Is Your Sunblock Effective?

Yesterday several news outlets published the results of a study that said “four out of five brand-name sunscreens either provide inadequate sun protection or contain chemicals that may be unsafe.” The report comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and has been heavily criticized by sunblock makers, although their complaints are of the general sort (“they don’t understand sunblock!”) or vaguely hysterical (“they’ll convince people to stop using sunblock!”). We don’t know how valid the study ultimately is, but here are the basics—and regardless of the more sensational claims, their list of the best sunblocks may help you when choosing a product.

First, the controversy seems to center around whether sunblocks protect against UVA radiation, which the current labeling system doesn’t take into account:

For the first time, manufacturers would have to test and label their products for protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which does not cause sunburns but can damage collagen and cause wrinkles and sunspots. Research suggests that UVA is a cause of skin cancer.

The labeling upgrade was proposed by the FDA last August, but the changes have not been finalized.

The current sun protection factor (SPF) labeling system, which was implemented three decades ago, measures only protection from UVB rays – the ultraviolet rays that cause sunburns.

“You can buy a high SPF product and still have no assurance that you are being protected from UVA, as well as UVB rays,” EWG research director Jane Houlihan tells WebMD.

The next issue concerns how long the protective ingredients last in sunblock. Here’s where industry claims run up against the EWG’s study, although the industry responses in this CBS News article are entirely devoid of factual arguments against the study’s claims, which makes them sound an awful lot like spin.

The EWG analysis suggested that nearly half of the products contained ingredients known to become inactive in strong sunlight.

Finally, the EWG study raises the question of whether the chemicals used in many sunblocks are safe:

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.

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.

On a related note, and to make things more complicated, there was a widely circulated report earlier this year that certain chemicals used in some sunblock formulas may be killing off coral reefs, by waking dormant viruses within the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral. I know, crazy! Others, however, say this is an untested theory and that certain pertinent factors have been overlooked. At any rate, the possible reef-killing chemicals are:

  • Butylparaben
  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylhexylmethoxycinnamate
  • Benzophenone-3
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor

Bottom line: if you really want the maximum protection against ultraviolet radiation, go with a broad-spectrum sunblock—the products suggested by the EWG are a good place to start. If you’re in the store and don’t have the list with you, look for something that contains zinc oxide and doesn’t contain oxybenzone. If you’re a real worrier, stick with creams and lotions over inhalable sprays.

Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database [Environmental Working Group]
“Many Sunscreens Ineffective, Group Says” [CBS News]

“Swimmers’ Sunscreen Killing Off Coral” [National Geographic]
“Are Sunscreens Bad for the Environment?” [BeautyBrains]
(Photo: Getty)