EWG Sunscreen Buyer\'s Guide...Environmental Working Group\'s Sunscreen application is an easy way to check just how effective your sunscreen is at protecting your skin. EWG's Sunscreen guide ranks the current crop of 500 beach and sport sunscreens, listing products as green (recommended), yellow (caution), or red (avoid). Our researchers considered how well each sunscreen blocks the sun\'s harmful rays, and if it contains ingredients that could soak through the skin to pose other kinds of health risks.
The need for the guide? A surge in exaggerated SPF claims above 50 and new disclosures about potentially hazardous ingredients, in particular recently developed government data linking the common sunscreen ingredient vitamin A to accelerated development of skin tumors and lesions.
Industry's lackluster performance and the federal Food and Drug Administration's failure to issue regulations for sunscreens lead EWG to warn consumers not to depend on any sunscreen for primary protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Hats, clothing and shade are still the most reliable sun protection.
Products with high SPF ratings sell a false sense of security because most people using them stay out in the sun longer, still get burned (which increases risk of skin cancer) and subject their skin to large amounts of UVA radiation, the type of sunlight that does not burn but is believed responsible for considerable skin damage and cancer. High SPF products, which protect against sunburn, often provide very little protection against UVA radiation.
Few people use enough sunscreen to benefit from the SPF protection promised on the label. Studies show that people typically use about a quarter of the recommended amount. Because sunscreen effectiveness drops off precipitously when under-applied, in everyday practice a product labeled SPF 100 actually performs like SPF 3.2, an SPF 30 rating equates to a 2.3 and SPF 15 translates to 2. Moreover, FDA scientists say SPF claims above 50 cannot be reliably substantiated.
New concerns have arisen about a form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate, found in 41 percent of sunscreens. The FDA is investigating whether this compound may accelerate skin damage and elevate skin cancer risk when applied to skin exposed to sunlight. FDA data suggest that vitamin A may be photocarcinogenic, meaning that in the presence of the sun's ultraviolet rays, the compound and skin undergo complex biochemical changes resulting in cancer. The evidence against vitamin A is far from conclusive, but as long as it is suspect, EWG recommends that consumers choose vitamin A-free sunscreens.
EWG recommends against products with oxybenzone, a hormone-disrupting compound found in about 60 percent of the 500 beach and sport sunscreens rated in our guide. The chemical penetrates the skin and enters the bloodstream: biomonitoring surveys conducted by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have detected oxybenzone in the bodies of 97 percent of Americans tested.
FDA has yet to finalize regulations for sunscreens promised since 1978. FDA officials estimate that the regulations may be issued in late 2010 - but even then, they expect to give manufacturers at least a year, and possibly longer, to comply with the new rules. That means the first federally regulated sunscreens won't go on store shelves before the summer of 2012.
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