Today the news media is abuzz with the Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Report. I’m not quite sure why this is suddenly news since I’ve seen it on their website for quite a while, but I definitely thought that I need to address the report and let you know my take.
First, a little bit of background on the Environmental Working Group. The Environmental Working Group is one of the founding partners of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. They run a website called Skin Deep, which is a nice website about ingredients in cosmetics. I like this website for a few things, primarily the fact that they often have a list of ingredients for many products (which saves me time from typing things in) and they sometimes will tell you what an ingredient does (which is something I can have problems finding on-line when I’m analyzing ingredient lists for my reviews).
The issue that I have with Skin Deep is the information that they supply for safety. (You can read more about how they compile this information here) I’m not really sure who they have reading studies to determine the validity and how well a study was performed, but I often find myself disagreeing with the EWG’s conclusions. Studies that are not well done with major flaws, not performed in humans, and with levels of a substance much higher than can ever be achieved in a human may often grossly overstate their findings. I’ve found that the EWG then even more overstates the importance of these findings and concludes that by using a product with said ingredient you will be causing major health risks.
While I do agree that we need more information about many ingredients, I think that overstating the findings of poorly controlled studies is also dangerous. The preservative class known as parabens is a classic example of such gross overstatement of findings. I’m not going to get more into that here, but just know that many people disagree with their conclusions regarding ingredient safety.
Having said all that, the EWG’s report came with some highlighted major points, so I’ll discuss them one at a time.
Many products lack UVA protection.
Our analysis found that 7 percent of high SPF sunscreens (SPF of at least 30) protect only from sunburn (UVB radiation), and do not contain ingredient combinations known to protect from UVA, the sun rays linked to skin damage and aging, immune system problems, and potentially skin cancer. FDA does not require that sunscreens guard against UVA radiation.
This is incredibly true. SPF only refers to protection from UVB and a large number of US sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays at all. Many of those that do protect from UVA only protect from short-wave UVA and ignore the long-wave UVA waves. Really, this is rather inexcusable and I recommend looking for only sunscreens that provide broad spectrum UVA/UVB coverage.
I also think that you can’t rely on the bottle to tell you if something is broad spectrum. Frequently the bottle just doesn’t tell you the whole truth, and you need to analyze the ingredients yourself. Luckily, the US FDA currently has only approved 17 ingredients to act as sunscreens, and they are easily found under “Active Ingredients” on each product.
To help things along I developed this handy chart above. All 17 ingredients are on this, but they are currently randomly scattered around to allow space for all of them to show up. It isn’t hard to line ingredients up though, notice that each UV range has it’s own “width” (UVB is 3 boxes, Short UVA 2 boxes and Long UVA is 6 boxes) as well the colors become darker with increasing wavelength. Each ingredient is easy to “plug in” to the correct coverage so you can see if broad spectrum coverage is provided, like I do for each of my sunscreen reviews (check out this example, Kiehl’s Vital Sun).
Sunscreens break down in the sun.
Paradoxically, many sunscreen ingredients break down in the sun, in a matter of minutes or hours, and then let UV radiation through to the skin. Our analyses show that 48% of products on the market contain ingredients that may be unstable alone or in combination, raising questions about whether these products last as long as the label says. FDA has not proposed requirements for sunscreen stability.
This is also true. There are some combinations of sunscreens that are much more stable while some combinations are well known to be very unstable once exposed to the sun. The best way to test stability has yet to be agreed upon, so there is often conflicting information about how stable an ingredient/combination is.
One well known example of this is Avobenzone with either Octocrylene or Octinoxate. There are quite a few studies looking at these combinations (just do a quick Medline search to find them), and they are mostly conflicting. There was one study in particular that found the Avobenzone/Octinoxate combination to be very unstable, lasting just a few minutes. However, the stability was tested differently than many other studies and subsequent studies have not confirmed these results. But, other studies about this same time did find that the Avobenzone/Octocrylene combination (much rarer in US sunscreen formulations but rather common in European formulations) to be more stable. The result? No one knows for sure what the best combination is. We know that Avobenzone/Octocrylene is stable, but we don’t know for sure that Avobenzone/Octinoxate is unstable. I know the girls over on the Makeup Alley Skin Care board are likely shaking their heads at me (they are firm believers in the OctiNOxate mantra), but the studies are there.
Truly, we need a Gold Standard for testing stability. We need to have more published data about these combinations. We also likely need the FDA to regulate this.
Questionable product claims are widespread.
Many products on the market bear claims that are considered “unacceptable” or misleading under FDA’s draft sunscreen safety standards. Claims like “all day protection,” “mild as water,” and “blocks all harmful rays” are not true, yet are found on bottles. Until FDA sets an effective date for these standards, industry is free to use hyped claims. Companies’ decisions to inflate claims has spurred class action lawsuits in California.
Very true. All sunscreens should be reapplied every 2 hours, it doesn’t matter what you’ve been up to. Reapply everything after swimming. Very few products on the market actually block all wavelengths in the UVA/UVB spectrum and even then even the highest SPF products only block about 95-99% of the rays. Really companies shouldn’t state these things since it only makes the less educated consumer confused.
Many sunscreens contain nano-scale ingredients that 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. Powder and spray sunscreens with nano-scale ingredients raise greater concerns, since particles might absorb more easily through the lungs than the skin. Studies of 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.
Many physical sunscreens on the market today are smaller particles of Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide, which allows them to create a finer film on your skin which is much more pleasant. (No more chalky white nose!) But, it does seem very reasonable that if you’re spraying it on or applying powder all over that it might aerosolize into the air and you could breathe it in. We don’t know how that affects your lungs.
The U.S. lags behind other countries when it comes to products that work and are safe.
FDA has approved just 17 sunscreen chemicals for use in the U.S. At least 29 are approved for use in the E.U. FDA has approved only 4 chemicals effective in the UVA range for use in the U.S., and has failed to approve new, more effective UVA filters available in the E.U. and Asia.
This is why it was such a big deal when Ecamsule was approved, it was the first in an incredibly long time. The Europeans are much more progressive than the US when it comes to sunscreen. Let me know if there is a cult sunscreen that people are importing now (I’m really not sure) and I’ll pick it up to review when I’m in Paris in October!
Some sunscreens absorb into the blood and raise safety concerns.
Our review of the technical literature shows that some sunscreen ingredients absorb into the blood, and some are linked to toxic effects. Some release skin-damaging free radicals in sunlight, some could disrupt hormone systems, several are strongly linked to allergic reactions, and others may build up in the body or the environment. FDA has not established rigorous safety standards for sunscreen ingredients that fully examines these effects.
I think I’ve already addressed this concern above. I frequently don’t agree with the EWG’s conclusions about a product’s safety, I think they have misinterpreted many studies.
Only 15% of 952 products analyzed met EWG’s criteria for safety and effectiveness, blocking both UVA and UVB radiation, remaining stable in sunlight, and containing few if any ingredients with significant known or suspected health hazards. Our assessment is based on a detailed review of hundreds of scientific studies, industry models of sunscreen efficacy, and toxicity and regulatory information housed in nearly 60 government, academic, and industry databases.
I think that the EWG may be discounting many great sunscreens due to their ingredient safety analysis. Personally, I still think that there are a lot of great sunscreens available at many price points. I recommend analyzing the active ingredients for yourself for UVA/UVB coverage, applying 1 ounce of sunscreen per application and reapplying every 2 hours when you are out in the sun. Oh, and hope with me that the FDA finally completes their sunscreen regulation, which was mandated by Congress to be complete by 2006. This should give us standards for stability and hopefully some more approved ingredients as well as improved regulations for UVA coverage.