The plight of 6-year-old Emily Crawley and her little sister, Claire, 3, has brought the safety of sunscreens into question. The girls’ mother, Michelle, a self-proclaimed sunscreen “freak,” slathered her daughters with sunscreen as usual when the Ohio family recently vacationed in Key Largo, Florida. Unfortunately, the girls soon became “fried beyond belief.”
Crawley doesn’t know if it was the way she applied sunscreen to her daughters, the sunscreen itself, or simply being in the Sunshine State that made her sunscreen seem less effective but a nonprofit organization based in Washington, the Environmental Working Group, has recently tested almost 1,000 sunscreens and come to the conclusion that about 80% of them don’t live up to expectation and may actually contain harmful ingredients.
According to the group’s research, some of the poorest performers are some of the most trusted brands, including Banana Boat, Coppertone, and Neutrogena. Officials for both Coppertone and Neutrogena say their products are rigorously tested in the lab and in real-world settings for both efficiency and safety.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is charged with determining the safety of sunscreens, which are classified as over-the-counter drugs, not cosmetics, as most people would assume. Sunscreens are graded by sun protection factor, or SPF, with the higher the SPF number, the better the protection. Crawley says she always uses SPF 30 or higher when her daughters are in the sun.
But the Environmental Working Group says not all the sun’s rays are the same and the FDA doesn’t require sunscreens to carry protection from ultraviolet-A (UVA) rays. UVB rays cause sunburns but UVA rays are thought to simply promote the tanning process. Both types of sun rays, however, contribute to the risk of developing skin cancer and they both damage the skin and cause wrinkling.
Another concern of the environmental group is that not all sunscreen ingredients are proven to be safe. One very commonly used ingredient, oxybenzone, which filters UV rays, has been found to penetrate the skin, a situation the group says can present health issues that range from hormonal disruption to cancer.
Other popular sunscreen ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, block the sun’s rays from reaching the skin and are recommended for use when sensitivity to other sunscreens makes them unfeasible. Famous for the distinctive white-nosed look of lifeguards everywhere, today’s technologies have made these blocking substances more transparent than in summers of long ago.
A spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation has voiced concern over the report from the Environmental Working Group, saying it fears the report will cause consumer confusion and minimize perceived value of sunscreens in general. The foundation, a nonprofit educational foundation focused on sun safety, advocates the proper use of any sunscreen for maximum protection.
The foundation, and most dermatologists, recommend applying an ounce of sunscreen to all exposed skin 30 minutes before sun exposure. A fresh layer of sunscreen should be applied every two hours during exposure. After swimming or sweating, sunscreen should be reapplied every time. Babies less than six months old should never be exposed to direct sunlight and older children need sunscreens that are SPF 30 or higher.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, more than one million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer every year.