sunscreens; Manufacturers Say Report Is Flawed

WebMD Health News

May 16, 2012 -- With warmer weather on the way, the Environmental Working Group has just released a new edition of their popular sunscreen guide.

In the sixth annual guide, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends just 25% of 1,800 sunscreens they reviewed for the guide, though that number is up from 20% last year.

Some dermatologists take issue with the EWG's approach. But they and the EWG agree on this much: It's not about whether you should wear sunscreen.

EWG Sunscreen Report

"We were happy that we were able to recommend more products this year than in previous years, but still 1 in 4 is not good enough," says Nneka Leiba, MPH, a senior analyst for the nonprofit EWG, which is based in Washington, D.C. "We want ideally for consumers to pick up any product off of the shelf and be assured of its safety. With the poor regulation offered by the FDA, we're far from that at this point."

The EWG wags a finger at the FDA's new rules for sunscreens, which were announced last year after more than three decades of consideration.

The EWG says the new rules, which were supposed to take effect in June but have been delayed until December, still leave key safety gaps. Among the EWG's concerns:

  • Poor UVA protection: UVA rays account for 95% of the sun's radiation. They contribute to skin cancer and wrinkles. Though the new FDA rules require sunscreens to pass a test before they can claim "broad spectrum" protection against UVA rays, the EWG says the new test is so easy to pass that most sunscreens on the market will make the grade with no reformulation. That's bad news, they say, since over half the sunscreens they reviewed offer such weak UVA protection that they would not be sold in Europe, where standards are stronger.
  • Super-high SPFs: The FDA debated banning manufacturers from using SPFs (sun protection factors) higher than 50. But the agency ultimately abandoned its bid to rein in super-high SPFs. The danger with sunscreens with SPFs that climb past 50 is that they offer only marginally better protection than an SPF of 30, and they may lull consumers into thinking they are better shielded than they actually are. A false sense of security can lead people to spend too much time in the sun, putting them at greater risk for burns and skin cancer.
  • Spray and powder sunscreens: The EWG says aerosol particles in these products may get inhaled into the lungs. They say the FDA is investigating their toxicity risks.

Questionable Ingredients?

The EWG also says many products contain ingredients that make them risky for health. The biggest offenders include retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, and oxybenzone.

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