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Sunscreen Dangers: Some Don't Protect Well

Armen Hareyan's picture
Sunscreen protection safety

Environmental Working Group has cataloged and analyzed hundreds of sunscreens in their Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database. They have just released a sunscreen protection report detailing their conclusions from many years of testing the products and reviewing the available scientific literature, and in the report they say that four out of five sunscreen products don’t meet their standards for safety and effectiveness (a claim disputed by the major companies). The report doesn’t look pretty, but I will add a caveat that the concerns they have are speculative and based on their interpretation of available evidence and not completely on definitive knowledge. That being said, sunscreens fall into the same category of concern that I gave to bugspray, antibacterial soap, and baby bottles; that is to say that I’m willing to take precautions based on informed speculation if it means my kids will potentially be healthier.

Imagine my surprise discovering that my family’s Coppertone Continuous Spray Sunscreen is not completely effective and possibly hazardous to our health. According to Environmental Working Group (EWG), I am spraying ingredients on my children that are cancerous, toxic to reproduction and development, immunotoxic, neurotoxic, and organ system toxic. Sweet.

EWG tested 952 sunscreen products and only 15% met their criteria for safety and effectiveness. Among the worst of the troublemakers were everybody’s favorite brands: coppertone, banana boat, and neutrogena. You might be wondering how these companies are getting away with selling unhealthy toxins that don’t work very well. Good question. According to EWG, the FDA has been drafting sunscreen safety standards for 30 years, but has yet to enforce any of their suggestions for voluntary standards. Without mandatory standards, the companies are having a field day making claims that they don’t have to prove, and many of the claims that they do make are apparently fraudulent. This gives these companies a shield to hide behind, to say that they are complying with the FDA.

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The majority of sunscreens go wrong because they don’t offer the full spectrum of UV protection. There are two types of ultra violet sun radiation called UVA and UVB. Most sunscreens prevent sunburns by blocking UVB radiation, but they don’t do a good job blocking the UVA rays that likely cause wrinkles and skin cancer.

Many of the ingredients in sunscreens are rendered inert when exposed to sunlight. You heard that right. This is so unbelievable that I almost refuse to believe it. Yet EWG claims that 40% of the tested sunscreens have ingredients that break down in sunlight after a short period of time. Super.

And back to my favorite Coppertone Continuous Spray, EWG is mildly concerned about it’s mixture of nanoparticles that could be absorbed by the lungs. They say that if the FDA would only approve certain ingredients that Europe approved long ago, our continuous spray (and sunscreens in general) would be much safer. I don’t understand how the FDA can approve all of these other random toxins, but not ingredients that our brothers in Europe have deemed safe long ago.

So what sunscreens do EWG recommend? Well, you can check out the sunscreens that they rated least toxic and most effective or you can go straight to Keys Soap Solar Rx Therapeutic Sunblock (SPF 30), which is the highest rated, safest, and most effective sunscreen they tested (and it’s a spray- HOORAY), but it’s not waterproof.



I have an interest in safer sunscreens both as a research scientist and as a father. As a scientist, I am appalled that there have been insufficient regulations in place governing sunscreens that has permitted the widespread use of unsafe suncare products for many years. It is clear from the recent EWG studies and previous scientific reports that many additives to sunscreen products have posed a significant threat to public health, especially to children for many years -so how has this alarming situation come about? I understand that FDA has been slow to act is part of the answer but I don't understand why FTC regulations governing truth in advertising haven't come into effect here? As a father, I feel deceived by major corporations who have launched unsafe products into the marketplace and then apparently used false information to sell them. I think that consumers have a right to know that sunscreens are both safe and effective, especially for their children -as there is strong scientific evidence that early childhood sunburn is a major risk factor for skin cancer later in life. It is apparent that several major suncare companies have breached the trust that consumers have placed in them for many years. They should be held accountable. Barry J Barclay Ph D [email protected]