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Can Sunscreen Do More Harm Than Good?

May 25, 2010

A new evaluation of sunscreens released Monday shows that as many as half of the 500 top sunscreen products may increase the rate at which malignant cells develop and spread skin cancer because they contain vitamin A or its derivatives.

AOL News learned through interviews and other leads that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has known of the danger for years without alerting the public.

The FDA denies any knowledge of the dangers posed by sunscreen.

Although the creams and ointments may help prevent sunburn, don’t count on them to keep the ultraviolet light from destroying your skin cells and possibly causing lesions and tumors, according to researchers at Environmental Working Group.

In their report on sunscreen, the researchers said that only 39 of the 500 examined products were considered to be safe and effective. The report says that most of the sunscreen products boast bogus sun protection factor claims, including overstated claims about performance and the use of the hormone-disrupting chemical oxybenzone.

But the most alarming disclosure in the report is the finding that vitamin A and its derivatives — retinol and retinyl palmitate — may speed up the cancer that the product is used to prevent.

Manufacturers of sunscreen use vitamin A in their products because it is an antioxidant that slows skin aging.

But researchers at EWG found a study done by the FDA that shows vitamin A has photo-carcinogenic properties, meaning that it may result in the forming of cancerous tumors when used on the skin exposed to sunlight.

The report states that “tumors and lesions developed up to 21 percent faster in lab animals coated in a vitamin A-laced cream than animals treated with a vitamin-free cream.”

The conclusion came from EWG’s analysis of findings released last fall by the FDA and the government’s main substance evaluator, National Toxicology Program. EWG’s findings were then scrutinized by outside toxicologists.

Many in the public health community say they cannot believe nor understand why the FDA wouldn’t have notified the public of the possible danger if they had this information to begin with.

Jane Houlihan, EWG’s senior vice president for research, told AOL News that “there was enough evidence 10 years ago for the FDA to caution consumers against the use of vitamin A in sunscreens.”

“FDA launched this one-year study, completed their research and now 10 years later, they say nothing about it, just silence,” she said.

An FDA spokesperson said Friday that the allegations are not true. “We have thoroughly checked and are not aware of any studies.” She told AOL News that she checked with bosses throughout the agency and found nobody who knew of any vitamin A research done by, or on behalf of, the agency.

But documents from the FDA and the National Toxicology Program show otherwise.

“Retinyl palmitate was selected by (FDA’s) Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition for photo-toxicity and photo-carcinogenicity testing based on the increasingly widespread use of this compound in cosmetic retail products for use on sun-exposed skin,” said an October 2000 report by the National Toxicology Program.

The FDA website says animal studies were done at its National Center for Toxicological Research in Jefferson, Arkansas. And it was scientists from the FDA center and National Toxicology Program who posted the study data last fall.

The sunscreen industry cringes when EWG releases its annual report. The industry accuses the advocacy group of wanting to ban all sunscreen products, a claim that is not accurate.

Researchers for the EWG clearly say in their report that an effective sunscreen prevents more damage than it causes, and it wants consumers to have accurate information on the limitations of some of the products out there that have potentially harmful compounds.

EWG does warn people not to rely on sunscreens for primary protection. Hats, clothing and shade are still the most reliable sun protection available, they say.

Back in the day when people coated themselves and their kids with sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 1 or 2, and sometimes 4 on a real hot day, they thought they were being well protected.

Then, as time went on, we learned of the dangers that come from exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, so manufacturers started making sunscreens boasting SPFs of 30, 40 ,80 or even higher.

However, the new report says those numbers are usually meaningless and dangerous because products with high SPF ratings sell a false sense of security, encouraging people using them to stay out in the sun longer.

“People don’t get the high SPF they pay for,” the report says. “People apply about a quarter of the recommended amount. So in everyday practice, a product labeled SPF 100 really performs like SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 rating equates to a 2.3 and an SPF 15 translates to 2.”

In 2007, the report says, the FDA published proposed regulations that would prohibit manufacturers from labeling sunscreens with an SPF higher than SPF 50. The agency wrote that higher values would be “inherently misleading,” given that “there is no assurance that the specific values themselves are in fact truthful.”

Disregarding FDA’s proposed regulation, companies substantially increased their high-SPF offerings in 2010 with one in six brands now listing SPF values higher than 50.

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