Sunscreen SPF Ratings Lure Consumers Into False Sense Of Security
May 20, 2013

Sunscreen SPF Ratings Lure Consumers Into False Sense Of Security

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

It´s that time of year again when millions of Americans begin flocking to beaches looking for some fun in the sun and perhaps a natural tan. For some, this requires a stop off at the local store to stock up on all their sunbathing needs, including sunscreen products that now have new labels designed to offer consumers easier choices for grabbing the proper lotion for their needs.

However, a consumer watchdog group recently reported that the long-awaited changes to sunscreen products have not done enough to offer any real help to consumers. The group said the sun protection factor (SPF) ratings found on these products are still misleading and potentially dangerous.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) surveyed nearly 1,400 sunscreen products and found that most met the new federal requirements put in place in December by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). One new rule was the banishment of the word “waterproof,” which was deemed misleading. Another rule implemented that sunscreens must filter out both ultraviolet A and B rays. Before the rules were put in place, most products only protected against UVB rays, which cause most sunburn. UVA rays that pose the greatest risk of skin cancer were largely unprotected against in many sunscreens before December 2012.

After the rules went into effect, the EWG found that one in seven sunscreen products still boast an SPF rating greater than 50, which can be misleading. A product with SPF 50 generally protects against 97 percent of sunburn-causing rays. While consumers may opt for products with an SPF rating of 100 or 150, the experts note that in reality they are only getting a product that offers an additional 1 to 2 percent of sunburn protection. By grabbing the SPF 100 or 150, many sunbathers are subscribing to a false sense of security, leading them to make poor decisions, such as staying out in the sun long after the lotion has stopped working.

"The high SPF numbers are just a gimmick," says Marianne Berwick, professor of epidemiology at the University of New Mexico (UNM). "Most people really don't need more than an SPF 30 and they should reapply it every couple of hours."

And sunscreen only works well when people also use hats, clothing and move to the shade, which provide better protection from the damaging rays of the sun, noted Berwick.

Farah Ahmed, chairperson of the Personal Care Products Council, responded to the EWG report with skepticism.

“Despite the extensive and growing body of credible science demonstrating the safety, efficacy, and health benefits of sunscreens, the [EWG] continues to promote false and misleading assertions about sunscreen products and their ingredients. Once again, the EWG report lacks the rigor and reliability of formal, expert scientific evaluation and is not peer-reviewed.  Our concern is that confusing, unsubstantiated claims could actually serve to discourage consumers from using sunscreen on themselves and their children.”

The SPF number on sunscreen indicates the amount of sun exposure needed to cause sunburn on sunscreen-protected skin compared to unprotected skin. Under this concept, an SPF 50 sunscreen product should protect skin 50 times longer than unprotected skin. However, there are several factors that need to be considered, such as geography, the time of day, and the complexity of the skin — lighter individuals generally burn faster than darker individuals.

The FDA said in 2011 that sunscreens with SPF ratings higher than 50 were misleading. At that time the agency proposed putting a limit on the SPF number on all sunscreens to 50 because “there is not sufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide greater protection for users.”

However, stiff opposition from companies such as Johnson & Johnson kept the proposal from making any headway earlier. The FDA has continued to keep the proposal in its sights and is reviewing studies and comments submitted by external sources. The agency maintained there is no deadline for when an SPF cap may be finalized.

Last December´s sunscreen changes took decades to finalize. Sunscreen rule changes were first announced by the FDA in 1978 and not published until 1999. The agency then delayed finalizing the rules for years until it had more results from industry execs and consumers alike, according to The Associated Press (AP).

The FDA is also reviewing the safety of spray-on sunscreen products, which use different formulas than sunscreen lotions. One of the big concerns is what danger the spray would have if inhaled. One in four sunscreens sold in the US come in a spray formula, according to the EWG.

"People like the sprays because they are quick to put on and cover a lot of area," said Dr. Darrell Rigel, a dermatologist in New York. These sprays are less messy to work with, but it usually takes two coats to get the same effect as lotion.

Ahmed said “health care professionals around the world all emphasize the safety of sunscreens and the importance of their use as part of a safe sun regimen.  The dangers of sun exposure are clear and universally recognized by public health professionals and dermatologists.”

“The National Institutes of Health 'Report on Carcinogens' identifies solar UV radiation as a 'known human carcinogen.' A single bad burn as a child is known to increase the skin's susceptibility to damage and skin cancer throughout life,” she added. “Unfortunately, the American public still has a long way to go before we treat sunscreens the way we treat seat belts. We want to get to a place where people are sun smart every time they step out of their door, automatically applying sunscreen — rain or shine, summer or winter — as well as wearing protective clothing and seeking shade when possible.”

More than 76,000 men and women in the US will be diagnosed with melanoma this year and close to 10,000 could die from the aggressive skin cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The cancer is usually curable if detected early enough.