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Two Reports Raise Doubts About Sunscreen Claims

Environmental Working Group and Consumer Reports both knock numerous sunscreens for unfulfilled promises, but come to different conclusions about mineral options.

As Americans hit beaches and pools this summer, they should be uneasy about the sunscreens they’re trusting to ward off harmful ultraviolet exposure and reduce skin-cancer risk.

That’s the conclusion of investigations into available sun-protection products by the Environmental Working Group and Consumer Reports, which both knock numerous sunscreens for unfulfilled promises. Two-thirds of the more than 750 sunscreens EWG examined provide subpar sun protection or contain ingredients the organization deems worrisome, and Consumer Reports discovered 28 of the more than 60 sunscreens it tested aren’t meeting their own SPF 30 or above claims.

“There are a lot of products on the market that aren’t as good as they should be,” said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at EWG. “They might not offer as much sun protection as they should or they include ingredients that we are concerned about. There are real unanswered questions.” In a write-up about its sunscreen evaluation, Consumer Reports stated, “Even if you do everything right, the odds are good that your sunscreen may not deliver the sun protection factor — SPF — it promises on the label….Those results aren’t a fluke; we’ve observed this pattern in our testing over the past four years.”

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For its annual sunscreen guide, EWG vets sunscreen ingredient lists for health hazards, UVB and UVA protection, a balance of UVA and UVB protection, and stability, and rates the sunscreens on a scale of one to 10, with one marking the best choices. Consumer Reports relies on volunteers who have sunscreen, later checked for UVA and UVB shielding, applied on dry skin before soaking in water.

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In the news after an Honest Co. mineral sunscreen came under fire last year for failing to prevent sunburns, Consumer Reports and EWG’s studies looked into mineral sunscreens. EWG was comparably positive about mineral options. The nonprofit group revealed 34 percent of the sunscreens analyzed are mineral-based using zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, double the percentage from when it began rating sunscreens in 2007, and determined they tend to perform well.

“They are stable on your skin and not broken down by sunlight,” Lunder said. She acknowledged EWG doesn’t explore all aspects of sunscreen formulas and human application errors, which could lead to possible problems with mineral sunscreens. “We can’t pick up if they are clumping or separating,” Lunder said. “That would be found in Consumer Reports, where they are testing on people.” EWG rated three Honest Co. sunscreens — Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50+, Sunscreen Stick SPF 30 and Sunscreen Spray SPF 30 — and gave them respectable scores of one to three.

Consumer Reports declared products marketed as natural “have consistently performed less effectively in our testing than their chemical cousins. In fact, not a single one made our list of recommended sunscreens this year.” The publication didn’t test the controversial Honest Co. sunscreen, but underscored only 26 percent of natural sunscreens live up to their SPF claims, while 58 percent of chemical sunscreens do.

EWG and Consumer Reports are united in their wariness of spray sunscreens. “They are not the best way to get sun protection. People like not having formulas to rub in, but they don’t stick to your skin or have the same level of protection. We are concerned about research indicating that you might miss spots and that they can irritate your lungs when they’re inhaled,” said Lunder, adding, “They are very common and popular on the market. In 2007, just under 20 percent were sprays [in our study] and, this year, just under 30 percent were.”

Both Consumer Reports and EWG are calling upon the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reconsider sunscreen policies. “We’re submitting our four-year results to the FDA and asking that it review its sunscreen requirements and investigate further,” said Consumer Reports, which noted the FDA leaves sunscreen testing up to sunscreen manufacturers. Lunder said, “In Europe, the requirement for UVA or broad spectrum is that UVA protection is one-third of the SPF value. If you don’t meet that standard, you don’t sell your product in Europe. In the U.S., the standard is weaker, and half the products sold here wouldn’t pass the European test.”

In response to Consumer Reports’ plea to the FDA for a review of sunscreen regulations, Personal Care Products Council stressed the FDA stipulates sunscreens are over-the-counter drugs and mandates rigorous testing for sunscreen effectiveness. “Consumers can rest assured that this reliable and credible testing method results in sunscreens that are safe and effective in protecting them from harmful UV rays,” said the cosmetic and personal care trade organization. “FDA’s sunscreen testing requirements are well recognized by experts and regulatory authorities in the U.S. as well as globally. Consumer Reports did their own testing of the products but did not share whether they followed the FDA guidelines required by companies.”