Sunscreens are one of the most popular protections people use as the summer sun threatens to burn their skin with harmful ultraviolet rays.
Sunburns are not only painful, but they also can lead to skin cancer, the most prevalent form of cancer in the United States.
Yet, new research has led some to question the effectiveness of many sunscreens.
A recent study by the Environmental Working Group found that one in every eight name-brand sunscreens did not protect against the sun’s ultraviolet A rays. These UVA rays have traditionally been linked to tanning, but doctors now know they can both cause long-term damage and skin cancer. The SPF – or sun protection factor – rating currently placed on all sunscreens only reflects the lotion’s effectiveness in blocking the sun’s ultraviolet B rays, traditionally linked to sunburn.
As a result of such research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is in the process of approving a new regulation that would set standards for testing and labeling sunscreens for UVA protection as well as for UVB.
A recent study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that sunburn rates increased from 31.8 percent to 33.7 percent from 1999 to 2004, a sign that many people aren’t using proper sun protection.
Sunburn damage to the skin is a direct cause of skin cancer, said Dr. Martin Weinstock, a professor of dermatology at Brown University Medical School.
“Most cancers in the United States are skin cancer, and incidences are rising while the incidences of most other types of cancer are remaining stable or going down,” Weinstock said. “The most important avoidable cause we know about is exposure to ultraviolet radiation.”
The most deadly form of skin cancer is melanoma, which forms in the skin cells that make the pigment melanin – often as a mole.
Experts recommend a multiple approach to protecting yourself against harmful rays.
“The American Cancer Society has a slogan – ‘Slip, Slop, Slap,’ ” Weinstock said. “Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat.”
But Kristan Markey, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, said the effectiveness of sunscreens isn’t as strong as one might think.
“We found that most sunscreens are not effective in filtering out ultraviolet radiation, or have problems with toxic hazards,” Markey said.
Not only do many sunscreens fail to protect against UV radiation, but they also break down over normal usage and develop toxic components, the group’s study found.
Markey noted that sunscreen makers also make unrealistic claims.
“You can’t say ‘all-day protection’ because the recommendation is you have to reapply every two hours,” Markey said.
The FDA’s recommended new rules for sunscreens would assign a star rating system – from one to four stars – to gauge the lotions’ effectiveness in blocking UVA rays. Ratings for UVA would be based on two tests, one to measure the sunscreen’s ability to reduce the amount of UVA radiation passing through it, and a second to measure the product’s ability to prevent tanning and potential long-term skin damage.
Given the mandatory approval process, any new labeling featuring the UVA ratings alongside the current SPF rating won’t appear on store shelves until 2009 at the earliest.
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