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A Guide for Choosing Safe and Effective Sunscreens this Summer

Environmental Working Group

Consumers can have confidence in about one quarter of the sunscreen products on store shelves this year, according to Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) review and ranking of more than 1,800 products. Last year, only 20 percent got EWG’s best ratings, and only 8 percent scored well in 2010.

Still, the U.S. sunscreen market remains stuck in the Stone Age of sun protection. Half the sunscreens in EWG’s database that comply with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) “broad spectrum” regulations would not be sold in Europe, because they don’t offer strong protection against one of the two main types of solar ultraviolet radiation. European manufacturers voluntarily comply with a European Union recommendation that sunscreens provide meaningful protection against UVA rays that contribute to skin aging as well as against UVB rays that cause sunburn.

EWG’s survey shows that more products made specifically for children use safe, effective ingredients, relative to sunscreens marketed for the general public. About 60 percent of almost 180 sunscreen products marketed for children contain mineral ingredients, compared to 40 percent of other sunscreens. Children’s products are less likely to contain oxybenzone, a hormone-disrupting chemical, and “fragrance”—undisclosed mixtures of chemicals that can include some known to trigger allergic reactions.

“FDA’s decades of foot-dragging has brought us a marketplace of mostly subpar sunscreen products,” said Environmental Working Group senior analyst Nneka Leiba, M. Phil., M.P.H. “While we’re grateful to see the general market improve, we wish we could assure consumers that 100 percent of sunscreens sold in the U.S. are effective and safe. We can’t.”

After more than 30 years of delay, the FDA released its sunscreen regulations last June. However, the agency’s new regulations still allow the sale of sunscreens that contain potentially hazardous ingredients, make exaggerated sun protection claims and provide weak protection against UVA radiation.

To add insult to injury, just last week, the agency extended the deadline to Dec. 17, 2012, as the cosmetics industry requested. The industry complained that a year was not enough to meet new testing requirements and remove marketing terms like “block” and “waterproof” that had been deemed misleading by the FDA.

“You shouldn’t need a medical degree to determine if your sunscreen is safe and effective. For too long the FDA has allowed the industry to get away with unscientific and even inaccurate claims about sun protection. While I am disappointed the FDA is delaying new and improved labeling standards, it is good to know Environmental Working Group is providing consumers with the facts about the effectiveness of sunscreen products that are currently on shelves,” said U.S. Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), who for years has pushed the FDA to improve sunscreen labeling standards.

In response to last week’s decision by FDA to delay implementation of the final sunscreen safety standards, EWG filed a Freedom of Information (FOIA) request with FDA, requesting any and all documented communications between it and officials with the industry’s trade associations.

To find safe and effective sunscreens, consumers should:

• Check out EWG’s online 2012 Sunscreen Guide to more than 1,800 products.
• Choose those with active ingredients zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or 3 percent avobenzone.
• Avoid oxybenzone and vitamin A (retinyl palmitate).
• Use creams or lotions, not sunscreen sprays or powders.
• Buy sunscreens without bug spray. Apply bug repellant separately if needed.

While sunscreens are an important part of a full sun-protection routine, they should not be used as the first or only line of defense. Seeking shade, avoiding the sun during peak hours and wearing sun-protective clothing, including hats and sunglasses go a long way to minimize exposure to harmful rays.

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