Nneka Leiba, M.Phil., MPH Research Analyst
Nneka Lieba, M.Phil., MPH is a Research Analyst with the Environmental Working Group. She received her Masters in Public Health from The Johns Hopkins University.
A new report claims that only 1 out of every 5 sunscreens is safe and effective.
Posted on June 08, 2011
Sunscreen will keep you wrinkle free and cancer free, right? Not quite, says a startling new report from the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that conducts research on public health and the environment. “Most people don’t realize that the FDA hasn't issued any new sunscreen safety regulations for more than 30 years,” says Nneka Leiba, a research analyst who worked on EWG’s Sunscreen 2011 Safety Guide. “So manufactures can sell products that don’t perform well and can make a lot of unfounded claims.”
Here, Nneka explains exactly what makes a sunscreen “safe.” . . . Does yours make the cut?
FOF: Why doesn’t the FDA ensure that these products are safe?!
Nneka: The FDA first released it’s recommended regulation draft for sunscreen in 1978, but, believe it or not, it’s never been finalized. There are certain requirements--for example, sunscreens must list all their ingredients. However they don’t have to prove that those ingredients actually work or are safe for everyone.
How did your study work?
We have a database called Skin Deep where we analyze all sorts of consumer beauty products by comparing their ingredients to the most recent scientific literature on health effects including cancer and reproductive toxicity. For our Sunscreen Report, we take it a step further and also look at the UVA and UVB protection the products provide.
Why is that important?
When you look at the SPF number, that only applies to UVB rays. We now know that UVA rays are also very dangerous, but sunscreen manufacturers aren’t required to print their UVA protection factor on the bottle. Many claim to be “broad spectrum”, meaning they protect against both UVA and UVB, but no one is actually checking these claims. In Europe there are actual guidelines for UVA protection that many products sold in America simply don’t meet. An example on our website is Hawaiian Tropic Baby Stick Sunscreen SPF 50. The UVA protection factor is actually less than 10--not good enough to be sold in Europe.
How many products did you review?
More than 1700 SPF products--that includes lip balms, makeups, moisturizers. Of the 600 beach and sport sunscreens, we could only recommend 1 in 5.
What is the criteria for being a “recommended product”?
A recommended sunscreen must provide both UVA and UVB protection and can’t contain hazardous chemicals that penetrate the skin.
What constitutes a “hazardous chemical”?
There are two that we really call out. The first is oxybenzone, which is in about 50 percent of sunscreen products. It’s been shown to trigger allergic reactions, disrupt hormones and penetrate the skin in relatively large amounts. Scientists have gone as far as warning parents to avoid using it on children.
The other ingredient is retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A found in about 1 in 3 products. It’s an antioxidant associated with slowing the appearance of skin aging, but data from and FDA study suggested that if worn in the sun, it can actually speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. So in night creams it’s fine, but we’re very concerned about seeing it in sunscreen.
What else gets a bad grade?
Any spray sunscreens. These ingredients are not meant to be inhaled into the lungs. We also ask that people avoid SPF higher than 50+ because it’s misleading. People get a false sense of security and fail to reapply. No matter how high the SPF, these blocks are simply not effective unless you reapply every two hours.
What type of sunscreen gets the thumbs up?
We don’t advocate specific brands--you’ll have to look at the list for the ratings. But the sunscreens with the highest ratings are are mineral sunblocks. They provide broad spectrum protection (UVA and UVB) and they don’t readily penetrate unbroken skin. Key mineral-block ingredients are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.