What We Still Don’t Know About Sunscreens: A Running Debate

As I mentioned in my last post, about the only thing that seems to have changed with respect to the state of sunscreens and sun safety products is that the mainstream media is starting to pay more attention to this issue and take a frank look at what needs to be done.

The New York Times appears to have taken the lead here with its recent Room for Debate blog: What We Still Don’t Know About Sunscreens. In Room for Debate, The Times invites knowledgeable outside contributors to discuss news events and other timely issues. For this conversation, the Times convened the following contributors:

  • Darrell S. Rigel, Clinical Professor of Dermatology
  • Sonya Lunder, Environmental Working Group
  • Michael K. Hansen, Consumers Union
  • Kerry Hanson, Chemist, University of California, Riverside
  • Lenora Felderman, Dermatologist

Darrell Rigel tackles the subject of better labeling and better ingredients. Apparently in the U.S. there are only 17 approved sunscreen agents, while Europe has 28, and Japan has more than 40. He blames the FDA for lagging in formally approving regulations and feels that rather than wait until they can come up with their own standards for testing UVA that we simply adopt the same standards as Europe has.

Sonya Lunder looks at an alarming new finding: the use of Vitamin A (in the synthetic form of Retinyl Palmitate) in sun care products may be accelerating the development of skin lesions and tumors when applied in the presence of sunlight! According to Lunder, this ingredient can be found in a whopping 40% (almost half!) of sunscreens used in the U.S.

Michael Hansen takes the FDA to task for not being more aggressive in demanding and enforcing the use of warnings on product labels that would clarify which products provide actual protect against UVA. A product may have a high SPF which means it protects against UVB radiation but that doesn’t mean it protects against UVA. He also feels that the FDA should more thoroughly investigate the health concerns that have been raised about various sunscreen ingredients.

Kerry Hanson questions whether our current concept of sun care protection needs to be redefined given what we’ve learned about the difference between UVB and UVA exposures and their respective roles in causing or promoting skin cancer. Since companies don’t have the substantial resources needed to fund the research (or the proper impartiality), there’s an opportunity for government agencies like the FDA, National Science Foundation, and the NIH to jump in and take the lead.

Lenora Felderman laments the false sense of security that sunscreens provide and echoes the other contributors’ call for better and more responsible action by the FDA.

Since it was posted on July 5th, this has generated over 200 comments. You can read the full discussions here and add your comments as well.

What do you think the FDA’s top priorities in this area should be?

Update on the State of Sunscreens: The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same!

Every year around this time of the year, I scan industry trade rags and do some searching on the Internet in an attempt to find out what’s new in the market for sunscreens. And every year I marvel at how some things never seem to change! In fact they appear to be getting worse!

In spite of a growing body of increasingly credible evidence that turns everything we’ve been led to believe about sunscreens over the years on its head, companies are still producing essentially the same products, and packaging and marketing them in increasingly deceptive ways. Caveat emptor (buyer beware!) …

The FDA still hasn’t formally issued its new rules and guidelines for sunscreens with respect to UVA testing and labeling, which were informally adopted back in 2007 after an exhaustive 9-year review. This was supposed to happen in May and now the word is that it will happen later this year, probably in October. And in spite of the fact that there’s no consensus on whether sunscreens prevent skin cancer, and the discovery that some sunscreen ingredients might actually increase our risk of getting melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer), women’s magazines, sun product manufacturers, and dermatologists still relentlessly and religiously repeat the mantra to wear sunscreen whenever we go outside, or avoid any exposure to the sun. Are they really that blind to their hypocrisy or are they waiting for a larger force (i.e. the FDA) to force them to sit up and fly straight?

Most experts agree that people should use sunscreens to protect their skin from the sun, but they disagree widely on how well they actually work. There’s so much conflicting information and outright disinformation on the subject how can anyone make a reasonable decision about what products to use? The simple fact is that sunscreens were never developed to prevent skin cancer. They were (and continue to be) designed primarily to prevent sunburn. And even though SPF ratings are notoriously unreliable people continue to mistakenly believe that using higher SPFs buys them a lot more time in the sun without risk, so sun care companies keep coming out with higher and higher SPFs. We’ve hit a new high (or new low depending on how you look at it) with SPF 100!

Almost in defiance of the FDA’s proposed regulation, these companies substantially increased their high-SPF offerings this year. According to the Environmental Working Group’s analysis of nearly 500 beach and sport sunscreens, nearly one in six products now lists SPF values higher than 50, compared to only one in the prior eight years. Neutrogena has six products labeled “SPF 100,” and Banana Boat has four.

About the only thing I can see that has changed is that more mainstream media are finally starting to question the safety of sun care products.

The Story of Cosmetics: Sometimes the Truth Hurts . . .

Last week was a busy week in the world of cosmetics and personal care products! It started with the introduction in Congress of a new bill: The Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010. This ground-breaking legislation proposes an overhaul of the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, giving the FDA the authority and resources it needs to ensure that cosmetics and personal care products do not contain ingredients linked to adverse health effects.

Coinciding with the introduction of this legislation, the Safe Cosmetics Campaign (who was instrumental in pushing this through) released a new video called “The Story of Cosmetics” –a sequel of sorts to Annie Leonard’s 2007 widely viewed and critically acclaimed video “The Story of Stuff.” This is a clever animated video that, like its predecessor, attempts to spell out in the simplest possible way the problems inherent with the status quo –in this case: the way cosmetics manufacturers make products. As you can probably imagine, it’s already rankled the cosmetics industry! I highly recommend it and you can view it below. If this is a subject you want to know more about, I’ll be blogging about it in the coming weeks so stay tuned in to the Aroma Zone.

Much of the work done by the Safe Cosmetics Campaign is based on something called the precautionary principle, which basically encapsulates the essence of the phrase “better safe than sorry.” In other words, if there’s no scientific consensus that an action or policy suspected of being harmful to people or the environment is not harmful, the burden lies with those who want to carry it out to prove otherwise.

There are more interesting “story of” videos at The Story of Stuff Project web site.

Beauty at Any Cost: Helping Young Women Avoid This Dangerous Trap

It’s no secret that our society and the media have established and continue to promote an idyllic, almost impossible, standard of beauty that women consistently judge themselves against and are always aspiring to achieve.

With the advent of readily available cosmetic surgery and treatments, this quest has reached a new fever pitch. By one estimate, American women spend almost $7 billion dollars a year on products used in the pursuit of beauty.

And we’ve all seen or heard stories of women addicted to Botox or plastic surgery -some have had so many nips and tucks that their faces resemble cartoon characters and still they want more! These extreme cases are the casualties of a popular culture that is saturated with images of airbrushed, over sexualized, and perfectly coiffed celebrities and models that can make even the most confident of us feel a little insecure or inadequate at times.

The extent of this problem was documented in a 2008 report released by the YWCA called “Beauty At Any Cost”. The report underscores the substantial health implications for women on the endless treadmill of “unrealistic beauty attainment.” Through chronic and unhealthy dieting, using smoking as a weight-loss aide, taking unnecessary risks during cosmetic surgical procedures, and absorbing unsafe chemicals through cosmetics, women are placing themselves in precarious health situations to maintain some semblance of their idealized physical selves. Women and girls are at risk for lifelong health problems – and the problems start at an early age.

Add to the mix a $50 billion a year unregulated cosmetics industry that puts unlimited amounts of chemicals into personal care products with no required testing or monitoring of health effects, ready to profit from these narrow beauty standards to convert women and girls into life-long customers. Many of these companies go to great lengths to market to teens and “tweens” (8 to 12 year olds) as part of this goal. Their emphasis is on creating cheap products that appeal to this demographic with little or no regard for the potential health or environmental impact of the chemicals used to produce them.

Clearly, young girls and teens are more vulnerable and susceptible to harm than ever before. However, with a little guidance they can learn to make safer, healthier choices for themselves and set an example for their peers.

What can you do to help the young girls and teens you know avoid falling into this trap? Here are some guidelines that you can use:

1. The Buck Starts and Stops with You

Most children are influenced by the behaviors and attitudes of their parents and caretakers. So it’s up to you to set the bar for what’s acceptable. If you want your daughters, nieces, or younger sisters to adopt healthy habits then make sure you are doing the same. Take a look at your inventory of cosmetics and personal care products and eliminate those that contain ingredients that are known to be harmful. If you’re not sure where to start, check the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Safety Database at www.CosmeticsDatabase.com.

Their comprehensive database contains over 25,000 cosmetics and skin care products from both major companies and smaller ones you may not even know. The products have all been researched, catalogued, and ranked for safety concerns based on currently available data on toxicity of their ingredients. The database also provides lists of the Top 10 Worst and Best Products and Companies based on their ratings.

Show them how to use the database and make it clear that you will not fund the purchase of products that have been ranked with high safety concerns.

2. Turn Them Into Smart Shoppers
Share your concerns with them about the safety of many beauty products on the market and how even small amounts of repeated exposure to certain ingredients can cause harm. Teach them how to read product labels and look for problem ingredients to avoid.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires ingredients to be listed in descending order of concentration. So ingredients listed at the top are the most prevalent and the ones to pay more attention to.

Teens Turning Green (formerly Teens for Safe Cosmetics) has compiled a list of chemicals in personal care products to avoid called the Dirty Thirty. You can download it at www.teensturninggreen.org/get-educated/dirty-thirty.html. Review the list together, then use it as a guide for reading labels and ruling out the products that contain them.

3. Encourage Them to Take Action
There’s nothing more powerful than kids and teens united and engaged in action to promote a worthy cause, and what could be a worthier cause than their health and safety? Encourage them to learn more about this issue and how they can get involved to make a difference.

Whether it’s action to pressure the government to regulate cosmetics, or participating in consumer boycotts that force companies to change in response to trends in the marketplace, or joining groups that teach and promote self-esteem and healthy body images — all of these activities serve to enlighten them and reinforce the positive messages that will ultimately lead them to make better choices and influence their friends to do the same.

4.  Turn Them On To Greener Alternatives and Make it Fun
Throw a spa party at your home for your daughters and their friends and introduce them to the ever-growing variety of safe and healthy skin care products, natural scents, and cosmetics available, and make it “cool” for them to explore and indulge their senses. Make it a recurring event so that they have a chance to be constantly exposed to a lot of new and different products.

Or take them to the local health food store for a shopping spree where you can review and compare the products together and make it a contest to see who picks the best ones first. Remember, just because a product is sold in a health food or natural product store, it doesn’t mean that product is safe or natural. It can be an excellent teaching moment to help them (and you) become a truly discerning shopper.

5. Reward Them for Making Good Choices
Focus your efforts on helping them make the best possible choices and then reward them for it. Make sure that the rewards you give them are in line with what you are trying to teach them. In other words, don’t reward good choices in one arena with bad choices in another (i.e. taking them out for junk food or offering them candy).

If you succeed in convincing them that personal care products made with organic ingredients are better, there’s a good chance you can convince them that organic foods and foods made without chemicals and additives are also better for them!