EWG Sunscreen Report Misleading, Skin Expert Says (Go Ahead, Slather It On)

According to the EWG, five hundred sunscreens are on the market, using the latest technology and only 39 work. Really? Let's consider the nuances of the sunscreen debate.
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After reading the Environmental Working Group's 2010 Sunscreen Guide released today, I did what millions of others probably did -- I panicked. According to the EWG, only a few dozen of hundreds of sunscreens on the market actually protect us like they should. After plugging in the two products I use regularly on myself and my kids, only one made the cut. The other was on the "avoid" list because it contained "harmful chemicals" and didn't live up to its claims.

Five hundred sunscreens on the market using the latest technology and only 39 work. Really?

Dermatologist Dr. Zoe Draelos, a consulting professor at the Duke University School of Medicine and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology, who also tests sunscreen products in her laboratory, applauds the EWG for looking at the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens, but feels the group is making unfair "sweeping generalizations."

"I think it's very sad," Draelos says. "A lot of their sunscreen recommendations are based on very old technology, and some of the best sunscreens on the market have newer chemicals that are much more effective. A lot of their opinions are not keeping pace with technology and an understanding of the science of these formulations. The nuances of sunscreens are very important."

You also have to consider the source. The EWG is a research and advocacy group that tries to change public policy and industry standards, largely through consumer-friendly tools and databases similar to the sunscreen report. The EWG's critics, largely members of industry, have argued that they often over-exaggerate data to promote its political agenda, which it does explicitly through a separate lobbying group.

The bottom line is they don't like man-made chemicals and would never recommend a product containing a chemical with "unknown" health effects. That's why you won't find sunscreens containing anything other than zinc and titanium, from brands such as Badger, California Baby, and Loving Naturals, on its list. Among its most hated: oxybenzone, an ingredient common to many sunscreens that in some studies has been linked to cancer. But there's no consensus on that.

I don't like the idea of my body absorbing chemicals with unknown health effects either, but I dislike the idea of skin cancer even more, and until they can prove the former risk outweighs the latter, I'll need a little more convincing. And truly, doesn't everything we do, use, and eat have unknown health risks these days?

Draelos noted that zinc and titanium, when made into very small concentrations as is common for skin care products, can be absorbed into the skin as well. No one is sure what the long-term health effects from them are, either.

The other really awful sunscreen ingredient that the EWG alerts us about is vitamin A and its derivatives, specifically retinol and retinyl palmitate. You've probably seen the anti-aging claims on may sunscreen products; these probably claim to contain "vitamin A."

The EWG will tell you that these ingredients could actually promote cancer.

Another misspoken claim, explains Draelos.

Retinol or Retin-A is a skin peeler -- it removes dead skin cells from the outer layer of the dermis, and by virtue of that, your body's ability to block cancer-causing UV rays is decreased. That's why people who use it are told to wear sunblock and to use it only at night, because the sunlight deactivates it. In other words, it does nothing.

Retinyl palmitate, an anti-oxidant used strictly as a preservative to help the product retain its creaminess, is likely the retinol derivative found in these products, and it is completely safe, Draelos says.

I wanted to know if I should continue using my current sunscreens and Draelos said yes. Despite the EWG's claims that products with really high SPFs drastically overstate their sun protection, Draelos still suggests a product of at least 50 or more.

Like the EWG, she agrees the FDA needs to get on the ball and finish up their set of standards for measuring UVA rays -- research that they've been working on for years. I agree that we won't really know if the products are protecting us as well as they claim until then. Draelos says that will eliminate a lot of confusion the EWG has over many of these sunscreen issues.

Meantime, there's no good reason to stop doing what we've been doing.

"You're going to be fine," says Draelos, who has faith in these companies and the testing they put their products through. "These sunscreen makers have a lot of resources riding on their products, customer service is important to them, and they want to be the leaders in this area for many years to come."

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