Are some ingredients in sunscreens just hiding burns rather than blocking UV? That's the question the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, wants the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to explore.
If ingredients in sunscreen are being used to boost SPF values while masking the harm from the sun's rays rather than protecting against UV, "[s]uch products may encourage people to remain in the sun, where, though they don't see or sense burning, they may in fact sustain subtle or profound damage to the skin, potentially leading to cancer," reads the group's letter to commissioner Robert Califf.
In order to boost SPF values, over the last decade or so, sunscreen manufacturers increasingly turn to ingredients with anti-inflammatory or antioxidant properties, but the range of effective active compounds available to them has stayed the same over that period, the EWG asserts. Today, some sunscreen products boast an SPF of 70 or greater. The EWG wants the FDA to cap SPF values at 50+ and update its methodology for testing ingredient efficacy.
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Consumers often use the SPF value as a shorthand for the product's strength or effectiveness. But according to a study published last year in JAMA Dermatology, only 43% of people surveyed knew what the SPF stood for (sun protection factor) and what the number after the acronym represents.
SPF does not measure how well a sunscreen can protect, but instead suggests how long an individual could be out in the sun without getting burned with product versus without. So a person who normally burns in 15 minutes without sunscreen should be able to stay outside 225 minutes with an effective SPF 15 product. The number is just an estimate, however. Variables can include skin, weather conditions, the amount of sunscreen applied and more.
The EWG publishes an annual guide to sunscreen protection, and the latest version is available here. The group isn't alone in taking a closer look at sunscreen effectiveness lately.
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Last month, a study published in JAMA Dermatology took a look at the 65 most popular sunscreen products on Amazon.com. Around 40% of them didn't adhere to the American Academy of Dermatology's guidelines for sunscreens, mostly due to a lack of water resistance. The Northwestern Medicine researchers behind the study also found that prices in sunscreen can vary 3000%, with the higher-end options offering no additional protection over the lower-cost alternatives.
Industry advocates stand by their products, however. In response to the issuance of the EWG's guide this past spring, Beth Lange of the Personal Care Products Council notes in a statement that "the FDA regulates sunscreens as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs and requires rigorous testing for sunscreen effectiveness (both SPF and 'broad spectrum')."
The trade association also pushed back against the July JAMA Dermatology study, stating that "not all effective sunscreens must be water-resistant."
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Both health research organizations and industry advocates agree on the need for consumers to apply effective, broad spectrum sunscreen regularly in order to prevent skin damage. Seeking shade and wearing protective clothing is also advised. Sun exposure is known to contribute to skin cancer and aging.
According to the American Cancer Society, around 76,380 new melanomas will be diagnosed over the course of 2016, and some 10,130 people are expected to die of skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common form of the disease and rates have been going up over the last 30 years.