Only a handful of the hundreds of sunscreen products actually protect from harmful rays as much as they claim, and some also include potentially harmful ingredients, according to a new environmental advocacy group report.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group recommends only 39 of 500 beach and sport sunscreens in its fourth annual Sunscreen Guide -- about 8 percent of the products on the market. The guide assessed 1,400 items including sunblock, lip balm, moisturizers and make-up that claim a sun protection factor, or SPF, a measure of effectiveness.
"Many sunscreens available in the U.S. may be the equivalent of modern-day snake oil, plying customers with claims of broad-spectrum protection but not providing it, while exposing people to potentially hazardous chemicals that can penetrate the skin into the body," Jane Houlihan, EWG Senior Vice President for Research, said in a statement. The group cautions about sunscreens that contain a vitamin A compound under scrutiny for possibly elevating skin cancer risk, as well as oxybenzone, which disrupts hormones, the group said.
The EWG report ranks the products on a scale of 0 to 10 with products given a score of 0 to 2 as recommended; 3 to 6 listed as caution; and 7 to 10 as "avoid." The ratings were based on the group's database that includes industry, government and academic sources as well as an analysis of sunscreen ingredients. The group looked at the health hazards tied to listed ingredients, UVB/UVA protection and also how quickly the sunscreen break down in the sun as part of the rankings.
But New York dermatologist and American Academy of Dermatology member Dr. Darrell Rigel told Consumer Ally the study just looks at ingredients, not how effective the sunscreens are at protection.
"It's a little bit disheartening," he said. "They didn't do the primary research themselves ... they are not testing the components in a sunscreen environment ... oxybenzone is one of the most effective agents in protecting from the sun."
Rigel says vitamin A is used as an anti-aging treatment as well. "Saying vitamin A causes cancer makes no sense," he says.
Dr. David J. Leffell, professor of dermatology and surgery at the Yale School of Medicine and director of the Yale Medical Group agrees.
Leffell, who was also on the research team that discovered the skin cancer gene in 1996, told Consumer Ally there is "no evidence of any long-term effect" from using oxybenzone. "I worry that reports like this will scare the public against taking precautions," he said. "The reality is patients who use sunscreen as part of an overall sun protection plan see me less."
Leffell, who also is a consultant to sunblock maker Coppertone, said people should avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., wear hats with brims as well as protective clothing and use a sunscreen SPF 30 or higher.
Thirteen products score a 1 on the group's scale and all contain the minerals zinc or titanium and are SPF 30. In alphabetical order, the top ranked sunscreens are: Badger Sunscreen Face Stick, unscented; Badger Sunscreen for Face and Body, lightly scented; Badger Sunscreen for Face and Body, unscented; California Baby Sunblock Stick no fragrance; Loving Naturals Sunscreen; Purple Prairie Botanicals Sun Stick; Purple Prairie Botanicals SunStuff; Soleo Organics All Natural Sunscreen; Soleo Organics Atlantis Resort All Natural Sunscreen; Soleo Organics Wyland Organics All Natural Sunscreen; thinkbaby and thinksport sunscreen; UV Natural Baby Sunscreen; and UV Natural Sunscreen Sport.
Of the 289 sunscreen products that didn't contain titanium or zinc, 11 scored the highest -- all getting a 3 on the group's scale, the report says. Again, in alphabetical order are the top-ranking lotions: Beyond Coastal Active Sunscreen, SPF 30; Doctor T's Supergoop Everyday UV; KINeSYS alcohol-free Spray Sunscreen with Parsol 1789, fragrance free, SPF 30; KINeSYS fragrance free Spray Sunscreen with Parsol 1789, SPF 30+; KINeSYS Kids Alchohol-free Spray Sunscreen with Parsol 1789 fragrance free, SPF 30; KINeSYS Kids Spray On Sunscreen, fragrance free with Parsol 1789, SPF 30+; La Roche-Posay Anthelios Water Resistant Sunscreen Cream, SPF 15; Panama Jack Surf 'N Sport Sunscreen Stick, SPF 50+; Pedinol Ti-Screen Sport Sunblock Gel, SPF 20; PreSun Ultra Sunscreen gel SPF 30; and Solbar PF Liquid Sunscreen SPF 30.
Many sunscreens listed in the report scored a 7 on EWG's scale; none scored lower. Some products from the brands Neutrogena, Hawaiian Tropic, Aveeno, Fruit of the Earth, CVS and Coppertone scored 7.
In an emailed statement to Consumer Ally, Merck Consumer Care, which makes Coppertone products, says that "an effective sunscreen product requires a combination of active and inactive ingredients. Examining a single ingredient does not provide a complete evaluation of a product's safety or efficacy. New Coppertone formulations are rigorously evaluated by independent dermatologists and scientists to ensure they are safe and effective for consumers.
"Merck Consumer Care remains committed to providing consumers with the highest quality of sun-care protection. We continue to be concerned that reports like the one released annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) will inappropriately discourage consumers from using safe and effective sunscreen products to help protect themselves from the sun."
Majority of sunscreens don't stand up to protection claims, report says