June 9, 2012

Caveat emptor when it comes to sunscreens

As more of us deal with skin cancer, I had hoped to share some good news about sunscreen this month. New federal sunscreen labeling rules were supposed to go into effect this summer, just in time to illuminate consumers on confusing claims such as "sweatproof" and "waterproof." Are these simply marketing hype?

The FDA has considered these terms misleading since the 1990s, but they gave manufacturers an extension to December 2012 to show that their products protect against both UVA rays that cause skin cancer and UVB rays that burn skin. Since babies make less melanin than adults do, their skin cells can be damaged after less time in the sun. So this is not a petty issue.

A quarter of sunscreens contain retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that some researchers believe speeds the growth of skin cancers. Many of the popular sunscreens also contain parabens, oxybenzone and PABA.

Many of us attempt to reduce our exposure to chemicals. Yet, phthalates, the chemical added to plastics to increase flexibility and parabens, preservatives that mimics estrogen, are in nearly all skin care products..

Consumers now have to consider UV-protective clothing, shampoos and detergents. The Federal Trade Commission monitors marketing claims about UV-protective clothing. UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) is the standard used and it ranges from 1 to 50 (50 is the highest protection).

What can you do? Visit the Environmental Working Group's 2012 Sunscreen Buyers Guide that includes ratings for 1800 SPF products. This year, one out of four sunscreens reviewed got EWG’s stamp of approval. You might think that’s terrible, but it was one out of twelve  in 2010.