Regulation

Sunscreen Screening

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The Environmental Working Group rates 786 varieties of sunscreen available in the U.S., based on both effectiveness and potential health hazards. It concludes that "only 17% of the products on the market are both safe and effective, blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards." The EWG provides separate ratings for effectiveness and safety, so if you're not worried about, say, possible allergic reactions to the fragrance in L'Occitane Immortelle Very Precious Fluid (SPF 40)—which rates a 7 on the "health hazard" scale but a 0 on the "sun hazard" scale (meaning it's highly effective)—you can still see how well the product blocks ultraviolet light.

Interestingly, despite its extra-cautious attitude regarding unconfirmed hazards, the EWG faults the Food and Drug Administration for preventing the U.S. sale of sunscreens that have long been available in Europe. Some of these products are especially effective at screening out UVA light, which does not cause sunburn but may pose a more serious skin cancer risk than UVB light does. The EWG prefers them to similarly effective FDA-approved alternatives that contain nano-particles, which it says "raise potential concerns":

Micronized and nano-scale zinc oxide and titanium dioxide in sunscreen provide strong UVA protection, and are contained in many of our top-rated products. Repeated studies have found that these ingredients do not penetrate healthy skin, indicating that consumers' exposures would be minimal. Studies on other nano-scale materials have raised concerns about their unique, toxic properties. FDA has failed to approve effective UVA filters available in Europe that, if approved here, could replace nano-scale ingredients.   

At the same time, the EWG criticizes the FDA for allowing sunscreen manufacturers to make misleading claims such as "blocks all harmful rays," "waterproof," and "all day protection." The agency has been dragging its feet on sunscreen safety standards for decades. Meanwhile, the misleading claims have prompted class action lawsuits in California. Although I don't know the details, in principle this seems like an appropriate response: Companies should be held liable for selling products under false pretenses, but in this case the loss to any one consumer is too small to make individual suits cost-effective. While the FDA dithers, the threat of civil judgments and the educational efforts of independent groups such as the EWG can help protect consumers from fraud and steer them toward the best products.

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  1. Excuse me, but since when did libertarians start worrying about “potential concerns”? What does that mean–“There’s no evidence that it’s harmful, but it might be”? Let the market decide, dude! Butter ’em up and see who burns! And if the “loss to any one consumer is too small to make individual suits cost-effective,” hey, smells like “class-action” to me!

    More seriously, the EWG berates the FDA both for being too tough and not tough enough. Also, EWG wants to replace the “nano” stuff, which might raise “potential concerns,” with non-nano goo that poses a “more serious skin cancer risk.” Yeah, it’s worth increasing your risk of skin cancer to lower the risk of, well, something. We don’t know what it is yet, but it might be out there. Maybe.

  2. Also, EWG wants to replace the “nano” stuff, which might raise “potential concerns,” with non-nano goo that poses a “more serious skin cancer risk.” Yeah, it’s worth increasing your risk of skin cancer to lower the risk of, well, something. We don’t know what it is yet, but it might be out there. Maybe.

    Nicely said. I agree.

  3. titanium dioxide nanoparticles are sure to be found everywhere in the future, as they absorb most light and act as a photobleaching agent, which has been used to make cotton that cleans itself. However, they are small enough that they can imbed themselves in the skin, which is bad if you have sensitive skin. I can only imagine what would happen if this stuff started to photobleach people’s skin. The EWC’s claim and what I have read in peer-reviewed literature as to the skin-permeability of this stuff doesn’t match up. Has anyone seen the claims to this?

    That said, as someone who does a lot of nanoscience stuff, nano-phobia is pretty much entirely without merit.

  4. Alan Vanneman

    It is UVA light that may pose a more serious skin cancer risk, not the EU approved “non-nano goo” sunscreens that the EWG is pushing. The “non-nano goo” is apparently good at blocking this light.

    So I meet the EWG halfway on this. The FDA should approve those Euro sunscreens while rejecting any precautionary principle urge to ban the nano-particle ones.

    Choices are good. More choices are better.

    And you know what else is good? Allowing people to make their own risk assessments. Plenty of information helps people make better (for themselves, that is) decisions.

  5. Is it just me, or do these results not jibe with other people’s experiences? The only times I remember being burned by the sun, and I am white enough for this to be an issue believe me, I didn’t put on sunscreen or I didn’t re-apply as directed on the bottle.

    You are telling me that stopping burns doesn’t count for anything?

  6. The FDA shouldn’t have to approve sun screens is the lesson. Really, sunscreen? I had no idea that sunscreen was a food or a drug.

  7. More evidence of the dangers of solar power.

  8. Actually this dovetails rather well with the study they were talking about the other day suggesting that people in their panic about getting skin cancer might not be getting enough sun nowadays.

    This may lead to a Vitamin D defficiency, which coulsd lead to other health problems.

    Sheesh, I might just as well stay in bed, but that’s prolly bad for ya too!

  9. You are telling me that stopping burns doesn’t count for anything?

    It counts for something, but the sunscreens that prevent your skin from burning don’t block the portion of the spectrum that will fry the DNA in your skin cells.

    Sunscreens that prevent sunburns probably lead to greater skin cancer rates, since they prevent an immediate harm (sunburn) that signals a person to get out of the way of the long-term, potentially fatal, danger (melanoma).

  10. You know, blocking UVA vs. blocking UVB needn’t be a zero-sum game. You could always just use a blend of things so you absorb both. Once the attenuation crosses some threshold, you aren’t losing much by taking out one absorbing element and replacing it with another.

  11. While the FDA dithers, the threat of civil judgments and the educational efforts of independent groups such as the EWG can help protect consumers from fraud and steer them toward the best products.

    Except that .org’s like the EWG that thrive on FUD, isn’t adding anything to the discussion except paranoia. That leaves me regarding the rest of their info as dubious.

  12. only 17% of the products on the market are both safe and effective, blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards

    That’s a load of crap. I’ve used them all, they all work (some better than others) and I haven’t suffered a dimes worth of health hazard.

    Proof man, is in the puddin’

    [Big Wink]

  13. Except that .org’s like the EWG that thrive on FUD, isn’t adding anything to the discussion except paranoia. That leaves me regarding the rest of their info as dubious.

    They do contribute this nice database, which is very useful, if you ignore the woo-woo stuff about nano-particles, “neurotoxic” fragrances, cruel animal products, etc.

    Use the factual information, ignore the editorializing.

  14. As a pasty white guy in the south who likes spending time outdoors, I feel pretty qualified to pass judgment on sunscreens. So I looked up my usual brand to see what they had to say – it scored high on effectiveness, low on safety. The number one health concern?

    The fragrance added to it.

    Yeah, I think I’ll be OK.

  15. Use the factual information, ignore the editorializing.

    I was looking at one of CR’s recommendations, No-Ad, since the sunblock I currently use doesn’t seem to be too waterfast. I got a mild burn yesterday, despite an SPF rating of 50 and being in the pool for less than an hour.

    One of the No-Ad products EWG rates an 8 for saftety (ooooo, with scary red icon color), but good on protection. What’s the #1 criteria for this bad rating? No data/High uncertainty. #2? No FDA review.

    Yeah, thanks for that rigorous scientific assessment.

  16. You don’t seem to be able to ignore the editorializing.

    Don’t look at the big red 8, look at the list of ingredients. Compare based on that.

    Or, don’t use the database. Compile the data yourself from a gazillion different sources. Or, don’t bother with any of that- just blindly buy something based on advertising of questionable veracity, the whims of the cranks who fill out CR surveys, a random hunch, or solely on price. Doesn’t matter to me.

  17. Oh, I can ignore it, it’s just annoying and too many people, such as my wife, are going to take these null-value assertions at face value and act accordingly.

    CR’s cranks vs. EWG’s? Choose your poison.

  18. I noticed that in their DB, my bubble mixture (you can follow the link from my main page or http://users.bestweb.net/~robgood/lather.html ) would, if bottled just as is, score 0 in their safety concerns, beating California Baby’s low record of 2! (Search bubble bath.)

  19. I believe you are mistaken in the article. The FDA has recently approved the sale of Mexoryl (the European UVA blocker)in the US.

  20. Two reasons for hesitation about nanoparticles:

    Property of material at very small scales isn’t the same as that of the material in the bulk. Lotsa surface effects take over. Lotsa dangling bonds, chemical activity, surface plasmon effects, yup yup yup.

    Nanoparticles are just the right size to interact with the body….why do you think we’re trying to design them for cancer treatments?

    Put these two together and you can see why the FDA might want to at least look at the whole area of nano-particles. Sort of like it would have been nice to discover the problems associated with radium before a lot of people died from radioactivity…..

    I’m not saying ban nanoparticles (I myself think the danger is overhyped.) I am saying I understand why we might want to do some testing first, yes?

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